G. K. Chesterton

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In the Father Brown series, the detective short story came of age. The world portrayed in the stories reflects the real world. The stories are not meant merely to entertain, for example, by presenting an intriguing puzzle that is solved by a computer-like sleuth who possesses and applies a superhuman logic, à la Sherlock Holmes. Instead, Father Brown, by virtue of his role as a parish priest who has heard numerous confessions, has a better-than-average insight into the real state of human nature. Such insight allows the priest-sleuth to identify with the criminal, then to apply sheer commonsense reasoning to uncover the criminal’s identity. G. K. Chesterton is interested in exposing and exploring spiritual and moral issues, rather than merely displaying the techniques of crime and detection.

The Father Brown stories, like all Chesterton’s fictional works, are a vehicle for presenting his religious worldview to a wider audience. They popularize the serious issues with which Chesterton wrestled in such nonfictional works as Orthodoxy (1908) and The Everlasting Man (1925).

Other Literary Forms

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From 1901 until his death in 1936, G. K. Chesterton worked as a journalist in London. He was a prolific essayist and literary critic, and his 1909 book on his close friend George Bernard Shaw is still held in the highest esteem. He wrote several volumes of poetry, foremost of which was his 1911 The Ballad of the White Horse. After his conversion to Catholicism in 1922, he became a fervent but tactful apologist for his new faith. His 1925 book The Everlasting Man and his 1933 study on Saint Thomas Aquinas reveal the depth of his insights into the essential beliefs of Catholicism. His Autobiography was published posthumously in late 1936.


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Chesterton was a man of letters in the finest sense of the term. He expressed effectively and eloquently his ideas on a wide variety of literary, social, and religious topics. He was a master of paradox and always encouraged his readers to reflect on the subtle differences between appearance and reality. Reading his well-crafted short stories is a stimulating aesthetic experience because he makes readers think about the moral implications of what they are reading.

Although his critical writings on literature and religion reveal the depth of his intellect, Chesterton’s major achievement was in the field of detective fiction. Between 1911 and 1935, he published five volumes of short stories in which his amateur sleuth is a Catholic priest named Father Brown. Unlike such famous fictional detectives as Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes and Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin, Father Brown relied not on deductive reasoning but rather on intuition in order to solve perplexing crimes. Father Brown made judicious use of his theological training in order to recognize the specious reasoning of criminals and to lead them to confess their guilt. His Father Brown stories explored moral and theological topics not previously treated in detective fiction.

Other literary forms

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G. K. Chesterton was a prolific writer, and in addition to novels he produced works in numerous other genres. Throughout his life he wrote poetry; his first two published books were poetical works. He also produced short fiction, especially detective stories. In addition, he wrote plays, but he was not always comfortable in the medium of drama, as he was at heart an essayist. He published a large number of nonfiction works in such areas as autobiography, biography, essays, history, and literary criticism.


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Among the primary achievements of G. K. Chesterton’s long writing career are the wide range of subjects he wrote about, the large number of genres he employed, and the sheer volume of publications he produced. Chesterton was primarily a journalist and essayist who wrote articles, book reviews,...

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and essays for newspapers and periodicals. In addition to these pieces, however, he also wrote poetry, biographies, plays, history, and literary criticism as well as novels and short stories.

In his approach to fiction Chesterton rejected the “modern realistic short story” and the realistic novel. Instead, in the first instance, he turned to the detective short story and wrote extensively on its legitimacy as a literary art form. Chesterton himself helped to develop the definition of the detective story; he contended that it was the sole popular literary structure expressing “some sense of the poetry of modern life,” and he helped to popularize detective fiction with his fifty-one Father Brown stories and short novels.

As a novelist, Chesterton argued that “sensational novels are the most moral part of modern fiction.” He liked tales about death, secret groups, theft, adventure, and fantasy. There was no genre in his day that embraced his ideas, and so he crafted his own literary structure, the “fantastic novel.” In his novels Chesterton stressed such themes and issues as family, science versus religion, moral and political integrity, and local patriotism versus empire building. He also introduced such subthemes as the common man, nature, and womanhood. Above all, Chesterton’s novels illustrate his “love of ideas.”


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Accardo, Pasquale J., John Peterson, and Geir Hasnes, eds. Sherlock Holmes Meets Father Brown. Shelburne, Ont.: Battered Silicon Dispatch Box, 2000. Collection of criticism and related work that attempts to gain for scholars of Chesterton’s Father Brown character the same prestige and critical energy that has been enjoyed for decades by scholars of Sherlock Holmes.

Ahlquist, Dale. G. K. Chesterton: The Apostle of Common Sense. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 2003. Provides an introductory overview of Chesterton’s life and work designed for general readers, with analyses of some of Chesterton’s novels, including books in the Father Brown series. Designed to complement a television series of the same title created by Ahlquist, president of the American Chesterton Society.

Bloom, Harold, ed. G. K. Chesterton. New York: Chelsea House, 2006. Collection of essays analyzes various aspects of Chesterton’s work, including the author’s view of the grotesque and “terror and play” in his imagination. Editor’s introduction provides an overview to Chesterton’s life and work.

Boyd, Ian. The Novels of G. K. Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1975. Good study examines Chesterton’s major novels as well as his collections of short stories. Discusses the novels chronologically, with a chapter each about novels in his early years, pre-World War I, postwar, and later years.

Buechner, Frederick. Speak What We Feel (Not What We Ought to Say): Reflections on Literature and Faith. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001. Discusses Chesterton’s novel The Man Who Was Thursday.

Carol, Sister M. G. K. Chesterton: The Dynamic Classicist. Delhi, India: Motilal Banarsi Dass, 1971. Contains a chapter on Chesterton as a short story writer as well as an insightful chapter analyzing his novels.

Chesterton, G. K. The Autobiography of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2006. Contains his 1936 autobiography with an introduction by Randall Paine. Describes his identification with his character Father Brown.

“Chesterton, G. K.” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks and Maureen Corrigan. New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1998.

Clipper, Lawrence J. G. K. Chesterton. New York: Twayne, 1974. Useful introduction to the works of Chesterton does a fine job of describing the recurring themes in his fictional and nonfictional writings. Includes informative analysis also of Chesterton’s poetry and literary criticism. Contains an excellent annotated bibliography.

Coates, John D. G. K. Chesterton as Controversialist, Essayist, Novelist, and Critic. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002. Refutes Chesterton’s reputation as a minor writer, maintaining that his detective novels remain important and relevant works. Places Chesterton’s fiction within the context of modernism and the Edwardian novel of ideas.

Conlon, D. J., ed. Chesterton: A Half Century of Views. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Contains numerous short essays on Chesterton published during the first fifty years after his death. The wide diversity of positive critical reactions shows that not only his popular fiction but also his writings on literature and religion continue to fascinate readers.

Correu, Michael. Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton. New York: Paragon House, 1990. Biography of Chesterton focusing on the more controversial aspects of his personality.

Crowe, Marian E. “G. K. Chesterton and the Orthodox Romance of Pride and Prejudice.” Renascence 49 (Spring, 1997): 209-221. Argues that Chesterton used the word “romance” to refer to three different concepts: erotic love, adventure stories, and orthodox faith.

Crowther, Ian. G. K. Chesterton. Lexington, Ga.: Claridge Press, 1991.

Dale, Alzina Stone. The Outline of Sanity: A Biography of G. K. Chesterton. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1982.

Fagerberg, David W. The Size of Chesterton’s Catholicism. Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1998. Analyzes Chesterton’s apologetic works for the Catholic Church.

Hollis, Christopher. The Mind of Chesterton. Coral Gables, Fla.: University of Miami Press, 1970. Especially thoughtful study explores above all Chesterton’s evolution as a writer before his conversion to Catholicism in 1922. Final chapter, titled “Chesterton and His Survival,” explains why Chesterton’s work continues to fascinate readers who do not share his religious beliefs.

Horst, Mark. “Sin, Psychopathology and Father Brown.” The Christian Century 104 (January 21, 1987): 46-47. Compares Chesterton’s detective Father Brown to Will Graham, a character in Michael Mann’s film Manhunt. Argues that although both sleuths use introspection to pursue criminals, when Father Brown looks within himself, he sees sin, a universal reality, whereas when Will Graham looks within, he sees psychopathology, an aberration.

Kestner, Joseph A. The Edwardian Detective, 1901-1915. Brookfield, Vt.: Ashgate, 2000. Chesterton is compared to his fellow Edwardians in this tightly focused study of the British detective genre.

Lauer, Quentin. G. K. Chesterton: Philosopher Without Portfolio. New York: Fordham University Press, 1988. Thought-provoking study addresses Chesterton’s philosophical reflections on the uses and limitations of reason, Christian humanism, religious tolerance, and moral values.

Pearce, Joseph. Wisdom and Innocence: A Life of G. K. Chesterton. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatius Press, 1996. Scholarly, well-written biography examines Chesterton’s life and provides interesting analysis of many quotations from his works.

Royal, Robert. “Our Curious Contemporary, G. K. Chesterton.” The Wilson Quarterly 16 (Autumn, 1992): 92-102. Notes that although his works were once highly popular, Chesterton’s reputation has fallen since his death; argues that postmodern consciousness could give today’s readers a new and better appreciation of Chesterton, for his work anticipates such postmodern obsessions as the fragmentation of meaning and language, the dissolution of identity, and the attempt to construct a humane society.

Schwartz, Adam. “G. K. C.’s Methodical Madness: Sanity and Social Control in Chesterton.” Renascence 49 (Fall, 1996): 23-40. Part of a special issue on G. K. Chesterton. Argues that his view shifts from focus on mental condition of an individual to the way societies define sanity and make “insanity” a means of bourgeois class control.

Tadie, Andrew A., and Michael H. Macdonald, eds. Permanent Things: Toward the Recovery of a More Human Scale at the End of the Twentieth Century. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, 1995. This volume includes a fairly thorough discussion of Chesterton’s writing, along with works of T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis, looking primarily at its ethical and religious components.

Ward, Maisie. Gilbert Keith Chesterton. New York: Sheed & Ward, 1943. Well-researched biography remains the essential resource concerning Chesterton. Ward had full access to Chesterton’s manuscripts and spoke with many people who had known him personally. Reveals much about his evolution as a writer and the importance of friendship in his life.

Wills, Garry. Chesterton. New York: Doubleday, 2001. Biography is an updated edition of Wills’s Chesterton, Man and Mask (1961), with a new introduction. Wills is a Catholic intellectual and best-selling author who has written several books about religion in the United States.


Critical Essays