Critical Evaluation (Masterplots)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1304

G. K. Chesterton was a well-known journalist and essayist when his first novel, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, appeared. He had formed firm opinions on important issues of the day, and he used the novel to attack the popular nineteenth and twentieth century notion that evolution is synonymous with material and technological progress. He sought to oppose imperialism and social theorists and, more subtly, to define creativity and the vital social role of the artist. In doing this, as Stephen R. L. Clark has shown, Chesterton established many of the ideas on which later science-fiction, utopian, and dystopian writers would base their work.

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Unlike most of his contemporaries, Chesterton denied that the future was knowable. In an introduction to the novel, he directly attacked such social theorists as playwright and pamphleteer George Bernard Shaw, whose Fabian socialism anticipated a world run by bureaucrats, and novelist H. G. Wells, who envisioned a world run by scientists. Chesterton posited that change happens through evolution, not revolution; thus, at any given time, the present contains elements of the past that have not yet, and may never be, evolved away, as well as elements of the future that are struggling to be born. The future, to Chesterton, is a fertile field for fantasy; what happens rests on the wills of men, not on the ideas of theorists. In creating a novel as a vehicle for his ideas, he implicitly opposed the Utopian socialist novelists of his age, Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward, 2000-1887, 1883) and William Morris (News from Nowhere, 1890). Chesterton believed that humans prefer a world of risk and challenge to the socialists’ world of stasis and security.

In Chesterton’s 1984, the bureaucrat-controlled suburbs have evolved into a world of stultifying monotony for the common man. (No women appear in the novel.) Twice, Chesterton states that England in 1984 has not changed significantly since 1904. His contemporaries would have smiled at the changes he regarded as insignificant, but later readers, taking Chesterton’s words seriously, may conceive a skewed view of life in 1904. Supposedly unnecessary institutions that have disappeared include Parliament and the hereditary monarchy. Few police are needed, suggesting that London’s headline-making social problems have not spread to the suburbs, have evolved away, or have disappeared as a result of the passivity of the city’s inhabitants. Much technology has vanished. Chesterton’s characters generally walk or ride in horse-drawn cabs, although by 1904 automobiles had appeared on London’s streets. Warfare is waged with hand-to-hand weapons such as battle-axes and swords, not guns. London is illumined by gaslight, although in 1904 electrification was spreading. Chesterton again indicates that no one can predict the future and that, for him, people and ideas, not mere inventions, are important.

Greed, however, is not dead in Chesterton’s future, and the author associates greed with imperialism. Theorists, including Wells and Shaw, supported British imperialism. Always insistent on the rights of common people, Chesterton opposed the expansion of the British or any other empire: It was his opposition to the recently ended Boer War (1899-1902) that inspired him to write the novel. The road that provosts propose to drive through Notting Hill resembles the railroad that earlier imperialist Cecil Rhodes proposed to drive through African territory populated by Boers (Dutch settlers and their descendants) as an excuse to acquire Boer land. Imperialism, Chesterton argues in this novel, is a false and immoral cause. When Notting Hill is victim, it outwits its oppressors. When it becomes imperialistic, it fails, as it should. Again, in this novel, people and their traditions remain of primary importance, as does the need for joy and beauty.

The novel’s two principal characters are Auberon Quin and Adam Wayne. Not all of Chesterton’s characters have significant names, but the name “Auberon” is evocative of the magical fairy king Oberon from William Shakespeare’s comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream (pr. c. 1595-1596, pb. 1600), and, in fact, Auberon is described as the godson of a fairy king. Quin’s last name suggests Harlequin, a mischievous British pantomime character derived from the Italian commedia dell’arte character Arlecchino. Adam is the biblical figure in the Garden of Eden; Wayne may derive from “wain” (vehicle) or “way.”

Both men are artists and published poets. Wayne’s Hymns on the Hill celebrates the beauty of London and is unsuccessful; it has substance, but not style. Quin’s own elaborately styled verses about London are published under the pen name Daisy Daydream; Quin has style, but not substance. As he reinvents medievalism, Quin finds pleasure in designing uniforms, coats-of-arms, and official colors, but Wayne alone is comfortable in these. Under Wayne’s government, merchants’ shops and attire take on great beauty. Chesterton’s contemporaries immediately identified Quin’s physical appearance with that of essayist and caricaturist Max Beerbohm, but Quin actually is associated with the entire turn-of-the-century aesthetic, or decadent art movement, which, to Chesterton, entailed a self-centered, often hedonistic, boredom and pessimism. Quin himself is bored and must learn that, contrary to aesthetic creeds, art is neither superior to life nor detached from it.

In stirring Londoners, Quin stirs himself. Excited by battle, he becomes a newspaperman criticizing the king (himself) and a colonel in a regiment he has created, the First Decadents Green. As Wayne’s passion makes Quin’s pseudo-medievalism real, Quin’s revival of medievalism points to another kind of decadence. Chesterton, much influenced by the chivalric romances of Sir Walter Scott, considered the concepts of chivalry and honor to be highly important, but, by his day, chivalry had decayed into an excuse for lavish aristocratic entertainments, a sentimental subject for poets and painters, or a romantic justification of imperialism. Chivalry reassumes its original power when Wayne fanatically defends Notting Hill. Wayne’s passion, in turn, has the power to inspire others, turning Turnbull into a brilliant military strategist and Pump Street store windows into works of beauty. Even the idler Lambert dies as a military hero.

Wayne is opposed primarily by Barker and Buck, both of whom are limited by their rigidly constructed theories. They repeatedly illustrate Chesterton’s point that men do what they want, not what theorists plan. Barker assumes that routinely appointed monarchs will simply sign papers given to them by bureaucrats; he is frustrated and angry, but helpless, when Quin chooses how to use the absolute power that has been given to him. Ten years later, Barker and Buck are again frustrated when Quin refuses either to confiscate Notting Hill property or to institutionalize Wayne. Wayne and Turnbull, imaginative men, repeatedly outwit Barker and Buck in battle, despite Barker and Buck’s absolute conviction that victory invariably lies in numbers. Buck insists on fighting at night under the gaslights, not anticipating that someone might turn off the gas. Stubbornly, Buck and Barker respond to their opponents’ superior tactics simply by amassing a greater force, which is again outwitted by Wayne’s capture of the water tower.

Twenty years later, however, Notting Hill takes up a morally wrong, imperialistic, cause, intent on conquest, and it is defeated. As the now-mature Wayne tells Quin, however, he and Quin are unconquered but must accept the need for each other’s strength. When Wayne describes them as two parts of the same brain, he is saying that his own linear, dedicated thought must be balanced by Quin’s humor and joyousness. Both halves are necessary to an artist. Artists, in turn, are necessary for the world. Common people know the need for love and laughter, although arid intellectuals and theorists may not understand this need. In so saying, Chesterton is defining his own role as creator, and, as he suggests in such later works as The Victorian Age in Literature (1913), he is defining the qualities vital to true creativity. Thus, Wayne and Quin must go off into the world together.

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Critical Evaluation (Masterplots: Revised Category Edition)