In this article we will explore the issue of reality versus unreality in the story and how the narrative voice within the work varies, to constantly leave any attempt at a definitive interpretation of events hanging in an uncertain equilibrium.
Todorov stipulates that a person who experiences a supernatural event must fall back of either one of two possible explanations: either they have fallen victim to an illusion occurring within their own perception of reality, or the event they witnessed did in fact occur and does in fact exist within reality, but is governed by laws of existence as yet undiscovered by humanity (Todorov, 25). Pushkin presides over the reader's reaction to this conundrum exteremly effectively throughout the whole novella in two ways: by varying the narrative position, and by not providing sufficient information to elucidate the reader during moments of uncertainty as to whether an unnatural event was real or fantasy.
The first method is repeated throughout the novella, even from the very first paragraph - in the opening scene, which depicts a group of officers playing cards, the verbs "играли" and "сели" are used, but without clarifying pronouns. Via this omission the reader is therefore not elucidated as to the narrator's position relative to the scene (Whitehead, 107) - in addition to this, no details regarding time, place or participants are mentioned, which thus immediately sets a precedent for mystery and deception. At this point in the novella, the reader is still able to rely on the information provided by the narrator, despite its incomplete and rudimentary nature, since we have been given no reason to surmise that anything is being withheld. However, evidence of the narrator's omniscient privilege can be found in the statement that "Графиня, конечно, не имела злой души" - this insight demonstrates that the narrator has the ability to both see inside the minds of the characters and to evaluate previous deeds in their lives, a depth of knowledge that was conspicuously absent in prior scenes. Although it has been argued that this revelation regarding the exterior narrator's ability builds the implied reader's confidence, it can be asserted that this instead engenders mistrust within the reader - what was the narrator's initial motive for not fully orienting previous scenes, and will they do it again?
At this point in the novella, the uncertainty and inconsistency built up by Pushkin's narrator means that the reader's ability to distinguish between fundamental aspects of narrative aspect, such as reality and unreality, is beginning to be impaired - this developing inhibition comes reaches its zenith at the Countess' funeral. As demonstrated by Germann only seeing the coffin after he had pushed through the crowd, the narrator is has once again renounced their omniscient viewpoint and is beside Germann, and thus the reader's own insight into the subsequent events is constrained by human limitations. These inherent limitations are compounded when the Countess winks at the protagonist. The narrator uses the phrase "В эту минуту показалось ему..." - thus by the use of the word 'seemed' (along with the brevity of the incursion of this apparently paranormal event), the reliability of the information is significantly cast into doubt.
The second technique used by Pushkin to cause the reader to repudiate the authenticity of narrative informartion can also be isolated in this scene. There is noticable lack of any additonal information to assist the reader in establishing whether the wink was an anomalous product of Germann's imagination, or a genuine occurence - in spite of the fact that the narrative voice slips back into an omniscient perspective, being able to catch sight of Liza "в обмороке" and a chamberlain who "шепнул на ухо англичанинa". The same occurs in the Countess' appearance to Germann - in spite of the inevitable doubt left within the reader's mind regarding the reality of such an event (due to it being disparate from the fundamental laws of reality we abide by), the narrator only describes Germann's physical activities subsequent to the apparition. They do not provide any omniscient insight for us to draw upon (which we have already established they are capable of doing) , or give us the means to resolve the conundrum presented (Whitehead, 124).
Overall, the variation of narrative voice and the lack of easily available clarification of certain scenes creates a disparate and fragile relationship between the reader and the narrator. This in turn creates the complexity of the reader still not being able to definitively settle upon a reading of the work at its end. The psychological quandry of whether Germann experienced an abherration in his perception of reality, or whether the events he witnessed were in fact real, but obviously outside what we currently define as the laws of our reality, is left unresolved.
Article by the incredible Will Roscoe
Todorov, T. (1973). The Fantastic - A Structural Approach To A Literary Genre. New York: Cornell University Press.
Whitehead, C. (1999). The Fantastic in Russian Romantic Prose: Pushkin's 'The Queen of Spades'. In N. Cornwell, The Gothic Fantastic in Nineteenth Century Russian Literature (pp. 103-127). Atlanta: Rodopi.