Playing With a Used Deck: Echoes of Pushkin's "The Queen of Spades" in Lermontov's "Fatalist."

Anatoly Vishevsky, Grinnell College

In Pushkin's tale "The Queen of Spades", the famous three cards (the three, seven, and ace) become steps that take Hermann to his ultimate downfall at the hands of Fate -- a Fate that appears in the story as the Queen of Spades. Pushkin punishes the cautious Hermann, who does not want to take part in the game until it becomes "fixed" -- in the hero's view -- by the magical secret of the three cards. Hermann opts for playing an unfailing hand; he is engaging in the faro as if it were not a game of chance but a game of skill. And, at the end, Fate takes revenge on him.

Lermontov, in the story "Fatalist" from A Hero of Our Time, engages in a dialog with Pushkin's story. Unlike Hermann, Lermontov's hero Vulichek; is a true gambler -- he exclusively engages in games of chance. Parallels between the two tales can be found on the general level of card and game playing as well as gambling on someone's life (Jurij Lotman, "Tema kart i kartochnoj igry v russkoj literature XIX veka"). Lermontov borrows the three cards from Pushkin's story; he uses these cards in a random sequence, saving the first (the three) for the end of Vulich's story.

When Lermontov introduces his hero-gambler at the beginning of the story, we learn of an episode in which Vulich does not join his comrades-in-arms in battle until he finishes a faro game. The hero loses, and the card that he draws in that game is a seven. Later in the story Vulich tests his fate in a game of Russian roulette; the hero throws an ace in the air and pulls the trigger as the card touches the barrel of his pistol. The third card, the three, appears in the story in disguise and represents Fate itself.

The manipulation of the motif of the three cards borrowed from Pushkin's story provides insight into Lermontov's approach to the theme of Fate. Both games of chance and games of skill appear in Pushkin's story. Pushkin employs the game of faro as an active participant of the story, a character who winds up lifeless puppet-characters, breathing life into them for the short time needed to conduct their roles (Lotman). Faro runs the story even while Hermann is not gambling in the strict sense of the word. In "The Queen of Spades" Fate appears only at the end of the story, as the deux ex machina, to set matters straight. Where Pushkin plays, Lermontov strikes a far more serious pose. In "Fatalist" the theme of Fate defines the story, permeates it from the story's title to its last line. In Lermontov's story, gambling and the playing of games of chance come to the foreground, and it is through these games that the question of Fate is discussed.