G. K. Chesterton

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Student Question

What is the significance of white chalk in Chesterton's "A Piece of Chalk"?

Quick answer:

In Chesterton's essay "A Piece of Chalk," the importance of a piece of white chalk is that white is not just the absence of color but an "affirmative" color, just as virtue is not just the absence of sin but a positive good in the world.

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In this essay, the narrator decides he wants to go sit on a hill and draw in chalk on brown paper. He gets to his destination, and though he has brought many pieces of colored chalk, he forgot the white chalk, which is especially important for drawing on brown paper.

Not having white chalk causes the narrator to think about the color white and its significance. He says it is important because

it is not a mere absence of colour; it is a shining and affirmative thing.

He says it is the color you use to draw stars. Thinking about the white chalk is also important because it causes the speaker to consider religion. He compares Christian virtue to the color white, saying that virtue is not just avoiding sin. It is a positive good in and of itself that shines out into the world:

Virtue is not the absence of vices or the avoidance of moral dangers; virtue is a vivid and separate thing, like pain or a particular smell.

The speaker says, for example, that mercy is not just the absence of cruelty but a positive good, a way of acting in the world, like the sun shining on the earth. Mercy, by implication, is something that we may not deserve but which benefits us.

This leads the speaker to ruminate that

God paints in many colours; but he never paints so gorgeously, I had almost said so gaudily, as when He paints in white.

The narrator, after despairing over his lack of white chalk, realizes he is sitting on chalk cliffs and has white chalk all around him, so he breaks off a piece.

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