“It’s a story about overcoming your personal demons and coming to peace with yourself.” This was how Anya Taylor-Joy, the actress of Beth Harmon in the hit Netflix series describes this story.
No matter how identical the plots and lines of a TV show are to the original novel, it can’t be a complete replica of the story. That’s why I decided to read the novel The Queen’s Gambit without watching its corresponding hit Netflix show, as tempting as that may be. The book tells a story in a 1950s orphanage, where a young girl reveals an astonishing talent for chess and begins an unlikely journey to stardom while grappling with addiction.
As a book written in 1983, there are almost no signs of outdated beliefs. Instead, the views on love, feminism and political respect seem more in harmony to me, more so than in our present society.
Through the course of the whole story, Beth engaged in continuous self-destruction, either through drugs or alcohol. She experiences success through chess since it emphasizes her talent. It was like getting a top GPA without even trying in class.
Nobody else could see the crystal clear picture of the black and white pieces and the underlying strategies. Yet the longing for success sometimes became too much for Beth to bear. That was when destruction comes with drug overdose.
In a sense, success is Beth’s redemption, and when success fails to come, she would begin to self destruct, wishing it would generate success. After losing to the Soviet chess grandmaster Borgov, Beth locked herself in her house, draining away in pools of liquor and music. This was not despair, it was unconsciousness and the loss of will to pull away from it. She needs people who love her, like Benny or Jolene, to pump fresh air into her lungs.
As individuals in the 21st Century, society naturally imposes way too much anxiety on us. When anxiety turns into self-destruction, it will be too late for change. We should probably turn to the very end of the story, when Beth invited an old man to a game in the streets of the Soviet Union.
She was also inviting herself to a new life. This was a premonition of a possibly bright future.
Nobody had been there to guide her through the journey of puberty, so Beth skipped the lesson.
The very first perceptions of sex started in the orphanage, through a curse word uttered by Jolene. This leads to the twisted presumption that sex must be mysterious and somehow dirty. As the non-changing trait in Beth’s character is her sense of rebellion, of course she decides to try the very thing deemed wrong.
When she had her first experience, she told herself “she was 17, it was about time”. This mentality made it seem as though this was a box on her checklist of rebellion that she needed to check one by one before becoming her true self. Later, when Harry Beltik trains her at her house, she said sex “came naturally” between them.
However, when she stared at Benny Watts in a pub at the tournament, she felt peculiar. She had “Never considered him sexually before”, yet all the praise she could think of was about his hair. She never thought about falling in love with Benny, yet when the feelings came, nothing could stand in its way.
She finally started to treat sex in the right way, not as a task, but as some natural expression of love.
It’s so common to confuse sex with love itself. This is persuasively shown through all those Internet articles that claimed Beth went through 4 love relationships in the book.
I think the most captivating expression of love in the book was a small thing that happened before her big game with Borgov in the Soviet Union. Imagine yourself in Beth’s position. All alone in another country, about to take on an older, intimidating world champion.
At this moment of fear and panic, the phone rings. Benny and all her friends were there to pitch in and help her analyze the game board. It was a moment of “epiphany”. She only realized what love was when Benny’s voice came over through the phone.
The depiction of the scene in the book was so vivid that, as a reader, I was overwhelmed by the immense joy of familiarity that I almost cried. Love is such a mercurial thing that you never know what special event could trigger its generation. It doesn’t have to consist of all the propaganda, but strikes when you need it the most.
Alright, here comes one thing we’ve been talking about for decades—centuries even. How are we to treat the concept of defending women's rights?
Of course, in Beth’s time, feminism was something generally ridiculed, let alone defended. Throughout the book, Beth keeps mentioning how uncomfortable she feels when tournaments underrate her for her gender. The way she treated it is much unlike our modern approach.
There was no classical rebellion, no heated disagreement. She just kept on silently winning chess games.
This is actually a really cool design. What if I’m too shy to speak out my dissatisfaction? What if society is too stubborn for me to change? Nah, I’ll just win every tournament presumably dominated by males.
If we consider our real life, we’ll see that Beth was lucky her talent allowed her to reach the top of the game. But what about the girls who lack talent? They would even be stripped of the opportunity to play chess in the first place.
Here is when another character represents feminism from another spectrum. If Beth’s life was a roller-coaster curve, her friend Jolene’s was a constant rise from the rubbles. As a young girl, Jolene was a loud, un-behaving and rude kid in the orphanage.
But these traits eventually became the determining factors of success. Jolene didn’t care what the world thought of her. She was already so low on the social ladder that every effort she could make was an improvement. Being too sensitive was a giant red flag for girls in a heavily judging society. Free from social barriers, Jolene went from a middle school P.E teacher to a law school student.
The book was written during a particularly tense period of the cold war. Namely in 1983, when the nuclear early-warning radar of the Soviet Union reported the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile. That’s probably why characters in the book are constantly straining their seemingly endless hate toward the communists.
The Christian Crusade, a religious organization offering to pay for Beth’s trip to her tournament, wouldn’t pay up unless she makes a public statement against the spread of communism, “which is also the spread of atheism”. Beth didn’t know why she refused. But she realized she had made the right choice when she stepped into the Soviet Union.
It was a totally different world than what she imagined. The enthusiastic crowd, the clear-thinking minds and the deep love for chess, even in the hardest environments, was a fresh realization for her.
Maybe what’s separating us isn’t the cruelty of some other race, but our inner perceptions of it. Many of which originated from media propaganda, if you think about it.
Also quoting from Anya Taylor-Joy, “One of the things I connected to most was that Beth was so lonely. Even though there are always people around her, she can’t reach out to them because she’s not comfortable with herself. It’s beautiful when she eventually does.
We’re stronger together than we are apart.” The Queen’s Gambit is delivering thoughts well exceeding its time. As modern humans in the 21st Century, it was time we took some hints.