A Game of Chess focuses on two contrasting prospects, one of the higher class and one of the lower. Eliot chooses to society throughout this poem through the roles of the women in these opposing classes. Although the two different characters are from very different scenes, neither are what Eliot might consider an ideal female role.
In the first section of this passage from The Wasteland, Eliot describes a woman who is from the higher end of society. He dedicates 110 lines to describing her setting, in which lies some extremely ornate and costly items, “The glitter of her jewels rose to meet it”. This may reflect the woman’s character in that she obviously cares a lot about her valuables and possessions. We know it is not Eliot that dedicates this much amount of detail to the woman’s environment but more a reflection of what the woman herself is thinking, it creates the effect that this woman is very materialistic in a very negative sort of way. Overall the setting is made to be a rather nasty sort of environment. Eliot appeals very much to the senses in order to make the description ever so vividly unpleasant, “Unguent, powdered, or liquid – troubled, confused / And drowned the sense of odours; stirred by the air.” This intermingles the odours and the senses, creating the effect of a very musky, somewhat claustrophobic kind of place, with all the ornaments and useless bits of jumble, accompanied by the uneasy effects that the room has on the senses. This suggests that the woman is very neurotic and possibly vane due to all her costly possessions, and indeed Eliot may suggest that this can be generalised to all women of this class and circle of society.
The reference to the story of Philomel creates a very negative effect, causing the reader to maybe feel a little uneasy, “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king”. Eliot may be suggesting here that the woman is comparable to Philomel symbolically in that she is unable to communicate properly. Like Philomel couldn’t inform anyone of the misfortune that had happened to her, the woman here can’t express her true self to anyone else. It comes across as somewhat pitiable that this woman feels she cannot convey her inner self in any meaningful way, and this may be why she over compensates with all the expensive and ornate items, because she feels she must restore her lack of self-expression and money is the only way she knows how.
Her conversation with her husband portrays her as somewhat pathetic. While we may be slightly persuaded to pity her or feel for her, it appears that she is desperately over emotional, “My nerves are bad tonight…Stay with me. / Speak to me.” This shows us her insecurities in that she requires someone to stay with her and keep her company. She feels she cannot be alone. We may see her to some extent as a rather self-destructive character. The way she doesn’t wait for a reply from her husband shows us that she immediately looks too deeply into things. She assumes there is a reason why her husband is not responding straight away, “Why do you never speak? Speak”.
Here, we see similar characteristics that we see in J. Alfred Prufrock. Both are neurotic, self destructive and internally frustrated. Prufrock suggests that the women that he meets at tea parties will be judging him and making fun of his looks and clothes, “They will say: ‘How his hair is growing thin!'” This may suggest that while Eliot chooses to attack the role of women in this way throughout this passage, he has the consensus that it is in fact men and women of this class that seem to share the same insecure negative qualities.
The form of this half of the poem seems to be mostly in blank verse, however, as the poem continues the line length and meter of the poem seem to get more irregular and less predictable. This mirrors the insecurity of the woman once we are introduced to her direct speech. Eliot only provides us with her side of the conversation in direct speech, which may suggest that the husband here is in connection with the narrator. The increasing irregularity creates the effect of deterioration; this might imply that the woman is losing her stability in life.
Eliot uses great hyperbolic language when describing her surroundings, creating a vivid image of this woman’s over exaggerated purchases, as said before, arguably to compensate for her inability to express what she really feels. This is accompanied with similes such as “like a burnished throne” which further adds to the woman’s expensive taste and allows us to imagine her in her rich and almost royal environment. Use of words such as “drowned” give us a real feeling of perhaps not only what the reader ought to imagine any guest in that room would feel, but debatably what this woman is also feeling as a result of her sterile, worthless life and although she finds all these items visually gratifying, in the end, they are no replacement for any form of real meaning in her life.
Throughout the second half of this passage, Eliot takes a look at the much poorer woman who, on the surface, perhaps seems a little simpler than the previous woman in the passage. Here we are given the story of a couple, Lil and Albert. The speaker tells us of how Albert is returning from the war and that she has told Lil that Albert will have wanted her to get some new teeth before he returns because she is looking too “antique, (And her only thirty-one)”. Lil exclaims that she would have bought new teeth had it not been for the pills she needed in order to induce an abortion as she nearly died from her fifth child and Albert “won’t leave her alone”.
The information in this passage may come across as shocking and deplorable to the readers, perhaps opening their eyes to what the real lower class is like. Eliot doesn’t hold back in terms of details about Lil and it makes it rather blunt. Lil’s friend seems rather unsympathetic towards her and somewhat impatient about Lil’s attitude towards getting new teeth and having an abortion. Lil’s friend thinks that there is no sympathy for Lil as she shouldn’t have got married if she didn’t want children. With the lack of pity from Lil’s friend and the shocking details, the reader may be made to feel sorry for Lil and the position she is in.
Eliot presents this woman in contrast to the woman in the first half of the passage. Here, we see that Lil is uncultured and is faced with rapid ageing, something that we assume to be no issue for the other woman, with all her money. Eliot also compares both women to specific women from literature. In the first section, there are brief references to Shakespeare’s Anthony and Cleopatra, “like a burnished throne”, in which Cleopatra ends up committing suicide. In the second half of the passage, Eliot makes references to Ophelia’s last speech in Hamlet, another female character to commit suicide. This shows that, although the two women in Eliot’s poem are both very different, perhaps they have certain aspects of despair in common. It seems that Lil has tried to do everything right by her husband, and yet she isn’t leading a very happy life.
Eliot uses colloquial dialect for this half of the poem, emphasising the distinction between the higher and lower societies. He adds a sort of refrain from the barman of “Hurry up please it’s time”, informing us of the setting for this conversation and also giving a sense of regularity about it, amongst the irregular meter and structure. The refrain gets more frequent towards the end of the section, hence the woman saying her goodbyes. There is no regular rhyme or meter used here, which creates a more realistic effect for the reader, perhaps making it appear more believable because its more like a real conversation. The repeated use of “I said” and “he said” emphasises the colloquial dialogue that is occurring throughout, reminding the reader that the characters are from the lower class.
Overall, Eliot seems to be criticising women throughout this poem for what seems to be the ever-changing influences of society. Clearly with the second woman, she is influenced to have five children even though she possibly didn’t want them and the first woman has become highly neurotic and self destructive due to her lack of expression.
These ideas about women seem to be reflected throughout other works of Eliot, especially in Portrait of a Lady. Here we see the same neurotic, frantic woman that we see in the first half of A Game of Chess. However, one difference here is that the woman in Portrait of a Lady seems to a lot more confident on the surface than the women of A Game of Chess appear to be. The relationship with her male friend, however, does appear to have the same insecurities that the first woman had, forever asking what he is thinking and acknowledges that they haven’t progressed into friends, “You hardly know when you are coming back”.
In conclusion, Eliot seems to portray women in very negative way and seems to be somewhat criticising society through the roles of these women from both higher and lower class. However, we see that, although it is only attacking women in these poems, it is perhaps a more general attack on society as a whole as oppose to just the female population. We note this throughout The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock where Eliot mocks the same insecure and self-destructive characteristics of the male population. Overall, Eliot condemns the progression of the human race into a corrupt and disintegrating society.