Understanding the Superstitious Elements of Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades

By Mackenzie Pickering


Illustration by Gennady Yepifanov for Pushkin’s Queen of Spades, 1966

After having read Pushkin’s “Prisoner of the Caucasus” in class – and since I knew next to nothing about the writer himself – I decided that I wanted to use my honors project to examine Pushkin and his works more closely. More specifically, I ended up looking at how the superstitious elements of The Queen of Spades worked not only as a literary device but also as a way for Pushkin to confront his own superstitions and shape the experiences of the people around him. For the purposes of this post, however, I am going to focus on one of the sources that ended up forming the crux of my argument.

A lot of people consider The Queen of Spades to be one of Pushkin’s greatest works, mainly because it is so full of ambiguous details and symbols that it can be analyzed endlessly and still remain shrouded in mystery. In his book Writing as Exorcism: The Personal Codes of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, Ilya Kutik argues that part of this stems from the fact that the short story may have been intensely personal for Pushkin, so naturally, as outsiders, the full meaning of his work would remain beyond our grasp. From an early age, Pushkin was incredibly superstitious, and Kutik believes that this particular trait – coupled with a visit to the famous Petersburg fortune-teller, Madame Kirchhof – led him to write The Queen of Spades. In her predictions for Pushkin’s future, Madame Kirchhof foresaw great fame and fortune, but also death. According to one of Pushkin’s confidants, she claimed that “he would live long if in the thirty-seventh year of his life he could avoid some disaster brought to him either by a white horse, by blond hair, or by a white man” (qtd. in Kutik 23). Because of the obviously anxiety inducing nature of having one’s death predicted in such a way, Kutik sees the events and characters of The Queen of Spades as Pushkin’s way of exorcising his own very personal demons.

In Hermann, the main character who is ultimately driven mad by his failed obsession with superstition, Ilya Kutik draws a connection to Pushkin himself. As he explains, “It is likely that this character takes Pushkin’s fears upon himself” by being “first farcical and finally insane” (30). By making Hermann slightly ridiculous, Pushkin may be, in a sense, trying to view his own situation in an absurd light, turning it into something to be laughed at rather than something to be feared. Indeed, for a few years before he turned thirty-seven, Pushkin seemed to be plagued by Kirchhof’s predictions of his death; in both his journal entries and the recorded interactions with those close to him at the time, Kutik finds indications of some depressive symptoms. (Although he does also go on to acknowledge that Pushkin’s private mindset is oftentimes hard to judge since he was so tongue-in-cheek about everything. After all, it is difficult to see someone as anxious or upset when his or her default mode is to be mocking.) Hermann’s experiences in The Queen of Spades may have thus been Pushkin’s way of working through these issues and trying to reach some sort of emotional equilibrium.

Furthermore, by making Hermann a German rather than a Russian, Kutik argues that Pushkin “seems to distance his hero’s madness from himself” (30). If Hermann truly does embody Pushkin’s superstitious anxieties, then in making him a foreigner Pushkin others his fears, pushing them off onto an outsider and denying any association he might feel with them. Had Pushkin made Hermann Russian instead then he would be, in a way, claiming the fears and acknowledging that they could exist in someone like him. As a consequence of this, now not only is Hermann ridiculous, but he is a stranger as well, a man viewed as truly separate from Pushkin and his Russian homeland. In this way, The Queen of Spades can be seen as a story that must be analyzed, first and foremost, with an understanding of the author’s own quirks and motivations always at the forefront of the reader’s mind. For, as Kutik argues throughout his work, the story functions as an incredibly personal piece for Pushkin, an attempt (however successful or unsuccessful in the end) at purging himself of his superstitious anxieties. Strangely enough, however, Kirchhof’s predictions of Pushkin’s death ultimately proved true. In 1837, during a duel over his wife’s alleged affair, Pushkin was killed by Georges-Charles de Heeckeren d’Antès, a white man with blond hair.

Work Cited

Kutik, Ilya. Writing as Exorcism: The Personal Codes of Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.             Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2005. Print.

Mackenzie Pickering is a junior at Miami majoring in English Literature and Psychology.  This post is a condensed version of her honors assignment for HST/ATH/RUS 254.

This entry was posted in Editorials. Bookmark the permalink.