Alice to d4: Chess and Gender in “Through the Looking Glass”

The ways in which Lewis Carroll portrays chess in Through the Looking Glass intertwines ideas of innocence and femininity. Supposedly, proper women ought to be innocent. This innocence commonly involves having both limited knowledge of the world and limited autonomy to move about said world. For example, a young girl may require a guide to become a woman. Otherwise, the girl may get lost along the way. Someone would have to pick up the girl and move her up the ranks so she could mature and become queenly—almost like a pawn on a chess board. In chess, the horizontal rows are called “ranks,” and a pawn becomes a Queen only once it reaches the highest rank of eight. While the puzzle Carroll uses in place of a table of contents (Carroll 109) may seem ridiculous (and it is), this puzzle still intertwines notions of ‘proper’ femininity with innocence.

At this point, it is worth elaborating on the ridiculousness of Carroll’s chess. To name just a few absurdities: At one point, the White player makes nine consecutive moves, all Queens turn into sheep on the fifth rank, and moving Alice to d4 (the move played) should be considered the worst move for White. Yet, the puzzle’s nonsense both highlights which rules get followed as well as reveals a set of new rules distinct from chess. For instance, while White’s first move (Alice to d4) allows Red to check the White King (Qa6+), it prioritizes Alice’s maturity over all else. This becomes the first of the puzzle’s unspoken rules—namely that Queens, and the making of Queens, surpasses all other chess rules. The White player makes this clear in how every piece helps Alice to the eighth rank in one way or another. In fact, all the pieces (through seemingly random moves) coordinate as to always protect her with two or more defenders. The only move that definitely wins for White (Ng3+), therefore, cannot be played without removing the defender of the d4 square and breaking this pattern. 1.Ng3+, Ke5 2.Qc3+, Ke6 3.Qb3+, Ke7 4.Qg7+, Kd8 5.Qd7# may win for White, but leaves Alice undefended for three moves. While it is a chess principle to protect passed pawn, like Alice, White actually over defends her and, in doing so, risks losing the game. The person playing White infantilizes Alice by doing this, because they ignore the possibility that pawn-Alice may be safe on her own. However, it also establishes puzzle’s second unspoken rule—namely that young girls, such as Alice, must be protected at all costs.

Similar to how Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland depicts Victorian society only to distort it, Through the Looking Glass distorts chess to depict how Victorian society views femininity. In the game, Alice is made innocent. She may only move in one direction and other pieces over-protect her. Similarly, the win conditions shift from checkmating the other King to the making of Queens. In this sense, chess acts as a metaphor for maturity, in which pieces (people) are moved closer and closer in line with Queenliness. Ultimately, propriety becomes the priority.

2 thoughts on “Alice to d4: Chess and Gender in “Through the Looking Glass””

  1. This is such an interesting look into something that went straight over my head. Because I don’t understand chess, this nuanced look at its relationship with gender was much appreciated! I wonder how much these ideas showed up in other literature and art of the time. Chess’s influence over pop culture today is much less – the most recent example I can think of is Queen’s Gambit. Though I can’t make a longer comparison since I haven’t actually seen it. Like much of Caroll’s work, there are level of ironies to this, and I wonder what motivated him to include this particular puzzle.

  2. I really enjoyed this rendition of Alice In Wonderland, and how chess can play a part within. While I do not currently play chess, I have when I was younger, therefore, I understand your notions about the nuances of the motions themselves, as well as the metaphorical sense that Alice is moved throughout the story, alike to a chess piece. Specifically, I found it interesting that you compared the movement to her femininity and means to ‘Queenliness’, and I present the idea that it could also be about maturity. All in all, great post…

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