Thursday, May 7, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015--Alexander Pushkin, "The Queen of Spades"

Credit for the origins of the Russian short story is split between Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin (1831) and Gogol's "The Overcoat" (1842).  Although Victor Terras suggests that Pushkin initiated a general shift toward prose in Russia in the 1830s, and Charles Moser says Tales of Belkin is the most important collection of stories in Russian Literature. Pushkin's claim for being the Russian progenitor of the short story has been limited by the common charge that his stories were so much a part of a common tradition of the time that had they not been written by Pushkin they would not have received the attention they did.  However, as is typical for the development of the short story in the early 19th century, Pushkin combined previous generic conventions with his own self-conscious experimentation with prose.  Moser says that Pushkin's stories recapitulate literary tradition proceeding him, that they constitute a "parodic anthology of early 19th-century prose fiction."
The two Pushkin stories that have generated the most critical commentary, particularly concerning their generic tradition and innovation, are "The Shot" and "The Queen of Spades."  As Caryl Emerson points out, of all the controversies generated over "The Queen of Spades," the most extensive has been the generic issue of its "almost seamless fusion of the fantastic with the realistic." Like many other early 19th-century stories by Hawthorne, Poe, Hoffmann, and Gogol, all of whom have been given credit for originating the short story genre, the problem with Pushkin's most famous story, "The Queen of Spades" is that Pushkin combined so many different existing fictional conventions within it that readers have always been somewhat puzzled about how to read it.
Comparing its uncanny effect (in the basic Freudian sense of blurring the lines between imagination and reality or between map and territory) with that of stories by Poe and Hoffman, academic critics have asked the same question that all serious readers have asked of the story:  "What is to be done with this mystery, this tale of illusion?"  After summarizing the socioliterary, psychoanalytical, linguistic, and numerological studies of "Queen of Spades," Caryl Emerson concludes that the story so thoroughly and self-consciously combines inexplicable coincidence and supernatural events with a precise and reportorial mode that what Pushkin ultimately parodies in the story is the reader's search for a system or key, a figure in the carpet, that would explain it.
Basically, the plot of the story is motivated by a secret; the attempt to discover the secret generates the plot; the story ends when the secret is discovered. The secret, of course, must be a primal secret, the origins of which are in the most primitive and basic desire of the human psyche.  In this case, the secret revolves around a game of cards, possessing which would eliminate chance.  Indeed, when the countess's grandson tells of her getting a secret from the old Count, who represents himself as the Wandering Jew, and winning all three cards chosen, the listeners respond in the three basic ways that the event could be explained: chance, fairy tale, marked cards.  However, it is the fourth listener, the engineer Hermann, a man of "ardent imagination" and a gambler at heart who had never touched a card, who is most affected by the story of the secret.  "The story of the three cards produced a powerful impression upon his imagination, and all night long he could think of nothing else." 
Hermann's fascination with the secret of the three cards introduces another typical romantic short story element later explored so thoroughly by Poe--a character's powerful obsession that makes all reality contract around the object of the obsession itself.  Establishing himself as a romantic and mysterious figure standing outside the window of Lizaveta Ivanovna, the Countess's ward, much as Michael Furey does outside Gretta's window in Joyce's "The Dead," Hermann, like a character in a romance, sends the ward declarations of love, "copied word for word from a German novel."  Hermann's copied romanticism in turn infects Lizaveta, who, horrified by Hermann's boldness, enters into "secret and intimate relations" with a young man for the first time in her life.  As Hermann's letters become more impassioned, bearing "full testimony to the inflexibility of his desire and the disordered condition of his uncontrollable imagination," Lizaveta in turn becomes intoxicated and arranges, in romantic fashion, a rendezvous whereby Hermann may journey through the Countess's bedroom up a narrow winding staircase to her room. 
The fact that the journey to the maid must pass through the Countess's bedroom is, of course, not accidental, but thematically purposeful, for instead of wishing to reach the maid by means of the Countess, Hermann wishes to reach the Countess by means of the maid.  This reversal activates a grotesque mirror image in which the young lover, in Keatsean romantic fashion, is witness not to the undressing of the young girl, but rather the "repulsive mysteries" of the Countess's toilette.  Just as Silvio dismisses the occasion of the final shot as a comic illusion, the Countess tells Hermann it was all a joke.  Hermann's retort that it is not a joking matter is inevitably followed by his murder of the Countess with an empty gun
All of this mock behavior is further emphasized by Tomsky, the Countess's grandson, who describes Hermann as a "truly romantic character" a portrait that agrees with Lazaveta's own mental picture, an image that, "rendered commonplace by current novels, terrified and fascinated her imagination."  The mockery motif is continued when Hermann goes to the funeral and thinks the old Countess darts a "mocking look at him and winked with one eye," a comic image that undermines the horror of the late night visit of the Countess to give Hermann the secret which prepares the reader for a continuation of the joke gesture.  As in fairy-tale conventions, whereas possession of the secret may be harmless, actual use of it is not.  When Hermann does use the secret, he thinks he now has the ultimate power to eliminate chance and uncertainty from life; however, on the third card, expecting the ace, he draws the Queen of Spades, coming face to face with the old woman, the embodiment of the inevitability of age and death.
Self-consciously aware that he was experimenting with the conventions of narrative fiction, Pushkin has, in "The Queen of Spades" written a story, that in parodying narrative conventions, is about the basic desire that underlies all fiction--that life is not contingency and mere chance, but rather teleologically purposeful--that one can escape contingency into the realm that governs the art work, the realm of relevance, unity, meaning, and purpose.  Pushkin's theme in "The Shot" and "The Queen of Spades"--the romantic desire to impose one's own will on the world of fact, contingency, and chance--is the same theme that always pushes the stories of Poe, Hawthorne, Hoffmann, and Gogol away from ordinary reality into the realm of art; and it is this theme that compels these short-story writers to create a purely fictional or aesthetic order--not as a reflection of the real world, but as a reflection of the most basic human wish.

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