(This is part of my series entitled Who is G. K. Chesterton, which started here.)
The past few posts about Chesterton looked in depth at his worldview on issues including religion, politics, economics, and so forth. I supplemented the summaries with liberal helpings of quotes from the man himself. Most of the quotes I picked came from his non-fiction, either his books or his essays. However, I could have written a summary of Chesterton’s thought using only his fiction, because his thought shaped his fiction every bit as much as his non-fiction. That is not to imply that his fiction is didactic. His literature is not sermons; at most, he’ll have a character off a one- or two-sentence summary of any point he wanted to make. His literature is literature, shaped around the needs of good story-telling. But at the same time, the themes that he wanted to make clear were woven directly into the very structure of the piece.
In considering Chesterton’s fiction, we risk being buried by the numbers. While the situation isn’t as bad as the scores of books and thousands of essays that make up his non-fiction, we still have to deal with seven novels, one full-length play and several short ones, and over a hundred short stories. (And that doesn’t even include the poetry, which we’ll look at separately.) Nonetheless, common threads run through all of Chesterton’s fiction and make it easy to identify a piece as his. I have personal habit of looking at fiction through four different angles: character, plot, theme, and language, and will proceed in that way.
Chesterton used stereotypes throughout his fiction often and shamelessly. Germans are always grim a militaristic, Italians are dashing and romantic, Irish will be poor and hard-drinking but full of wisdom. It wasn’t just national stereotypes either. Bankers are always greedy, lawyers sleazy, innkeepers boisterous, and so on. But while he built nearly every character from these easily recognizable blocks, he did not necessarily make them simplistic. While Chesterton’s characters may not have deep psychological issues to tackle or childhood traumas to wrestle with, they are three-dimensional characters who you might actually meet on the street. Chesterton’s literary skill brings them off the page.
It is in some sense easier to describe what Chesterton doesn’t do with his characters. He doesn’t use dialects and he doesn’t use bad grammar to make them sound ‘authentic’. Every character speaks in perfect English, even the foreigners. Yet the characters do not sound alike. The precise choice of words, arrangement of sentences, and style carefully distinguishes the characters from each other, as in this passage:
“I’m sorry to interrupt you, sir,” she said, “but I had to follow Father Brown at once; it’s nothing less than life or death.”
Father Brown began to get to his feet in some disorder. “Why, what has happened, Maggie?” he said.
“James has been murdered, for all I can make out,” answered the girl, still breathing hard from her rush. “That man Glass has been with him again; I heard them talking through the door quite plain. Two separate voices: for James speaks low, with a burr, and the other voice was high and quavery.”
“That man Glass?” repeated the priest in some perplexity.
“I know his name is Glass,” answered the girl, in great impatience. “I heard it through the door. They were quarrelling–about money, I think–for I heard James say again and again, `That’s right, Mr Glass,’ or `No, Mr Glass,’ and then, `Two or three, Mr Glass.’ But we’re talking too much; you must come at once, and there may be time yet.”
“But time for what?” asked Dr Hood, who had been studying the young lady with marked interest. “What is there about Mr Glass and his money troubles that should impel such urgency?”
“I tried to break down the door and couldn’t,” answered the girl shortly, “Then I ran to the back-yard, and managed to climb on to the window-sill that looks into the room. It was an dim, and seemed to be empty, but I swear I saw James lying huddled up in a corner, as if he were drugged or strangled.”
Here Chesterton draws up obvious differences between Maggie, Father Brown, and Dr. Hood. Maggie is plain and clear, with simple language. Father Brown uses as few words as possible to cut to the heart of the matter. Dr. Hood is a bit stuck-up and self-important. (This segment, by the way, comes from The Absence of Mr. Glass, one of Chesterton’s best mystery stories.) The best way to describe Chesterton’s characters is to say that they fulfill the demands of who they are. Each character ahs a worldview and a personality, and each talks, acts, and reacts in the right way based on that worldview and personality. They never step out of character, and the story plays out based upon their actions.
Chesterton is best known for writing detective fiction. In fact he literally wrote the book on detective fiction, in an essay entitled How to Write a Detective Story,where he laid down guidelines that are still in use today for the most part. First of all, the story begins with a crime or puzzles that needs to be solved and ends when it is solved. The resolution must be logically consistent with the information presented in the story, and should not be a cheap rip-off. The author should not suddenly introduce a major element at the very end to slip around the difficulties that he’s created for himself. Lastly, quickness is good; too many delays lessen the suspense.
The Bulgarian governess is just about to mention her real reason for concealing herself with a loaded rifle inside the grand piano, when a yellow Chinamall leaps through the window and cuts off her head with a yataghan; and this trivial interruption is allowed to defer the elucidation of the whole story. Now, it is quite a simple matter to fill several volumes with adventures of this thrilling kind, without permitting the reader to advance a step in the direction of discovery.
Every single one of Chesterton’s mysteries follows these guidelines, and consequently they are great stories. Yet Chesterton also wrote plenty of novels and stories that aren’t mysteries. The Flying Inn is a rollicking comic epic. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is arguably a ground-breaking science fiction novel. The Man who was Thursday could fit into nearly any genre you’d care to name. Yet all of them in a sense follow the same guidelines that Chesterton used for mysteries. They have a large cast of colorful characters, a strong plot, logical coherence, and a whiz-bang ending.
Chesterton was an avid writer and also an avid reader. He consumed books by dozens and scores and was well aware of what others were writing at the time. One accusation against his fiction is that it’s too pat. Everything works out just right for the mystery to take place, without any of the details and complications that intervene in real life. Chesterton’s mysteries are what we often call “cozy mysteries”. He was certainly well aware of the problem, but just didn’t view it as a problem. He saw his fiction as fiction and the purpose was to give the reader a decent entertainment. In fact, he often toyed around with expectations and made direct reference to cliches, as at the start of The Arrow of Heaven.
It is to be feared that about a hundred detective stories have begun with the discovery that an American millionaire has been murdered; an event which is, for some reason, treated as a sort of calamity. This story, I am happy to say, has to begin with a murdered millionaire; in one sense, indeed, it has to begin with three murdered millionaires, which some may regard as an embarras de richesse.
As far as theme is concerned, there’s very little to say. When you read a Chesterton story you get the theme. It’s right there and impossible to miss even though, as I said, it’s not presented in lecture form. When we learn the fate of the murdered capitalists in The Ghost of Gideon Wise, we also learn something about capitalism. When we see the reaction of the newspaper editor in The Purple Wig, we get a lesson about how newspapers work in the bargain.
That leaves us only with the category of language. Here I begin with a quote that is, for once, not from Chesterton.
“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” – Mark Twain
When it came to picking the right word and using those words to build the right phrase, the right sentence, and the right paragraph, Chesterton was simply a grandmaster among grandmasters. In the area of linguistic skill, he has no equal in twentieth century English literature. I could try providing quotes to prove the point, but just about any passage from any his books will demonstrate it.