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 charity ball. There, he encounters a dimly remembered childhood acquaintance who reminisces about their school days. Unaccountably distressed, Luzhin lies awake, pondering the secret meaning of the encounter. He resolves mentally to “replay all the moves of his life from his illness until the ball” in order to discover an unfolding pattern. The attentions of Luzhin’s wife are now distracted by the appearance of a...
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guest, a childhood acquaintance who has arrived on a visit from Russia with her morose eight-year-old son, who is much like Luzhin. The woman knows the aunt who taught Luzhin to play chess. Shielded by his bride from all things that might remind him of chess, Luzhin chances to overhear the guest mention his aunt. He suddenly grasps the unfolding chess moves: “With vague admiration and vague horror he observed how awesomely, how elegantly and how flexibly, move by move, the images of his childhood had been repeated (country house...town...school...aunt), but still he did not quite understand why this combinational repetition inspired his soul with such dread.” Each stage of his life since the breakdown has repeated, in variant form, a stage of his childhood leading up to his discovery of chess which ended in his madness. Many other details are part of the repeating pattern. While his wife is preoccupied with her guest, everything seems to conspire to bring Luzhin back into the fatal world of chess. Each defensive move he makes is thwarted by an unseen opponent. At length, Valentinov, his old chess promoter, locates him with a proposal to act in a film together with his old foe Turati. Luzhin now realizes that he has lost. He chooses to resign the hopeless game by committing suicide.