31 January 2017

'White Always Mates'

A couple of recent news reports -- John Hurt, diverse actor of screen and stage, dies at 77 – video obituary (theguardian.com) and George Orwell's '1984' Has Become a Bestseller Again (biography.com) -- reminded me that I had a relevant image somewhere in my digital collection. I found it without too much trouble.

John Hurt, Movie: Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984)

What's the chess connection? I located a digital copy of the book, downloaded it, and searched for the word 'chess'. The first reference was almost inconsequential, but reminded me of the central themes of the book, which I first read when I was 12-13 years old, and which was one of the first influences I can recall that really made me think.

It was the lonely hour of fifteen. Winston could not now remember how he had come to be in the cafe at such a time. The place was almost empty. A tinny music was trickling from the telescreens. The three men sat in their corner almost motionless, never speaking. Uncommanded, the waiter brought fresh glasses of gin. There was a chessboard on the table beside them, with the pieces set out but no game started. And then, for perhaps half a minute in all, something happened to the telescreens. The tune that they were playing changed, and the tone of the music changed too. There came into it -- but it was something hard to describe. It was a peculiar, cracked, braying, jeering note: in his mind Winston called it a yellow note. And then a voice from the telescreen was singing:

Under the spreading chestnut tree
I sold you and you sold me:
There lie they, and here lie we
Under the spreading chestnut tree.

The three men never stirred. But when Winston glanced again at Rutherford's ruinous face, he saw that his eyes were full of tears. And for the first time he noticed, with a kind of inward shudder, and yet not knowing at what he shuddered, that both Aaronson and Rutherford had broken noses.

A little later all three were re-arrested. It appeared that they had engaged in fresh conspiracies from the very moment of their release.

On top of two more fleeting references that show Orwell's familiarity with the game...

The physical difficulty of meeting was enormous. It was like trying to make a move at chess when you were already mated. Whichever way you turned, the telescreen faced you.


A person growing up with Newspeak as his sole language would no more know that equal had once had the secondary meaning of 'politically equal', or that free had once meant 'intellectually free', than for instance, a person who had never heard of chess would be aware of the secondary meanings attaching to Queen and Rook.

...the longest chess reference was almost certainly the inspiration for the scene in the movie.

A waiter, again unbidden, brought the chessboard and the current issue of The Times, with the page turned down at the chess problem. Then, seeing that Winston's glass was empty, he brought the gin bottle and filled it. There was no need to give orders. They knew his habits. The chessboard was always waiting for him, his corner table was always reserved; even when the place was full he had it to himself, since nobody cared to be seen sitting too close to him. He never even bothered to count his drinks. At irregular intervals they presented him with a dirty slip of paper which they said was the bill, but he had the impression that they always undercharged him. It would have made no difference if it had been the other way about. He had always plenty of money nowadays. He even had a job, a sinecure, more highly-paid than his old job had been.

The music from the telescreen stopped and a voice took over. Winston raised his head to listen. No bulletins from the front, however. It was merely a brief announcement from the Ministry of Plenty. In the preceding quarter, it appeared, the Tenth ThreeYear Plan's quota for bootlaces had been overfulfilled by 98 per cent. He examined the chess problem and set out the pieces. It was a tricky ending, involving a couple of knights. 'White to play and mate in two moves.' Winston looked up at the portrait of Big Brother. White always mates, he thought with a sort of cloudy mysticism. Always, without exception, it is so arranged. In no chess problem since the beginning of the world has black ever won. Did it not symbolize the eternal, unvarying triumph of Good over Evil? The huge face gazed back at him, full of calm power. White always mates.

Is 'White always mates' really symbolic of the 'unvarying triumph of Good over Evil?' I can't believe that Orwell was so optimistic. Perhaps it's meant to be ironic.


Later: For more about the film, see the IMDB's Nineteen Eighty-Four (1984). NB: '1984' is both the name of the movie and the year it was released.

1 comment:

Anthony said...

I don't know if it had any moral connotations (perhaps dependent on the reader, I guess) but I interpreted that last scene to reflect the reality of Winston's world: the hopelessness of standing up to Big Brother, who always wins. It's gone past something to be aggrieved about, and is now something that just is.