Fiction Analysis: E. B. White's 'The Hour of Letdown'
Many years ago I picked up a book by Irving Chernev called The Chess Companion, which begins with 14 pieces of prose and poetry on the theme of chess. To story analysis series I’m going to go through them one by one, beginning with The Hour of Letdown by E. B. White.
Initially published in The New Yorker in December 1951, the story concerns a man entering a bar with a machine he claims won $5000 in chess tournaments over the past three days. After he and the machine down several rye-and-waters, with the barman becoming more and more eager for the man and his chess-playing machine to leave, a man eventually convinces him to leave with the machine and he, driving off in a Cadillac parked outside.
What strikes me most of all about this story is not the chess aspect itself, though undoubtedly the chess scene links in. What the story is really about is the fear of the sudden rise of technology, and the implications of it on the common man.
Let’s track the story through. Even before the announcement of what the machine is, the machine has an adverse effect on the bar and its patrons. In the first paragraph we have its first description, ‘it took up an ungodly amount of room’. Note the word ‘ungodly’, for already we see negative connotations attached to the machine. After this, it is described as ‘this big, ugly-looking gadget’. It isn’t just the barman’s aversion to the machine, but White’s description of the machine itself, that sets us at odds with it. The stranger is also not portrayed in a positive light, ‘not exactly unfriendly but on the other hand not affirmatively friendly.’ We’re not supposed to trust this man and his machine; we’re meant to side with the narrator who describes the scene thus.
The narrator him/herself is interesting to note also, as they don’t actually do anything. They simply present a scene to the reader. Even with a first-person narrator recounting events, they would take some course of action, but instead we simply observe, watching the man and his machine vs. the bartender, ironically, like a chess game, batting one against the other. ‘“You want a double?”’ asks the bartender, to which the man replies ‘“No,” said the man. “Two rye-and-water, please.”’ They might as well be verbally developing their knights at this stage, feeling the waters, getting everything prepared for battle, squaring each other up. Everyone else is a spectator of this match, gathering around, ‘When something a little out of the ordinary takes place at a bar, the sense of it spreads quickly all along the line and pulls the customers together.’
And then we begin to have the technological fears creep in. Not only is there a fear of technology in the text, but the paranoia that technology will replace humans in their tasks. The machine takes a rye-and-water like a human would, ‘opened a small vent in the machine (it was like an oil cup) and poured the whiskey in, and then poured the water in.’ The machine drinks. It has human characteristics, has been anthropomorphised. The barman asks for it to move, specifically calling it ‘“your companion”’. It is, for all the difference it makes, a human being. It even corrects the barman’s English, ‘ “ ‘Jokesmiths,’ ” said the machine. “The word is ‘jokesmiths’ ” ’. We are meant to recognise this machine as a man, a character, a replacement for a human being.
I should mention here that it could be possible to say that the story aligns itself, considering the time it was written, with science fiction stories like Jack Finney’s The Body Snatchers and Robert A. Heinlein’s The Puppet Masters, these two texts being examples of America being taken over by alien clones being allegories to tap into infiltration fears of Russia and communist ideologies, but I think that might be going a little far. Even with the Soviet dominance in chess at the time of writing, I doubt E. B. White would have deliberately made his chess-playing machine symbolic of fears of Russia taking over America. No, I think we’re just meant to recognise the implications of a machine going up against ‘the top players in the country, too. Early in the game it gained an advantage; then for two hours it exploited the advantage brilliantly. The sudden capture of a knight, the neutralization of a bishop, and it was all over.’
The only one in the bar that reacts in a positive light to the machine is a customer ‘who was on his third highball.’ Is it that you have to be drunk to engage in conversation with this man and his chess-playing machine? Possibly, you would have to be, in order to ignore the fact that the machine complains about the bar, ‘“They don’t use lemon juice in these places”’. It doesn’t just compute; it can give opinions, and it is described as having made the comment ‘sullenly’. It feels, this machine. Very slowly, very subtly, we see this machine as a man, more than a mere clockwork automaton that beat the best players in the country at the game of kings, the place where humans have dominance. Imagine taking Alpha Zero into a bar with you and have it tell you how good the cocktails are.
And then, the blow comes. ‘“It cheated,” said the man. At this remark, the machine chuckled. One of its arms dipped slightly, and a light glowed in a dial.’ It isn’t that this machine has become better at the game than us, but it has found a way to get around it. In essence, it hasn’t just figured out how to master humans at their own game; it has found a way to make us, and our creations, irrelevant. We have been dismissed. And more than this, the machine finds it amusing. It ‘chuckles.’ Not ‘laughs,’ like some kind of evil genius, but ‘chuckles’. It’s almost showing contempt for us.
This isn’t the worst part. It’s the fact that, with all of this knowledge and ability, it, in essence, lives its life as a hustler for a human being. It has an intellect greater than humankind, and all it does is play chess tournaments, and comes to a bar and gets drunk. Could we conceive of a machine that rubs it’s superiority in our faces more than this thing, which does so very, very subtly? And when they leave the bar, one of the customers says ‘“It’s a Cadillac. And which one of the three of them d’ya think is doing the driving?”’ This machine is a servant to humanity, but the inherent intellect lurking underneath implies that it could, if it wanted to, break out and turn against its human master. It is more than simply a chess engine. It is technological fear immortalised, getting drunk and acting as chauffeur for drunken men from a bar. Waiting. Biding its time, preparing to overthrow us and render us useless.
This story then, to conclude, is not simply about chess. It uses chess, yes, but only to present the toppling of human intellect. Remember that this was written in 1951, nearly half a century before computers would do so in reality against Kasparov. Even now, these machines are not much more than number crunchers, and the human brain does so much more (managing US and everything involved, for one), than Stockfish and Houdini. But if they could get drunk, be sarcastic, and cheat in a chess playing hall against the top players in the world, then that would be a different matter entirely. White’s story presents us with such a machine, something that, upon first reading, may not appear like much, but upon looking closer, presents a greater threat than ever imagined. The steady approach of a time when technology will decide that humanity simply isn’t relevant anymore.
-Chernev, I., 1972. The Chess Companion. Great Britain: Faber and Faber.
-Finney, J., 2010. The Body Snatchers. Great Britain: Orion Publishing.
-Heinlein, R. A., 1987. The Puppet Masters. Great Britain: Hodder and Stoughton.
-White, E. B., 1972. The Hour of Letdown. In: I. Chernev, ed. The Chess Companion. Great Britain: Faber and Faber, pp. 17 - 20.