Albert Pittman describes himself as "just a guy who likes Chesterton." We disagree. He is also a reader here at Mere O, which makes him unique indeed. He is proprietor of the monstrosity that is "Granny Jacks Booted Thugs," but most importantly, he is our first essayist for "Meet the Readers."
Ritual Disclaimer: the opinions and perspectives presented in this essay are the full responsibility of the author, and in no way represent the opinions or ideas of Mere Orthodoxy or its writers, where "writers" is defined by those who are currently listed on the "Contributors" page. Without further ado, then, Albert Pittman's "On a Cleric and a Couple Days: Chesterton's Beloved and Confusing Characters."
To make great characters, you have to have known great characters. Indeed, you might even have to be a great character yourself. G.K. Chesterton undoubtedly met these requirements. But beyond that, he loved his characters. Whether they were himself, or a beloved friend and mentor, or the personification of something else all together, he loved them because they were real.
The ability to create such characters is what separates many published writers from the hacks who submit manuscript after manuscript to the publishing companies. Sadly, it also separates the great Christian apologists of the first half of the 20th century from the contemporary Christian writers that we have today.
Modern Christian novels rarely have real Christian heroes. They are more akin to Nietzschean heroes than anything else. They are unfailingly good, and thus often fail the unconscious litmus test that every Christian gives to a hero: Does he exhibit original sin? Even the beloved Father Brown (of whom we will talk a great deal of later) has the implied yet somehow benign sin of gluttony above his head. You see, in order to love a character, he must be real. You can reverence an ideal. You can wish for it to exist. You can do whatever you like to the imaginary, but you cannot love it.
Part of the beauty of Chesterton is that he even loved his antagonists. I suspect that he especially loved his antagonists. He took the admonition to love his enemies to a level that most people simply do not have the courage to do. Thus, his antagonists were not villains. That would have been far too prosaic for Chesterton. His antagonists were philosophers, or more accurately, philosophies. Such characters can only come from real world counterparts. That is why, if you want to read good Christian fiction, you must look back some fifty years. Could you imagine a modern Christian author sharing a deep friendship with Dawkins in the way that G.K. and Wells shared a friendship? It just does not happen anymore, and we are the worse for it.
Sunday from “The Man Who Was Thursday” is perhaps one of the greatest antagonists ever put to paper by man. I recognized this without even seeing his origin when I first read that book. Sunday is a surreal character that seems to represent most everything that can be thought of, both good and bad. Yet somehow, the hope and terror felt about him by the other characters seems all too real. His visage haunted and perplexed me as I read the book. Then, in his autobiography, Chesterton cleared the air about just what Sunday really was. I will warn you now. If you have not read “The Man Who Was Thursday” then reading further might well ruin it for you.
“I have often been asked what I mean by the monstrous pantomime ogre who was called Sunday in that story; and some have suggested, and in one sense not untruly, that he was meant for a blasphemous version of the Creator. But the point is that the whole story is a nightmare of things, not as they are, but as they seemed to the young half-pessimist of the '90s; and the ogre who appears brutal but is also cryptically benevolent is not so much God, in the sense of religion or irreligion, but rather Nature as it appears to the pantheist, whose pantheism is struggling out of pessimism”
Of course, it all made sense at that point. Nature, to a pantheist, is everything that Sunday was. It is alternatingly kind and cruel. It is omnipresent. It is his only hope, and his ultimate destroyer.
Bearing this in mind, we find that “The Man Who Was Thursday” spans almost every story archetype. That only serves to make this surreal story real. For we each fight ourselves. We each fight others. And we each fight Nature. It was the nature of the world that Chesterton was fighting during this time in his life. That is why Sunday is such an amazing antagonist, whether we see him for what he truly was or not.
To understand G.K. at the time, one must know that he was in a sort of transformation. He admits to being a bit of a lunatic at the time, and the truth of it is that he was struggling with depression. Knowing that should shed some light on the rarely mentioned subtitle of this work: “A Nightmare.”
With this in mind, let us look at Gabriel Syme, who plays the title role of Thursday. Many people like to think of Syme as a sort of avatar for Chesterton. I like to think that Syme was a prophetic vision of what G.K. could one day be. Syme's foundation and back story are quite similar to Chesterton's, but Syme's passions more closely mirror the Chesterton who wrote “Orthodoxy”, and not the Chesterton who wrote “The Man Who Was Thursday.”
Syme was a poet, as was Chesterton. But an important distinction is that while Syme fought against pessimists, Chesterton was, at the time, fighting against pessimism. Again, I will defer to a section of his Autobiography:
“In truth, the story of what was called my Optimism was rather odd. When I had been for some time in these, the darkest depths of the contemporary pessimism, I had a strong inward impulse to revolt; to dislodge this incubus or throw off this nightmare. But as I was still thinking the thing out by myself, with little help from philosophy and no real help from religion, I invented a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory of my own. It was substantially this; that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting. Anything was magnificent as compared with nothing.”
Syme was a test run for Chesterton's optimism. Therefore, he had to withstand everything that could be thrown at him: isolation, five varied philosophers, and the monster that was Sunday. The impression exists that at any time Syme might fail against these opponents, as Chesterton's fledgling optimism might have failed him. Syme is a good hero because, to borrow a phrase from G.K., Syme is an “eatable hero.” But to our delight, both Syme and Chesterton eventually succeeded against pessimism and the pessimists.
A few years later a character came along that would mirror Chesterton's growth for the next twenty-four years. Father Brown offers more insight into Chesterton than any other of his characters. As such, he has been written about extensively, and it is impossible for me to say anything about him that has not already been said. I can only attempt to offer what I have not already heard on the subject. If you know nothing or very little of Father Brown beyond the stories, then I recommend brushing up at the American Chesterton Society's website (chesterton.org).
Father Brown is the penultimate example of what can happen when a character is based upon a truly great person. The cleric seems superhuman to those of us who rarely if ever correctly guess the outcome of the story before it ends. Yet, the word “superhuman” is full of deliciously fitting irony. For the bumbling and brilliant cleric was nothing so vulgar and cold as a superman. No, he came to life on the page as a character can only do when born out of love.
What I mean to say is that Brown is a very human character. He is human in his compassion. He is human in his ire. But most importantly, he is human in his surprises. The defining character of Father Brown, his unassuming appearance which masks incredible intelligence, can only have come from the real world. It is a thing so absurd that to conjure it from pure imagination would warrant ridicule, yet when it comes from the inside knowledge of such a person it is sheer magic.
Many people have been amused that critics found the Father Brown stories too religious after Chesterton converted to Catholicism. As Dale Alquist notes, it was “as if they had never noticed before that the main character was a priest.” For those of us who enjoy the later writings of Chesterton, this is the point where the Father Brown mysteries become truly enthralling. Chesterton had become a master at dealing with the skeptics, and now too had Father Brown.
That fact betrays one of the limitations of humans. Our contrivances can only grow as we grow, which is why I put forth the postulate that you have to be a great character in order to create one. Knowing great men will do nothing for you if you cannot understand what makes them great. As G.K. became wiser and gained experiences, so did his characters. This is only natural, but it invokes a romantic image in the mind.
When G.K. became a Catholic, it was as though some secret door had opened into Father Brown's study. When G.K. traveled to America, Father Brown went with him. Thus these two great characters, one a creation of God, the other a creation of a man, walked through life together as a blessing to many.
Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.