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The Remains of the Day > Zugzwang and Fiction

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message 1: by [deleted user] (last edited Jan 21, 2009 01:13AM) (new)

"Zugzwang is like getting trapped on a safety island in the middle of a highway when a thunderstorm starts. You don't want to move, but you have to."
- Arthur Bisguier

Zugzwang is a chess term for a situation in which a player is 1. forced to make a move, and 2. all possible moves create a disadvantage for the player.

In chess, a zugzwang at best will lead to a very difficult game going forward, and at worst will lead to a loss. But in fiction, where the consequences can be fully explored, a zugzwang is a win-win for the reader because it helps develops the character AND pushes the plot further along. It's an existential crisis; the kierkegaardian either/or dilemma in which one's leap of faith almost never leads to feeling better about one's self. It's effective in fiction because everything that is at stake is laid out on the table, and the character is forced to make a choice according to that which he/she feels is least damaging to their situation.

In the last two books we've read, I've come across two really good examples of zugzwang.

There is a great example of Zugzwang in the early pages of Remains of the Day. Trying to build up courage to ask Mr. Farraday an important question, Steven goes off on a funny tangent about Mr. Farraday's bantering.

"It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm... For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate."

The zugzwang reveals several important things:

1. CLASS: The butler is required by his societal role to respond as his employer wishes.

2. CULTURE: His employer, Mr. Farraday, speaks in a manner unfamiliar to the butler's training but prompting a response from the butler. For the butler not to respond would leave his employer unsatisfied. For the butler to respond incorrectly would make things awkward. The conflict is provided by the difference between Farraday's American culture and the butler's background as an English butler.

3. CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: No matter what he does, the butler loses. The fact that the butler attempts to play along with Farraday reveals that his commitment to his employer transcends his own personal discomfort.

In Fortress of Solitude, the zugzwang situation arises during the yokings and threats.

"A yoking was a koan-- it could perplex forever and never be solved. What it had to teach couldn't be named."

"As in a yoking, there were rules to follow, an art of encounters. Threat had a rhetoric. Ramon might have a mouthful of his own blood, but Dose had surrendered the rudder of the moment. A man didn't just hit another man unless he could go all the way and kill him, and this was not the place Dose had staked out for himself."

Late in the book, Dylan chooses to wear thick horn rimmed glasses on the bus which makes him a prime target for a yoking. At stake here is Dylan's pride. No matter what he does, it gets sacrificed. He cannot respond violently to the yoking without either undergoing ridicule from the black kid, or flat out disrespecting the lifestyle of kids of the street. Nor can he just sit there and take the yoking without losing respect from his date. But no matter what he chooses to do, he is going to be embarrassed. His character is revealed when he submits to the yoking to avoid trouble and moves to the front of the bus where he figures he might be safe. Furthermore, Dylan's retroactive decision to stop wearing the horn rimmed glasses sacrifices his aesthetic preferences (and culture, really) for his safety to the streets.

On the opposite end, an example of what would happen if Dylan had responded to the yoking, we have Mingus who gets approached by a rival prisonmate when he starts cornering the market on jail art. At stake here is Mingus' personal safety, and he is faced with two losing choices: 1. fight or 2. get the shit kicked out of him. His answer, a strikingly different answer than Dylan would have offered, was to respond with violence (which leads to a very awkward relationship with another prison mate).

What's important to note with the zugzwang in Fortress of Solitude is that it is used to provide development for two different characters. The choices Mingus and Dylan make to the same zugzwang work to highlight the cultural and personal disparities between the two characters.

anyway, that's my messy critical post for the day. i haven't read it yet, but my english professor told me that Michael Chabon's Yiddish Policemen's Union is ALL ABOUT ZUGZWANG.

Which is cool. blah.

message 2: by Alethea (new)

Alethea A (frootjoos) | 19 comments And good blah blah to you, too.

Great analysis, Dale. And not messy at all. You'll be a great English prof.

message 3: by Alethea (new)

Alethea A (frootjoos) | 19 comments A book just came out entitled...

Zugzwang A Novel by Ronan Bennett

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