"Knight's Gambit" (Text Key 4675)

short story

The original typescript for "Knight's Gambit" dates to 1942. Faulkner sent a story of that name to his agent Harold Ober. The piece found no publisher. Half a dozen years later Faulkner decided to rewrite the tale, informing his agent, "I found what was wrong with the KNIGHT'S GAMBIT piece. It's not a short story, but a novella. I am rewriting it into a 100 plus page novella to be included in a collected volume of the Gavin Stevens detective stories." The revised novella appears as the final tale in Knight's Gambit, published by Random House in 1949. Our representation of the story is based on the Vintage International edition of the volume (2011).

Interestingly, the story's main action transpires on the three days before December 7, 1941 - the date that lives in infamy as the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The conflicts in the novella, however, are romantic and familial. It follows the chess playing lawyer (Gavin Stevens) and his nephew (Charles "Chick" Mallison) as they thwart a young man's (Max Harriss') murderous attempt to prevent a foreign suitor (Sebastian Gualdres) marrying his widowed mother (Mrs. Harriss). In the process, Stevens reveals part of his own checkered history, which concerns his errancy as a knight-errant. Twenty years earlier, right after the first World War, while he was betrothed to the woman who becomes Mrs. Harriss, Gavin had an affair with an unnamed Russian émigré in Paris. Like an attacking knight on the chessboard, he tried to cover both love interests simultaneously, but mistakenly mailed each woman a letter meant for the other woman. Both affairs broke down. In reaction to his loss, Stevens supplemented the pastime of chess with another form of structural recreation: his "rendering of the Old Testament back into the classic Greek into which it had been translated from its lost Hebrew infancy" (207). This project soon amounted to "that ritual of the Translation which the whole family referred to with a capital T" (207), a consuming habit that was, by analogy, nothing other than a meticulous and tireless recapitulation of the forked T of his European missives, the midgame that Stevens should have played with more care. Stevens learns from his mistake. He plays his endgame with skill: having prevented homicide, he packs Max off to the army, he finds Gualdres a bride in Mrs. Harriss's daughter, and he marries the widow himself. In the meantime, Chick matures into Charles, and joins the Army air corps.

One may speculate on Faulkner's self-evaluation as an artist in the novella. For, when Miss Harriss and Miss Cayley fight in Stevens's office, the chessboard gets knocked over, and Chick later finds his uncle sitting "among the scattered chessmen." Does Stevens represent the Faulkner of 1949, the writer whose modernist experiments with structure had helped to make his name, but whose later works would attempt to free his characters from structuralist delimitations?

SOURCE: Joseph Blotner, ed., Selected Letters of William Faulkner.

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Random House
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New York
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Vintage International
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New York
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How to cite this resource:
Joiner, Jennie J., Mike Wainwright and Lorie Watkins. "Faulkner's 'Knight's Gambit.'" Added to the project: 2019. Additional editing 2020, 2021: Jennie J. Joiner, Lorie Watkins. Digital Yoknapatawpha, University of Virginia, http://faulkner.iath.virginia.edu