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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1646

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...

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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 fiction, from the stunning final scenes of The Man Who Was Thursday, with its elephant-and-balloon escape and its pageant of the seven days of Creation, to the colorful paragraphs, full of candy-store and bakery delights, that introduce “The Invisible Man,” a Father Brown story in which the imagery is so intense and effective as to cause the reader to lose sight of—or not to care about—the basic implausibilities of the story.

It is not surprising that Chesterton so emphasized childhood. For him, the biblical adage “Except ye be converted and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 18:3) was a literal truth. Childhood as Chesterton describes it is not a dream state from which the adult wakes. On the contrary, it is the child who is wide awake and who sees clearly; it is the adult who goes astray, in part as a result of education. The child knows, as the adult does not, that the world is full of miracles, and he knows the difference between reality and art, understanding that art is essential for full emotional growth. Adults, Chesterton writes, think that violence in fairy tales breeds violence in behavior, but children are wiser than that; they know the difference. Children know, too, that they need a small world, one clearly defined by limits; that, Chesterton explains, is why children delight in the miniature universes of Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883). Children will invent games and superstitions that create boundaries (such as not stepping on cracks) if their world is not limited enough. Moreover, children understand the need for moral law and are not offended by moral tales. Every child also understands the need for authority and for acceptance of hearsay evidence, for the child trustingly accepts adult rule and his family’s version of its history. No child can know his ancestors for himself. (“Hearsay Evidence” is, in fact, the title of Chesterton’s opening paragraph, in which he describes his family background.) Chesterton knew these truths in childhood. In 1926, when he became a Catholic, he reacknowledged them in his willingness to accept the Church’s version of history, its disciplines and limitations and morality, and its world of miracles.

In the intervening years, however, he turned away from these truths to his discomfort. As an art student and young journalist, he plunged into what he regarded as the mental and moral morass of advanced thought in his day. His intellectual adventures, he writes, brought him to the edge of madness, as he came in contact with the spiritualism, relativism, nihilism, pessimism, and subjectivism of the 1890’s. Even Impressionism in art seemed to him dangerous, for it leads to the belief that things exist only as man perceives them, and this notion leads in turn to the belief that things really do not exist at all. The consequence was “a certain mood of unreality and sterile isolation that settled at this time upon me; and I think upon many others.” He perceived spiritualism, in which he dabbled, as possibly partaking of the truly diabolic.

Fortunately, he gradually evolved a theory that protected him from the intellectual chaos of his time and was another clue to his final spiritual resolution. Life, he decided, may indeed be an illusion. If so, however, the illusion is of the quality of dream, not nightmare; under any conditions, it is better to be alive than to be dead, since “even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting.” Man’s chief duty, he determined, is to experience awe and amazement at this world of wonders and of plenitude. In the development of his ideas, Chesterton acknowledged debts to Walt Whitman, Robert Browning, and Robert Louis Stevenson; he recognized also that he had “wandered to a position not very far from the phrase of my Puritan grandfather, when he said that he would thank God for his creation if he were a lost soul.” Yet he saw, too, that there was something original in the way in which he had muddled out of his spiritual dilemma, and it was this personal vision that he expressed in his most famous novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, which was, in fact, written to help him formulate his beliefs. That novel, he writes, is the story of existence as it seemed to a young man of the 1890’s who was gradually coming to see that the world was not as bad as it was supposed. At the time of writing, Chesterton did not intend the novel to be given the principally religious interpretation which it obviously yields, but that it is open to such an interpretation is another clue in the detective story that was Chesterton’s life, for the novel foreshadows his later religious conversion.

Still another dimension of his thought was developed as he confronted modernism in the form of commercialism. One major turning point was the Boer War. Before that war, Chesterton had vaguely aligned himself with socialism, for it seemed to him that the only alternative to socialism was the oppression of the workers, and with imperialism, for the alternative to that appeared to be pacifism, which he despised. Yet, when the war broke out, Chesterton found himself squarely on the side of the Boers, although the world around him was busily celebrating imperialism and vowing to defeat the Boers. In his wanderings as a journalist and a Liberal Party electioneer, Chesterton had come to love the towns, cities, suburbs, and countrysides of England, to revere them as sacred places, and to understand that his only loyalties could be to tangible things and visible places and people, not to vast, abstract ideas such as imperialism or socialism. He understood, then, the Boers’ desire to protect their farms and countryside. From these ideas and from Chesterton’s veneration for the traditions of a simpler England emerged what he himself termed his “medievalism,” a word that itself is an additional clue to his later Catholicism. These ideas, too, underlie The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Flying Inn, the latter with its famous poetic tribute to traditional English drunkenness in “The Rolling English Road.”

Chesterton was further influenced in this direction by figures such as Hilaire Belloc and radical clergyman Conrad Noel, and by events as well as people. Important among the latter was the Marconi Scandal with its personal repercussions. In a more general sense, his experiences as a journalist at a time when an increasingly commercialized and depersonalized press had begun, seemingly, to pander to the lowest tastes of a democratic readership were also influential in turning him away from political processes, especially democratic processes. Chapters entitled “Some Political Celebrities,” “Some Literary Celebrities,” and “Portrait of a Friend,” while in part digressive, paint a picture of a small group of comrades gallantly attempting to hold their own against the growing powers of political and commercial darkness, and the stage is set for the final chapter and entrance of Father John O’Connor and Chesterton’s conversion. Just as Father Brown draws the threads of plot together and reveals the meaning of events in the stories in which he appears, so does Father O’Connor serve as a priest/detective, providing the revelation that gives meaning to the events of Chesterton’s life.

Little critical attention has been given to the literary style of Autobiography; indeed, the works cited below, like the biographies listed above, make use of this work rather than examine it. In its rambling quality, especially in the central chapters, and in the unevenness of the writing, Autobiography does not lend itself to conventional literary analysis. Much of it gives the impression of having been written in some haste and with varying degrees of editorial control; it was published posthumously. Chesterton sometimes seems to lose control of the formal rhetorical devices (for example, parallelism, antithesis, and alliteration) that he used to great effect in other works; here, especially in the middle chapters, they seem inexorably piled upon one another, until the effect is cloying. Still, at its best, the work is written in clear, clean journalistic style and the direct and honest tone that mark Chesterton’s finest work—and Chesterton at his best is a very fine writer indeed.

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