Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

By choosing to entitle this story “The Invisible Man,” G. K. Chesterton was inviting comparison with the more famous novella of the same title by H. G. Wells. In Wells’s tale, the invisible man is literally invisible, a young scientist who discovers the principle of invisibility and goes mad, using his new power to murder and to plunder the environs of London. Chesterton’s invisible man is by contrast quite ordinary—a simple postal carrier—but invisible in his own way. Chesterton’s biographer, Alzina Stone Dale, suggests that “in Chesterton’s story there is no upwardly mobile young scientist exploring the outer limits of the universe for what he can gain, but a social statement that many members of society are ’invisible,’ like his murdering postman, who ’has passions like other men.’”

It was Chesterton’s intent in his fiction to draw attention to the “invisible” elements in society—the common, ordinary items and persons of everyday life—in order to defamiliarize them. In so doing, he hoped to force the reader to notice what would otherwise be taken for granted: the real moments, relationships, and situations that make up one’s life. The selection of a common parish priest to be his detective-hero, one who outfoxes both society’s criminals and society’s authorities, illustrates this thematic concern.

Father Brown lives in a very concrete world; he takes note of the subtleties and ambiguities of human affairs in ways that the people he encounters do not; as a result, the world is vividly real to him. What may go unnoticed in the daily abstractions that others call “real life,” Father Brown regards as the foundation of human existence. This sharpened perception makes him an excellent detective but, more than that, a shrewd observer of human behavior and its ironies. Those who read the Father Brown tales to see how the crafty detective will solve the mystery receive this bonus: an invitation to recover their childhood sense of wonder and a challenge to celebrate the splendor of the ordinary in the course of everyday life.