A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘A Game of Chess’

A reading of the second part of The Waste Land – analysed by Dr Oliver Tearle

‘A Game of Chess’ is the second section of T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land, the impact of which was profound and immediate. The title partly alludes to a game of chess played in Jacobean dramatist Thomas Middleton’s play Women Beware Women, but also to another of his plays, A Game at Chess. You can read ‘A Game of Chess’ here; below, we offer a brief summary of this section of Eliot’s poem, but we’ll stop and analyse the more curious aspects of it as we go, pointing out its most curious features.

In summary, ‘A Game of Chess’ begins with a long description of an ornately decorated room in which a woman is sitting on a ‘Chair’ like a throne (the first line of ‘A Game of Chess’ is actually an allusion to a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra: ‘The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne …’). It’s facetious to suggest that she’s on the lavatory – though note the ‘odours’ of the ‘perfumes’ surrounding her, suggesting that she is at her toilet, if not on one; it’s also worth mentioning that Eliot’s original draft of The Waste Land actually contained a description of a woman, Fresca, ‘at stool’, literally on the toilet.

Nevertheless, the main point is that the room is lavishly decorated, including the carving of a dolphin and a depiction of Philomela being transformed into a nightingale. In the Greek myth, retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Philomela was raped by her brother-in-law, Tereus; the gods took pity on her and she was turned into a nightingale, though she continued to accuse Tereus (thus the bird’s call of ‘Jug Jug’). This artistic depiction of sexual violence foreshadows several other, modern moments in the poem, such as the woman Lil who is much put-upon (literally) by her husband later in ‘A Game of Chess’, and the young man who ‘assaults’ the typist in ‘The Fire Sermon’.

game-of-chess-ts-eliotThe world this woman – who calls to mind Belinda from Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock – inhabits is upper-crust, and very false. Perfumes cover up the ‘female stench’ (as Eliot’s original drafts had it), while make-up literally covers up the woman’s natural appearance. After over 30 lines describing the woman in her room, which are rendered largely in blank verse, we then move to a more fragmentary style of verse which is far less ornate, as we read a conversation between a woman (presumably the same woman) and her male lover.

The woman’s nerves are bad. She accuses the man of remaining quiet and of not telling her what he is thinking. The man’s replies are often cryptic. He says he thinks they’re in ‘rats’ alley’, in a possible allusion to the trenches of the First World War. The woman asks about the noise she can hear, but he dismisses it as the wind. When she asks him what he remembers, he replies by quoting the same Shakespearean allusion we encountered in ‘The Burial of the Dead’: ‘Those are pearls that were his eyes.’ There’s a strong suggestion that the man is scarred by some sort of trauma and has blocked out much of his life and refuses to talk or think about it.

Finally, when the woman asks him whether there is anything in his head, he replies with another quotation, this time not from Shakespeare but about Shakespeare, a jazz song from 1912 called ‘Shakesperian Rag’. He is reduced to quoting other people rather than giving personal, heartfelt answers to the big, personal questions put to him by the woman, which neatly mirrors what T. S. Eliot himself is doing: quoting other people.

The woman, despairing, asks the man what they are going to do – what they are ever going to do – which reinforces the idea that their lives are empty of meaning and they struggle to find ways to make their existence matter. The man replies with a list of things they do – that they always do. It’s a life of stiff routine: the hot water goes on at ten, and a roof over the convertible car at four to take them out if it’s raining, and a game of chess while they wait, ominously, for a knock at the door – whether a ghost from the past or a new guest to bring meaning to their lives, the man cannot say.

We now move to one of the most popular sections of ‘A Game of Chess’, especially when it comes to analysis of the themes of The Waste Land as a whole: we find ourselves in a pub in the East End of London, and to the other end of the social spectrum. Working-class women are talking together, and one of them is telling her friend about another friend, Lil. Lil’s husband has been demobbed from the army and will want ‘a good time’, so – the speaker tells us – Lil should get some false teeth. She’s only thirty-one years old, but she already looks ancient – largely because she took abortion pills to ‘bring … off’ her latest pregnancy, as they already have too many mouths to feed. Lil has prematurely aged; she’s running out of time.

The call for last orders from the barman, repeated throughout this final section and rendered in capitals, cuts across the conversation of the women, but also, by extension, highlights the fact that Lil is trapped in her marriage and her reproductive cycle. Death is the only way out for her. It’s time. Time for what? Time to make a decision, to leave her husband? Unthinkable.

The question that the speaker tells us she asked Lil – what did she get married for if she doesn’t want children? – foregrounds one of the main themes of The Waste Land as a whole: marriage, and, more widely, relationships, especially sexual relationships, in the modern world. As the women leave the pub, their cries of ‘Good night’ merge with the words Ophelia says as she leaves the stage for the last time in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: ‘Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.’ Ophelia has already gone mad, spurned by Hamlet and used as a pawn by her father Polonius as part of his political scheming; shortly after this, she will be found dead, having (probably) drowned herself. ‘Fear death by water’, the Tarot reading in ‘The Burial of the Dead’ has warned us. But perhaps a death like Ophelia’s is the only way out of the horror-show that is the waste land.

‘A Game of Chess’ is, in the last analysis, chiefly about two very different women in the modern world and their unfulfilling relationships with men. They are both trapped in a cycle of repetition. The only escape is death, and that seems unthinkable. Yet the women they are associated with – Cleopatra in the case of the first, Ophelia in the case of the second – both grasped the nettle (or the asp, in the case of Cleopatra) and took their own lives. In the modern age, Eliot seems to say, escape is not so easy.

Continue to explore the world of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land with our summary and analysis of the third section, ‘The Fire Sermon’.

About T. S. Eliot

Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.

Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.

Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.

He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.

The best student edition of Eliot’s poem is The Waste Land (Norton Critical Editions), which comes with a very helpful introduction, as well as contextual information and major critical responses to The Waste Land.

The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.


Image: A large chess game inside Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, MD, USA (picture credit: Jyothis), via Wikimedia Commons.