Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 832
The Defense is the story of Aleksandr Ivanovich Luzhin, a brilliant Russian chess master, who is locked in a losing chess game with madness and death. Having lost one match which ended in madness, he devises a special defense which proves ineffectual in his fatal rematch.
As the novel begins, Luzhin is a morose, solitary boy of ten, spending the last days of summer at the family’s country house near St. Petersburg. His father has just given him the unpleasant news that he is to start school upon their return to town. The boy loathes school. The only person for whom he feels any affection is his pretty young aunt, who proves to be his father’s mistress. She introduces little Luzhin to chess on the very day that his mother learns of the affair. The boy begins skipping school to visit his aunt’s apartment, where he plays chess against one of her admirers. The following summer, Luzhin, Sr., learns of his secretive son’s talent, and the prodigy makes his public debut. Dropping out of school, he devotes himself exclusively to chess until he falls ill. During his prolonged recuperation, he is taken to a German health resort where, by chance, a major international chess tournament is being held. Luzhin’s career is launched.
Sixteen years elapse in the course of a paragraph, and Luzhin is still at the same health resort, talking to a young woman who will become his wife. Socially, Luzhin at thirty has progressed little beyond the morose, taciturn boy of his childhood. During the intervening years, his youthful career has been managed by a Svengali-like chess promoter, Valentinov, who long since dropped his aging prodigy. Luzhin now faces a major tournament and has come to the resort to prepare himself. His bride-to-be is not put off by his eccentric, boorish behavior. After a bizarre courtship, he sets off for his tournament in Berlin, which is also the home of his fiancee’s dismayed parents.
Luzhin plays brilliantly, progressing toward a final match with an opponent named Turati, against whose novel opening move he has devised a new defense. (He has lost an earlier match to Turati.) In the evenings, Luzhin visits the kitschy home of his fiancee’s philistine parents. As the days pass, Luzhin, whose grasp of reality is faint at best, becomes ever more absorbed in the patterns of chess, which he imposes on his surroundings. The final match with Turati begins, but without the opening move against which Luzhin had devised his special defense. Luzhin is now so deeply sunk into the world of chess that he cannot regain the world of reality. When the game adjourns for the night, he hears a voice say “Go home.”
Luzhin awakes in a sanatorium attended by a black-bearded psychiatrist who, along with Luzhin’s fiancee, assures him that he must forswear chess if he is to save his sanity. Through a window, Luzhin observes a scene reminiscent of the Russian countryside and thinks, “Evidently, I got home.” Luzhin successfully suppresses his chess memories and re-creates his past starting from his prechess childhood. Soon released, he returns to Berlin, where he marries his fiancee. Luzhin’s new life without chess proceeds smoothly until he attends a...
(The entire section contains 832 words.)
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