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Chess, which has a mathematical component rooted in logic and computational thinking, is an intellectual game that promotes at the very least concentration, competition, creativity, reasoning, problem-solving, and memory—distinctive human traits that appealed to William Faulkner’s creative imagination. Moreover, a chess player takes responsibility for his or her moves and learns to make commitments, thus developing a deep sense of strategy. Along the way, he or she acquires a sense of discipline, knowing that the ultimate goal is victory, not defeat. If the game ends in a checkmate, one can profit from knowing the thought processes of one’s opponent, and armed with this knowledge, one can begin the game anew. Finally, since chess pieces have names and can move in certain, specified ways, one normally develops an active visual imagination that can deal with possibles and probables that are often intuited and cannot be programmed completely in advance for the very reason that one’s opponent is engaged in similar processes of observation and analysis.
As Michael Wainwright acknowledges, no explicit evidence exists that Faulkner’s father ever taught him to play chess, though “the ambience of chess and the symbolism commonly associated with the game exerted an osmotic pressure on him as he settled into the Vieux Carré in 1925” (43). Faulkner’s knowledge of chess or perhaps lack of it, as he mentioned in a letter to Malcolm Cowley written in early June 1949, should always be kept in mind, though he sometimes played chess in the summer of 1934 with his stepson Malcolm and Malcolm’s friend, Arthur Guyton. Wainwright suggests that Faulkner could have become more knowledgeable about chess in off-hour games with Humphrey Bogart, a known chess aficionado, during the filming in 1944 of To Have and Have Not. While Faulkner’s awareness of chess might be seen to a certain extent in The Marionettes, chess imagery is clearly demonstrable in Flags in the Dust and Light in August, particularly in the gruesome scenes depicting Percy Grimm’s murder of Joe Christmas. Though “Knight’s Gambit” has a few explicit references to chess, the chess maneuvers of Chick Mallison and his uncle Gavin Stevens provide the story’s controlling metaphor centering on Captain Sebastian Gualdres’s relationship with the daughter of Mrs. Melisandre Backus Harriss and Gavin’s long-suppressed desire to marry the widow Harriss once her daughter and unruly son Max, a latent homosexual according to Wainwright, are no longer at home. In referring to himself, Gavin notes that a knight can move two squares at once and even in two directions at once, but he cannot move twice. During the course of the story, Gavin checks [End Page 880] the queen (Mrs. Harriss) and her castle (her immense Sutpen-like house and property) all in the same move. When the Harriss children interrupt the chess game between Chick and Gavin, Gavin is given the chance to defeat the Argentinian knight, Gualdres, and move to take his long-lost queen in marriage. In effect, the story transitions from a detective story to Gavin’s personal history of romance, an aspect of Gavin’s character never suspected by Chick. Not really having known his uncle until now, Chick has tended all along to view his uncle as a glib lawyer and district attorney, translating assiduously—almost monk like—the Bible back into classical Greek.
Faulkner’s Gambit: Chess and Literature focuses not only on the story “Knight’s Gambit” (named for the king’s knight’s gambit), which Faulkner likewise used as the title of his 1949 collection of stories, but also on the sociology of play and sport as developed by Johan Huizinga and Roger Caillois; on the history of chess and important chess theoreticians, especially the English strategist Howard Staunton, author of Chess: Theory and Practice, and Paul Morphy of New Orleans, who might have influenced Faulkner’s friend William Spratling; on Ernest Jones’s three-volume biography of Morphy; and on Vladimir Nabokov’s The Defense: A Novel, William K. Wimsatt’s “How to Compose...