G. K. Chesterton Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

ph_0111207070-Chesterton.jpg G. K. Chesterton. Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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, 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.”


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

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...

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