The Symbolism in a Game of Chance

“And when I know perfectly well that you can never win!” she said angrily. 

These are the words spoken by Francoise in Simone de Beavouir’s ‘She Came to Stay’, after Francoise acts on a fleeting moment of faith and tries to outwit a street trickster at a Parisian flea market. Noticing the trickster was intentionally letting players win at the three card trick to drive their confidence and encourage higher bets, she tosses him two-hundred francs of her own - then loses. It was never a game in her favour, and Francoise (who in the semi-autobiographical debut represents Beauvoir herself) knew that all too well. Francoise is ferociously intellectual, and not prone to impulsive or irresponsible behaviour, which makes Gerbert, her accompanying friend, all the more surprised to see her act out of character. 

Why had Francoise gambled on a risky game? Why had Simone de Beavuoir included that particular scene of recklessness, followed by the frustration and humiliation one always feels through a lost bet? Francoise, of course, was never only gambling with two-hundred francs alone. At that point in the novel, she’s gambling her entire relationship with the philosophical Pierre (a thinly veiled Jean-Paul Satre, Beavouir’s real life partner), and with her very happiness.

‘She Came to Stay’ was first published in 1943 and is Beavouir’s debut novel. Considering both of these facts allows one to more fully appreciate its risque themes; set in pre-war Paris, the novel details bisexuality, transvestism, existentialism, open relationships and suicide. Beauvoir was never one to shy from the shocking, and indeed the very concept of ‘She Came to Stay’ is absurd; this is a novel literally dedicated to the woman almost came between Beavuoir and Satre (the otherwise inseparable power couple). It is Francoise who first falls for Xavier, the young and beautiful farm girl, based upon the real life mistress Beauvoir shared with Satre.

Francoise enjoys a practically perfect life. She’s intellectually fulfilled, in love with Pierre, surrounded by art and culture and friendship - and yet ironically unsatisfied with the steady, predictable nature of her happiness. After befriending Xavier, Francoise convinces her to move to Paris and create a more glamorous, artistic life for herself in the theatre world. Francoise, Pierre and Xavier form a ménage à trois, as Pierre similarly becomes enchanted with Xavier’s child-like, stubborn and fiery ways. 

The three of them enjoy delightful times - coffees at the Le Dôme Café, dancing at Spanish bars - but the happy harmony between Francoise and Pierre is soon disturbed, as Xavier finds an increasing number of ways to manipulate them. And when Xavier unveils the cracks in their relationship, it becomes apparent to Francoise that her and Pierre’s love might not withstand the challenges of a three-person relationship quite as well as she had imagined. Despite the risks that grow more clear by the day, the three of them continue their tumultuous affair. 

The seemingly insignificant moment Francoise loses against the card trickster stuck with me in part because it provided an exception to Beavouir’s usual bank of literary devices. Concerned with existentialist questions, Behaviour favoured a literal, academic tone over the use of symbolism to convey subtexts. And yet that clever little scene shows Beauviour using a game of chance to signal Francoise’s transgression. Francoise imbues a level-headed approach to life which in part defines her, yet not even she is immune to the irrational ways of passion. Out of curiosity, boredom or desperation, she decides to take a risk - both at the Parisian flea market, and with the destructive Xavier. In both instances she’s playing games in which she deludes herself she has an upper hand, and in both instances she’ll have to pay a hefty price. There was never any certainty that Francoise would come out a winner, and that’s as obvious to us readers as it eventually becomes to Francoise herself.

Anna Karenina - Tolstoy

The flea market scene in ‘She Came to Stay’ is far from the first time a game of luck and chance is employed as symbolism in a great work of literature. The devastatingly dramatic horse racing scene in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina provides a similar purpose; that of foreshadowing Vronsky’s fate. Though one of the most talented riders in St Petersburg, the distressing news Vronsky receives before the race (Anna Karenina is pregnant, but does not wish to leave her husband for Vronksy) clouds his ability to focus. After a nasty fall, Vronsky’s horse breaks his back and dies, and Vronsky is left enraged - his pride hurt, his backers stunned, the beautiful horse dead. Just like in ‘She Came to Stay’, a betting game is shown to represent the risk in infidelity. The race damages Vronsky’s reputation as a bright and promising young man of high society (everyone  who bet on him lost), while the tragic death of his pricey horse mirrors how Anna Karenina will lose her own life as a result of the dangerous game in which she and Vronsky choose to partake - that of an affair.

The Gambler - Dostoevsky

Tolstoy is one of several great Russian authors who realized the subtle yet strong symbolism that can be achieved through gambling. Betting is the central theme of Dostoevsky’s 1866 widely adapted short story ‘The Gambler’, in which a down-on-his-luck and penniless private tutor Alexei Ivanovich narrates his tragic tale. Ivanovich, who is in love with the niece of the Genera’s household for whom he tutors, gambles at first for love and then for survival - but on more than just the roulette tables.

Throughout the story, Ivanovich foolishly depends on inheriting future fortunes, takes risks to impress niece Polina, lends money he can’t afford to lose, and borrows money he can’t afford to pay back. What makes ‘The Gambler’ especially fascinating is how the subject matter is one with which Dostoevsky was deeply familiar. A gambling addict himself, Doetavsky had entered a deal to complete the story within a short time frame as a means of paying off gambling debts, or else F. T. Stellovsky (with whom he entered the contract) would acquire sole publishing rights and revenue of all his works over the next nine years. With the help of young stenographer and soon-to-be-wife Anna Grigerovna, Dostoevsky completed the story before the deadline and paid off his gambling loans. No doubt the author’s desperation and distress can be felt between the lines of the very story he wrote to absolve himself of debt.

Great Expectations - Dickens

Games of chance have represented more than risks, desperation and passion - the use of gambling as a symbol of fiction has always been multi-layered complex. In Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’, card games are used to represent class. Hands played reflect the character’s circumstances, and offer clues to their fate. Card games such as Solitaire also transcend class in the novel, played by both beggars and members of the elite. Dickens uses the theme of card games, bets, winners and losers as recurring motifs throughout the novel to convey ideas of wealth and class being the subject of good luck, of unfairness, and of faith in a brighter future.

Oscar and Lucinda - Carey

Meanwhile, in Peter Carey’s multi award-winning ‘Oscar and Lucinda’, gambling represents the vices of good people. A single poker game signifies the romantic uncertainty between Oscar and Lucinda, who meet by chance and connect through a mutual love for gambling. Peter Carey laces the novel with clever allusions to the history of poker which helps enrich the story’s historical character. Long before today’s online poker rooms reinvented the game, poker was played on Mississippi riverboats - and it is on a boat that Oscar and Lucinda develop feelings for each other over a game loaded with tension. Religion, similarly, plays a central theme in the novel - as Oscar is tasked with transporting a glass church and is shown to believe in God. Upon first meeting Lucinda, he contends that gambling is not a sin - and yet his sad fate suggests otherwise, or perhaps alludes to the fact that his gambling addiction was only ever symbolic of an underlying, far more fatal flaw.

From Nabakov to Atwood to Donoghue, games are cleverly incorporated into great tales to signify life and death, sexual tension, escapism and many more complex themes - and gambling games in particular have played a special symbolic role in literature. The next time you find characters dealing cards or entering a casino in the works of a talented storyteller, consider what exactly is being suggested, represented or - as is often the case with the theme of gambling - tragically foreshadowed.

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