The Queen of Spades has proved to be one of the most exhaustibly scrutinised works by Pushkin, thus it is unsurprising that a great deal of material has been generated surrounding narrative aspects of the novel. There is a plethora of material to be investigated pertaining to the novella's concealed lexical means, much of it situated far further beneath a simple reading of the novella as a straightforward tale of chance and misfortune at the card table. This first article will discuss Pushkin's use of numerology and gematria in reference the death of his friend, Kondraty Ryodorovich Ryleyev, the Russian poet, publisher and leader of the Decembrist Revolt, which attempted to overthrow the Russian monarchy in 1825.
In several of the novella's key passages, Pushkin incorporates gematria (a Hebrew form of code characterized by a combination of cryptographic and logomachic elements) to reference the death of Kondraty Ryleev . In the passage treating Germann's invasion of the Countess' house is the sentence "ветер выл, мокрый снег падал хлопьями; фонари..." . The segments "мокр" and "онар" contain the syllables "кo" and "oнрa" respectively, with "тер" revealing "тu" (Leighton, 460). Combined with "ве тер" in transposition yielding "рe eв", and "выл" and "крый" combining to form "(k) рыл", these interspersed elements reveal the cryptonym "Кондра́тий Рыле́ев" (Leighton, 460).
The fact that it is Ryleev specifically being referenced thus evokes the idea of the execution of the Decembrist Revolution's leaders (Ryleev included) and the resulting phenomenon of survivor's guilt amongst those involved who did not perish. We can glean a deeper sense of Pushkin's emotional involvement and the huge mental upheaval he suffered as a result of the affair from the word 'пастушки', which contains the word 'cyт', meaning jester, but also a hanged man. The metaphorical force this double-meaning carries (a jester dancing at the end of a hangman's noose) betrays Pushkin's psychological connection to the matter - the graphic nature of the image, whilst naturally being a highly emotive device in its own right within the text, also demonstrates Pushkin's tortured psyche after the event. The sheer (arguably excessive) viscerality that the image carries, turns its usage by Pushkin into a self-indulgence - it is known that Pushkin dwelled heavily on the fact that he himself was saved from the fate of Ryleev by chance alone (he had previously planned to go to St. Petersburg to join the Decembrists on the 13th December), and thus from this we can reasonably infer that he suffered severely from a sense of survivor's guilt. The use of 'cyт ' in the text therefore becomes a form of psychological self-harm, as an attempt to cleanse himself of the guilt he experienced from having unjustly survived.
Thus this phenomenon constitutes an added dimension to the novella - it is not simply a fictional literary work in its own right, but also a exposition of Pushkin's emotional disarray following the revolution.
Read more about Pushkin's The Queen of Spades in the second part of this series, coming soon!
Article by the amazing: Will Roscoe
Leighton, L. G. (1977). Gematria in 'The Queen of Spades': A Decembrist Puzzle. Slavic and East European Journal , 455-469.
"Kolman decembrists" by Picture by painter Karl Kolman (1786-1846). / К. Кольман - Copy of . attrib.. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Kolman_decembrists.jpg#/media/File:Kolman_decembrists.jpg