More than most prose writers of his age or journalists of any age, Chesterton believed in the universal power of symbols; accordingly, his Autobiography is given coherence by a symbol: a toy theater. Often in the course of the book Chesterton describes the story of his life as a detective story; he apparently meant that scattered through the earlier parts of his life were the clues that would explain the end of his spiritual quest in Roman Catholicism. Certainly, the toy theater provides one such clue. Created for him in his childhood by his father, the toy theater becomes Chesterton’s vision of human life: Men and women play out their tiny dramas, like the pasteboard figures of his childhood, mostly unaware of the macrocosm of which they are an infinitesimal part. That macrocosm is, for Chesterton, the metaphysical as well as the physical world—and its backdrop is eternity. Chesterton first describes the toy theater in his second chapter, “The Man with the Golden Key,” in which he recalls one of its figures, a pasteboard man who held a key, wore a crown, and crossed a bridge. In his final chapter, “The God with the Golden Key,” he returns to that image, in adulthood perceiving it to be the figure of Saint Peter, who crosses the bridge and carries the key to the eternal kingdom. In another way, too, the toy theater anticipates future developments, for it introduced him to the love of light, color, and visual imagery that animates the best of his...
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