Critically appreciate the essay 'A Piece of Chalk' by G.K.Chesterton?

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droxonian eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ostensibly, "A Piece of Chalk" is an anecdote about a day spent sketching in the hills of southern England, where the land is, in many places, made up of chalk: the speaker frets about the lack of white chalk in his drawing kit until he realizes that the entire hill beneath him is "a piece of chalk." On one level, then, we might argue that the essay's critical statement is that if we need something enough, the earth will provide. Looking more deeply, however, we can see that the chalk represents a far more complex analogy than that.

At the beginning of the story, the author expresses a desire to draw not on white paper but on brown, the color of earth. Later, he explains the importance of white chalk to drawing in that white is "not an absence of color" any more than virtue is an absence of vice. Rather, white is "a shining and affirmative thing," "plain and positive like the sun." The author wants to introduce white to his brown paper drawings because without it, a quintessential element is lacking, in the same way that life is lacking without active virtue in it. In stating that southern England, made "entirely of white chalk," is something "even more admirable" than a civilization or a tradition, Chesterton alludes to the "salt of the earth" idiom and suggests that the people of southern England are what bring the positive virtue—the light—to life, inasmuch as the landscape provides the chalk for Chesterton's drawings.

coachingcorner eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The essay 'A Piece of Chalk' by G.K. Chesterton was typical of those writings of his which reflected on life's deeper purpose, meaning and facilitation which were brought on by the simplest of life's little daily events - in this case forgetting a white color and picking up a piece of soft rock (chalk) to write with instead. He was not the first to write like this - similar famous reflections include those by St Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (to hold all the world in 'a grain of sand.')

Chesterton was staying in the south of England and went out the chalk downs to draw. He brought all his chalks with him except the most important one - white! He had to pick up a chalky pebble from nearby to finish his work and got to thinking - that England was a piece of chalk.

Some things you might want to crtically appreciate - is that staement true or simplistic? Did he twist the concept to fit his reflections? (England has chalk cliffs in the south-east corner - it also has coal and very many igneous rocks,granite moors and headlands in the west country,slate,shale,London Beds and shale!)

Look for paradox (white can be a color - if it's used on a dark background) is that true? Did Chesterton did have our benefit of science/light technology education?

Look for other 'ordinary' things in the essay (brown paper) and comment on those in the same way.


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