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Risk

February 9, 2012

Given the gambling theme, it seems easy to see why Gary Rosenshield looks at Pushkin’s “The Queen of Spades” and Dostoevskii’s The Gambler together. But Rosenshield’s argument is that compulsive gambling isn’t the point of The Gambler:

Aleksey is passionate in all things, but he is most passionate about the heroine, Polina. The intensity of his passion for her exceeds the intensity of his addiction to gambling [strast’ k igre]. This view is contrary to almost all interpretations of the story in the last half century. (214-15)

People gamble for different reasons, and Rosenshield sees Pushkin’s Germann and Dostoevskii’s Aleksei as quite unlike each other. I’ve had some trouble trying to come up with a schematic summary of how gambling is treated in this piece, and please take the following with a grain of salt, but the typology is something like this:

Process vs. result. Germann wants something out of gambling, while Aleksei enjoys playing the game: “gambling is more about playing than about risk or fortune” (214), and he “plays for the experience itself, the thrill of which, he states, it is not possible to explain. The thrill is not associated with having won and lost but with winning and losing” (220).

Within gambling for a result, gambling to win a fortune or to take a sublime risk. Germann is torn: his rational, calculating side wants to gamble on a sure thing and come out with great wealth. But his passionate side embraces the risk in gambling itself, which amounts to “participating in life at its most intense” and “being ready to sacrifice his life for one moment of intense experience,” a Romantic ideal (208). Germann’s passionate side overcomes his rational side (214), and, in Rosenshield’s reading, he deliberately takes the wrong card because he prefers risk to a sure thing:

Germann did choose the queen. He could not have made a mistake. He had not made a mistake with the two previous cards, and there are no two cards more different in the deck than the ace and the queen. (208-09)

Aleksei, on the other hand, ultimately wants neither risk nor a fortune from gambling.

Does the entire complex of gambling rank above or below love? Germann shows he prefers gambling to love when he opens the countess’s door instead of Liza’s. Love for Polina is more important than gambling for Aleksei, and the risks Aleksei takes have to do with his love. For instance, he promises Polina he will jump off the Schlangenberg if she asks him to. Jumping itself is “not taking a risk,” but “certain death”; offering to jump, on the other hand, is taking a risk, since she may or may not ask (223).

European roulette wheel (courtesy of Betzaar, CC license)

I’m completely convinced by the Love > Gambling reading of The Gambler. The psychological interpretation of “The Queen of Spades” I’m less comfortable with. To me it feels like reading Pushkin as if Pushkin were Dostoevskii. I always thought it was suggested that Germann might have ended up with the wrong card through some supernatural interference by the countess – or might not have, but it isn’t clear the characters exist in a world where every event can be explained by natural laws and human choice. The idea that Germann is drawn toward both risk and wealth, but in the end subconsciously chooses risk, has a lot to recommend it. But is it really risk? If we accept that Germann knows that the ace is the winning card, choosing another card is just as certain to lose as the ace is certain to win. Choosing the queen is comparable to jumping off the Schlangenberg, rather than offering to jump off the Schlangenberg. Rosenshield says as much – that Germann is choosing not risk, but self-destruction (208-09) – but he also writes that “in the end [Germann] expresses his inner desire by finally engaging not only in real risk but ultimate risk” (208). I’m not sure how to reconcile the two points.

There’s a nice contrast of how nationality is handled in the two works. Pushkin’s Germann, of course, is half German and half Russian (206-07). This background points toward how he is half calculating and half passionate, but the national stereotypes work as a verbally economical way of gesturing toward universal qualities. In Dostoevskii the German and Russian elements are separated into different characters, and the issue of nationality is made quite concrete. But interestingly, the notion that Russians turn easily into problem gamblers is challenged: even as the character Aleksei makes sweeping arguments about “the Russian national character,” the author of the plot has a very Russian old woman acquire a taste for gambling, get carried away, and then stop and go back to Russia with much of her fortune intact (225).

See Gary Rosenshield, “Gambling and Passion: Pushkin’s The Queen of Spades and Dostoevsky’s The Gambler,” Slavic and East European Journal 55.2 (2011): 205-28.

Disclaimer: I am a former student of the author’s.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Julia Denne permalink
    February 10, 2012 4:31 pm

    Thank you for such thought-provoking post. I will need to read the article. For me, Dostoevsky shows gambling and game (the same word in Russian) as obsession. Risk, intensity, greed, sudden changes, and lust dominate here. Gambling even becomes a form of protest against European materialism and aggressive self-defense. Love is another form of obsession here, and Alexei thinks of himself as Polina’s slave. When Alexei gambles, he forgets Polina and thinks of luck. He offers Polina money he won through gambling, and I am not pursuaded that it is the same as love. It seems more complicated than the idea of gambling as above or below love. Of course, I may be wrong, but it is possible that “The Gambler” allows more than one interpretation as well.

  2. February 17, 2012 4:45 pm

    Thanks for your comment! Rosenshield agrees with you about the ambiguity of “The Gambler.” If I remember right, he treats the reading you give as Polina’s version of events, stressing that the reader does not need to interpret Aleksei giving her money the same way she says she does. He also thinks scholars make too much of Aleksei’s “statement that he does not remember if he thought about Polina while he was playing for the third time.” (“But why is it so surprising that someone winning a fortune at roulette is totally taken up with the play and forgets about his lover for half an hour? […] He eventually quits playing when ahead. […] He realizes he has won all the money he needs. Now he must go to Polina. […] What turns him into a gambler seems less to do with his recent exhilaration at the gambling tables than with Polina’s reaction to the money he has won for her” [216].) “Above or below love” is my phrase and I take your point that it doesn’t do justice to the story – at best it’s an abbreviated way to distinguish Rosenshield’s reading of “The Gambler” from 1) his reading of “The Queen of Spades” and 2) others’ readings of “The Gambler.”

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