The Development of the Chess Motif in Victorian Fiction

Glen Downey, Ph. D., Department of English, University of British Columbia

World as chessboard Sir John Tenniel's famous illustration from Through the Looking Glass of the world as chessboard. This is the third illustration in chapter 2. Click on image for larger picture.

Since shortly after its inception into western culture and once the Church accepted that it was not a heretical pursuit, chess became acknowledged as a suitable metaphor for various human activities. Nonetheless, considering for a moment how medieval texts like Huon of Bordeaux (c. 1200) and Garin de Montglane (13th c.) use chess as a metaphor to demonstrate the necessity of preserving social and political hierarchies, and how a Renaissance playwright like Thomas Middleton, in A Game at Chess (1624), uses the game to represent the intrigue of the Anglo-Spanish conflict, one might be tempted to hypothesize that in a literary context the game is little more than a vehicle for allegory. However, nineteenth-century writers recognized that in addition to serving as an allegorical construct, chess could be used as a metaphor for any complex system that subjects its participants to a set of binding rules under which they are compelled to play. The exploration of this idea consequently brings together three Victorian texts which otherwise might have little chance of being juxtaposed for the purposes of critical analysis: Anne Brontë's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), Thomas Hardy's A Pair of Blue Eyes (1873), and Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass (1872).

The chess metaphor functions as a device that symbolizes how the central female characters of these works become stalemated in their efforts to achieve autonomy. While the disparate but related paths these characters take can be likened to the predetermined progress of a pawn that travels the length of a chessboard to become a queen, what Brontë, Hardy, and Carroll all recognize is that this process of becoming is by no means a fulfilling one. Rather, it only serves to reveal how trapped Helen, Elfride, and Alice are within a game in which Victorian society designates them as players of only secondary importance.

There is a general movement towards a more complex integration of the chess motif as we move from Brontë to Hardy and finally, to Carroll. Brontë incidental chess scene is reminiscent of Thomas Middleton's use of a similar episode in Women Beware Women, and shows less sophistication than what Hardy or Carroll achieve because her moral realism lacks the creative touches found in either Hardy's use of symbolic imagery or Carroll's use of the fantastic and the unorthodox. However, Bronte juxtaposes her chess game with Helen's discovery of Huntingdon's infidelity to demonstrate how her heroine becomes trapped within a game that she is willingly coerced into playing.

If Brontë suggests that relationships are like chess games played according to rules that seriously limit a woman's ability to compete, Hardy goes to even greater lengths in using chess to show how his Wessex universe operates as its own evolving game environment, replete with obstacles and conflicts that prove catastrophic for a player as unprepared as Elfride. Indeed, Hardy's allusion to Shakespeare's The Tempest is critical in demonstrating how in matters of social game-playing, his heroine suffers from the unsatisfactory education she receives from her controlling father. Hardy shows greater sophistication than Bronte in using parallel chess episodes to comment on the progress of Elfride's relationships, and he even refers to a specific opening system in chess, the Muzio Gambit, whose catalogue of moves prefigures Elfride's romantic involvements with Stephen and Henry, as well as the unavoidable problems she encounters from the novel's vengeful Black Queen, Mrs. Jethway. Unlike Bronte, Hardy recognizes that fate is not so careful about giving individuals what they deserve, and that a character like Elfride can pay a heavy price for her romantic misdemeanors.

Alice and the sleeping queens Sir John Tenniel's Alice and the sleeping queens from from Through the Looking Glass. This is the second illustration in chapter 11. Click on image for larger picture.

However, neither Brontë nor Hardy achieves what Carroll does in Through the Looking-Glass, a work that can be seen to follow in the tradition of Middleton's A Game at Chess, and which not only incorporates the game but structures its plot on the solution to an unorthodox chess problem. If Brontë is to be celebrated for her honest portrayal of a woman who becomes trapped in a destructive marriage, and Hardy can be commended for showing how his heroine's education in social game-playing undermines her relationships with men, Carroll's genius rests in his ability to illustrate these kinds of experiences on a chess board through Alice's dream of traveling across Looking-Glass land to become a queen. He does not simply give us the impression that a girl's progress towards womanhood is like a pawn's promotion in chess, but instead integrates these two concepts into a single experience. He also keeps the reader off guard by creating an unorthodox chess problem and a curious cast of characters, giving us a sense of being caught in a game of our own. The result of all of this is that we are drawn into Carroll's games even as we view them as spectators, and the critical giddiness we experience in the process both helps us to share a sense of Alice's predicament in her frustrated quest to find fulfillment, and allows us to appreciate the underlying thematic implications of the chess motif in the narrative.

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Content last updated March 21 2000