The Napoleon of Notting Hill Essay - Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)

G. K. Chesterton

Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)

G. K. Chesterton was a well-known journalist and essayist when his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, appeared. He had formed firm opinions on important issues of the day, and he used the novel to attack the popular nineteenth and twentieth century notion that evolution is synonymous with material and technological progress. He sought to oppose imperialism and social theorists and, more subtly, to define creativity and the vital social role of the artist. In doing this, as Stephen R. L. Clark has shown, Chesterton established many of the ideas on which later science-fiction, utopian, and dystopian writers would base their work.

Unlike most of his contemporaries, Chesterton denied that the future was knowable. In an introduction to the novel, he directly attacked such social theorists as playwright and pamphleteer George Bernard Shaw, whose Fabian socialism anticipated a world run by bureaucrats, and novelist H. G. Wells, who envisioned a world run by scientists. Chesterton posited that change happens through evolution, not revolution; thus, at any given time, the present contains elements of the past that have not yet, and may never be, evolved away, as well as elements of the future that are struggling to be born. The future, to Chesterton, is a fertile field for fantasy; what happens rests on the wills of men, not on the ideas of theorists. In creating a novel as a vehicle for his ideas, he implicitly opposed the Utopian socialist novelists of his age, Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward, 2000-1887, 1883) and William Morris (News from Nowhere, 1890). Chesterton believed that humans prefer a world of risk and challenge to the socialists’ world of stasis and security.

In Chesterton’s 1984, the bureaucrat-controlled suburbs have evolved into a world of stultifying monotony for the common man. (No women appear in the novel.) Twice, Chesterton states that England in 1984 has not changed significantly since 1904. His contemporaries would have smiled at the changes he regarded as insignificant, but later readers, taking Chesterton’s words seriously, may conceive a skewed view of life in 1904. Supposedly unnecessary institutions that have disappeared include Parliament and the hereditary monarchy. Few police are needed, suggesting that London’s headline-making social problems have not spread to the suburbs, have evolved away, or have disappeared as a result of the passivity of the city’s inhabitants. Much technology has vanished. Chesterton’s characters generally walk or ride in horse-drawn cabs, although by 1904 automobiles had appeared on London’s streets. Warfare is waged with hand-to-hand weapons such as battle-axes and swords, not guns. London is illumined by gaslight, although in 1904 electrification was spreading. Chesterton again indicates that no one can predict the future and that, for him, people and ideas, not mere inventions, are important.

Greed, however, is not dead in Chesterton’s future, and the author associates greed with imperialism. Theorists, including Wells and Shaw, supported British imperialism. Always insistent on the rights of common people, Chesterton opposed the expansion of the British...

(The entire section is 1304 words.)