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The dark side of Scrabble

Posted by Joshua Glenn  December 27, 2007 03:56 PM

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Every day, upwards of half a million users of the trendy social networking website Facebook log into the service not merely to chat, flirt, or job-hunt, but to play Scrabulous, a software application based on Scrabble.

This has created a massive new audience for the wordy, nerdy board game that first became popular in the early 1950s. Though Scrabulous is a copy not authorized by the game's distributor, the Calcutta-based creators of Scrabulous suggested to The New York Times earlier this month that their online game's roaring success might actually help sales of Hasbro's cardboard-and-wood original. This was true in my own household: I've only been playing Scrabulous since November, yet on Christmas Day my children unwrapped a new Scrabble game.

Maybe I should have given them the Nintendo Wii they wanted, instead. Because after spending part of my holiday using Amazon's search function to comb through hundreds of North American novels and memoirs for mentions of what I'd naively imagined was a civilized little board game, I've discovered that its associations are dark, indeed. In the North American collective unconscious, a game of Scrabble symbolizes domestic malaise, at best. And at worst? Adultery, mental illness, even violence!

Although Ike and Mamie Eisenhower famously enjoyed many an innocent Scrabble match, in fiction the game is much racier. For example, when Van Veen and his cousin/lover, the titular nymphet of Nabokov's 1969 novel "Ada," can't ditch her little sister, Ada coos, "She thinks we are going to play Scrabble without her, or go through those Oriental gymnastics which, you remember, Van, you began teaching me, as you remember."

Bored of staying in and playing Scrabble with their spouses, men and women take lovers and plan divorces -- or murders -- in Mickey Spillane's "The Erection Set" (1972), James Carroll's "Prince of Peace" (1984), Tim O'Brien's "In the Lake of the Woods" (1994), and dozens of recent women's-lit offerings. Consider, too, the plight of Offred, heroine of Margaret Atwood's 1985 novel "The Handmaid's Tale," a dystopia set in a totalitarian Cambridge, Mass.; she is the slave and concubine of Commander Fred, who uses her at will for sex... and Scrabble.

atwoodscrab.jpg
Margaret Atwood judges a Scrabble tournament, 2006

From the beginning, the game has been linked in both high and pop culture not only with troubled couples but with illness both physical and mental. Think of Martha Hyer trying to convince an injured William Holden to play Scrabble in the 1954 movie "Sabrina." A year later, recounting a stay in New York Hospital's Payne Whitney Clinic, where he was treated for manic depression, the poet Robert Lowell would write that "I sat gaping through Scrabble games, unable to form the simplest word."

Likewise, when the narrator of "The Bell Jar," published in '63 by Sylvia Plath, a former student of Lowell's at Boston University, is sent to a mental hospital, she gripes bitterly about "the English teacher I had in high school who came and tried to teach me how to play Scrabble." The game is played by the mentally ill in more recent novels and memoirs, too -- including "Sybil" (1973), "Ordinary People" (1976), Rick Moody's "Garden State" (1992), and Susanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted" (1993).

If Scrabble is supposed to be therapeutic, then why are the fictional characters who play it so screwed up? We might forgive Mia Farrow, who uses a Scrabble set to figure out what's going on in the 1968 thriller "Rosemary's Baby"; after all, she had no idea that she was going to be the mother of Satan's spawn. But in Don DeLillo's "Americana" (1971), the narrator suggests that only "children of darkness" indulge in Scrabble; in Charles Bukowski's "Women" (1978), the protagonist's girlfriend threatens to kill him when he suggests they play the game; and the narrator of John Le Carré's "A Perfect Spy" (1986) claims he possesses "a spirit so wayward that, even when I am playing a game of Scrabble with my kids it can swing between the options of suicide, rape, and assassination."

rosemary2.jpg

Perhaps the intellectual demands of Scrabble are too fierce, or perhaps its colorful grid of letters is a ouija board that taps into the darkest regions of the national psyche. Either way, as far as I can tell, the game spells nothing but T-R-O-U-B-L-E.

***

To peruse the research I did before writing this essay, please click here.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
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Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

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Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.

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