The Social Role of Understanding in G. K. Chesterton's Detective Fiction
G. K. Chesterton had clear social ideas that closely reflect his views on the processes of interpretation and apprehension. This thesis can fruitfully be explored by an analysis of his detective fiction. As exegetes, his protagonists employ methods of investigation that diverge widely from the scientific approaches taken by detectives such as Sherlock Holmes. Illustrating Chesterton's antipositivistic social philosophy, this methodical clash also demonstrates the social harm scientific methods can cause and the social need of alternative hermeneutical approaches.
G. K. Chesterton's fictional detectives stand in stark methodical contrast to scientific detectives such as Sherlock Holmes. While the scientific detective focuses on external reality, seeking to reconstruct the crime, Chesterton's detectives—and Father Brown in particular—are preoccupied with inner perceptions, devoting their energy to understanding other minds. While Holmes may be seen as a positivist driven by the physical sciences, Chesterton's detectives are exegetes, perceiving human beings as a unique species demanding a distinctive approach. They thus reflect Chesterton's view that the modes employed to decipher physical reality are inappropriate for comprehending social reality.
Chesterton's opposition derives primarily from the belief that, rather than being methodologically flawed, the scientific detective's approach has harmful social ramifications. The scientific detective lives in a world that contains no communication or awareness of the role interpretation plays in social life. Rather than the brute facts that Holmes and his colleagues dedicate themselves to searching out, Chesterton's detectives [End Page 54] understand that the social world is charged with meanings the positivist's naked eye cannot grasp.
The protagonists of Chesterton's first collection of detective short stories, The Club of Queer Trades, are two brothers, Rupert and Basil Grant. Having successfully tried his hand at numerous things, Rupert, the younger, becomes a private detective. Basil, in contrast, has failed at the only profession he ever attempted, allegedly going mad as a judge on the bench. While Rupert employs methods similar to those adopted by Holmes, Basil repeatedly proves these to be fallacious. He demonstrates that, rather than a crime having been committed, the strange events that occur are to be attributed to the members of the Club of Queer Trades—an association of people who have invented their own occupations. Basil attacks Rupert's concentration on facts:
"Facts," murmured Basil, like one mentioning some strange, far-off animals, "how facts obscure the truth. I may be silly—in fact, I'm off my head—but I never could believe in that man—what's his name, in those capital stories?—Sherlock Holmes. Every detail points to something, certainly; but generally to the wrong thing. Facts point in all directions, it seems to me, like the thousands of twigs on a tree. It's only the life of the tree that has unity and goes up—only the green blood that springs, like a fountain, at the stars."1
Facts being external, the outer surface of reality is thus chaotic and deceptive. Rather than being misled by the exterior, the true detective, Basil maintains, must direct his attention to "life"—the only thing that is coherent.
The Father Brown story "The Absence of Mr. Glass" demonstrates how facts are frequently misleading. It depicts the way in which a scientific detective who focuses solely on external reality can arrive at a perfectly logical—yet false—explanation. Orion Hood, a famous criminologist, determines that a man found in his room with his hands tied and mouth gagged has committed a murder, after a witness stated that the suspect was talking to someone and referring to a Mr. Glass. On examining [End Page 55] the scene, Hood finds a broken wine glass and a sword with drops of blood on it. Leaving the suspect tied and gagged, Hood prevents the accused from defending himself, believing his powers of deduction to be so great as to make the suspect's version superfluous.
Attending to the facts alone, Hood draws a fallacious conclusion from them. The man was an amateur magician who had been practicing juggling a number of wine glasses and sharpening his ventriloquism skills. Whenever he dropped a glass, he muttered to himself, "One, two, missed a glass."2 Hood misunderstood all the facts, attributing the two voices to one person, mistaking "missed a glass" for "Mr. Glass," and believing the blood to be that of the imaginary murdered man rather than the magician's own from cuts sustained by practicing sword swallowing.
Hood's flawless logic recalls that which Chesterton associates with various maniacs and philosophers in Orthodoxy: the "madman's explanation of a thing is always complete, and often in a purely rational sense satisfactory."3 Communication with a maniac and attempts to change his mind are difficult: "If a man says (for instance) that men have a conspiracy against him, you cannot dispute it except by saying that all the men deny that they are conspirators; which is exactly what conspirators would do. His explanation covers the facts as much as yours" (O, p. 32). The mad person does not partake of the world, which he or she refuses to let infiltrate his or her mind. Rather than letting facts lead, or mislead, such people impose their own stories upon reality. Hood operates in a similar fashion, imposing his perceptions and conceptions on the case and barring the world from giving its own version of events.
The Father Brown story "The Queer Feet" centers around an archcriminal by the name of Flambeau who, disguising himself as a guest at the annual dinner of an aristocratic social club, steals its expensive fish knives and forks. But, dressed in the black evening dress of a gentleman, he also pretends to be a waiter: he convinces the members of the club that he is part of the serving staff and the waiters that he is a gentleman. Entering the kitchen as a gentleman, he asks for a soda siphon, which he then serves to the members as a waiter. At a moment when the waiters and gentlemen are all standing in a straight line, he ends up in the middle, both groups believing him to belong to the other.4 Two diagrams can illustrate this maneuver: [End Page 56]
The horizontal line reads A B C, the vertical 12 13 14, the B in the horizontal line forming the number 13 in the vertical line. In the second diagram, Flambeau's scheme can be explained this way:
The A represents the gentlemen and the 14 the waiters, Flambeau B and 13. The members of group A look to their right and read: 13, 14. The members of group 14 look to their left and read: A, B. Hereby, each is persuaded that Flambeau belongs to the other group.5
This ruse is based on a tactic employed by Minister D in Edgar Allan Poe's "The Purloined Letter" in order to hide a stolen letter in his house.6 Slightly altering its outer appearance, he places it in full sight on a card rack. When the Parisian police search the house and its surroundings, they see the letter but do not recognize it as the one for which they are searching. Flambeau acts in a similar manner, taking advantage of the interpretive assumptions people make in order to fool them. He thus embodies Basil Grant's claim that facts point in many directions.
Visual tricks became a well-known phenomenon in the wake of Poe and Chesterton's stories. One of the most famous is the duck/rabbit:7 [End Page 57]
Another is the vase/two faces:8
External facts can deceive the eye, being open to various interpretations. Chesterton employs Poe's device in several stories to criticize those who focus solely on external reality. "The Queer Feet" demonstrates Basil Grant's assault on the detective who searches only for external facts. The solving of Flambeau's crime does not require any understanding of inner life; however, it demonstrates part of Basil's argument, evincing how facts can deceive external observers (waiters and gentlemen). [End Page 58]
The scientific detective represents a malevolent spirit that infiltrates the social world. Holmes, for example, operates in a split and silent social environment in which communication is unnecessary for understanding others, serving the sole purpose of gathering information—just as the gentlemen communicate with the waiters in "The Queer Feet" exclusively via orders. Their small social world is framed by an external gaze, neither the waiters nor the gentlemen knowing or caring about the other, their relationship purely instrumental.
Chesterton's stories of detectives, waiters, and gentlemen are social allegories. Understanding is not an abstract and theoretical value that should interest detectives and other interpreters who wish to improve their professional capacities. Lack of communication divides the social world—or at the very least indicates the existence of such a split. The unnamed narrator in "The Queer Feet" is aware of the lack of communication between the various social groups the story describes. The narrator explains to the readers why he must tell the story: the chances are "immeasurably unlikely" that they will "ever rise high enough in the social world to find 'The Twelve True Fishermen'" or "sink low enough among slums and criminals to find Father Brown." They will thus "never hear the story" unless they hear it from him (CFBS, p. 49).
The chances of an average reader being able to converse with the members of the elite Fishermen's club are as slim as those that they will meet Father Brown. Their social status thus appears to lie between the unfortunates who encounter Father Brown and those with access to the club. Falling between two different social groups, the readers are unable to communicate with either. This detachment is also symbolized by Flambeau's crime, which exploits social gaps and lack of communication—the knowledge that as long as the people in the room believe him to be their superior/inferior, they will not speak to him.
"The Absence of Mr. Glass" and "The Queer Feet" demonstrate how facts can mislead an external observer. The story "The Hammer of God" evinces Father Brown's capacity for perceiving individual perspectives, thereby enabling him to engage in the kind of "life detection" by which Basil swears. Wilfred Bohun, a parish priest, has an argument with his brother Norman, a hedonist who believes in nothing, after Norman has [End Page 59] tried to seduce the blacksmith's wife. They meet when Norman returns home, just as the pious Wilfred wakes up to pray. Inhabiting two different worlds, the siblings meet on the borderline between them, Norman "drinking what the philosophic observer was free to regard either as his last glass on Tuesday or his first on Wednesday."9 The short conversation in which they engage is not helpful to either brother. After their exchange, Wilfred goes to pray at the top of the church tower. From there, he drops a small hammer on his brother's head, killing him on the spot.
Wilfred is unable—and unwilling—to communicate either with his brother or his community. Moments before he enters the church, he sees his brother throwing coins toward the village idiot's open mouth, presumably in an act of charity. This "ugly sunlit picture of the stupidity and cruelty of the earth sent the ascetic finally to his prayers for purification and new thoughts." Turning his back on the world, he goes off to pray "under a coloured window which he loved and always quieted his spirit" ("HG," p. 135). Alone at the top of the tower, Wilfred seeks the beautiful window in order to avoid the ugly world. When he looks outside, he sees his brother, who appears to him like a poisonous insect. At that moment, he drops the hammer over his brother's head. The murder is the final stage of Wilfred's detachment from the world. The priest, who prefers not to pray with his community, turns his back upon stupidity and cruelty—and becomes a killer in his own right.
While Father Brown is also a priest with an aversion to many figures in the modern world, he refuses to shut himself up in church. Climbing the tower, he seeks to converse with Wilfred, understand him, and bring him back down. As part of this endeavor, Father Brown tells Wilfred that he once knew a man
who began by worshipping with others before the altar, but who grew fond of high and lonely places to pray from, corners or niches in the belfry or the spire. And once in one of those dizzy places, where the whole world seemed to turn under him like a wheel, his brain turned also, and he fancied he was God. So that, though he was a good man, he committed a great crime. … He thought it was given to him to judge the world and strike down the sinner. He would never have had such a thought if he had been kneeling with other men upon a floor. But he saw all men walking about like insects. He saw one especially strutting just below him, insolent and evident by a bright green hat—a poisonous insect.("HG," p. 133) [End Page 60]
With this conversation between Father Brown and Wilfred taking place at the top of the church tower, Father Brown appears to follows Wilfred's mental path and his route to murder. In order to solve the crime, Father Brown must grasp the inner workings of Wilfred's mind. Understanding how Wilfred's growing detachment leads him to murder his brother, he finds a way to comprehend the inner life Basil pursues.
The Father Brown story "The Miracle of Moon Crescent" describes a millionaire named Warren Wynd, known for his uncanny ability to sum up other people in a glance. Tales are told of the "miraculous rapidity with which he could form a sound judgment, especially of human character," of how he "selected the wife who worked with him so long in so charitable a fashion, by picking her out of a whole regiment of women in uniform marching past at some official celebration," and of how three tramps, "indistinguishable from each other in their community of filth and rags," appealed to him for charity, one of whom he immediately sends to a "hospital devoted to a certain nervous disorder," recommending the second to an "inebriates' home," and engaging the third "at a handsome salary as his own private servant."10
Warren represents the discerning gaze of Sherlock Holmes. He is able to instantly distinguish between seemingly identical members of modern society and to identify major differences within them: He looks at a group of female workers who wear the same uniforms and can instantly choose one of them for a wife. He sees three haggard beggars and can immediately take one as a personal helper. Warren avoids treating groups generically, but he does not see his fellows as human beings. He does not communicate with others, perceiving them silently and mechanically as if he were a man of science studying insects in his lab.
At the end of the story, Father Brown explains that Wynd was murdered by the three tramps because they resented the way he treated them, dismissing them "rapidly right and left to one place or another; as if for them there were no cloak of courtesy, no stages of intimacy, no free-will in friendship." Even twenty years later, the tramps' memory of the incident had not "exhausted the indignation born of that unfathomable insult" ("MMC," p. 414)—the humiliation of being summed up in a split second.
The tramps take their revenge on a man who wished them no harm, who was in fact a philanthropist who after all hired one of his murderers [End Page 61] as his personal assistant. But although Warren is charitable, his treatment of others conceals a measure of disrespect. Rather than communicating with the three vagrants, he merely passes his gaze over them, perceiving them in a flash à la Sherlock Holmes.
Both Wilfred Bohun, who slays his brother from the top of a tower, and Warren Wynd, killed while looking out of a window of a tall building—murderous priest and murdered philanthropist—are problematic observers. Wilfred is detached from the people he hates, Warren from those he seeks to help. The latter's tall building—"Moon Crescent"—indicates that Wynd is far from the earth. Wilfred comes from a village called "Bohun Beacon," likewise perched on steep hill ("HG," p. 133). The victim in the story "The Invisible Man" lives in "Himalaya Mansions."11 High walls and tall buildings named after the moon and mountains symbolize detachment in many of the Father Brown stories. Criminals and scientific detectives are not the only ones who look at other people from the outside; philanthropy can also be a cold and impersonal pursuit. People need the kind of communication Father Brown embodies. Those like Warren foster social antagonism even when helping others.
Wilfred's perception of his brother from the top of the tower as a green insect also reflects Chesterton's attribution of dehumanizing tendencies to the scientific observer. In the prologue to "The Secret of Father Brown," Father Brown observes:
Science is a grand thing when you can get it; in its real sense one of the grandest words in the world. But what do these men mean, nine times out of ten, when they use it nowadays? When they say detection is a science? When they say criminology is a science? They mean getting outside a man and studying him as if he were a gigantic insect: in what they would call a dry impartial light, in what I should call a dead and dehumanized light. They mean getting a long way off him.12
Father Brown explains that his secret lies in the fact that he looks at individuals as subjects rather than objects: "Well, what you call 'the secret' is exactly the opposite. I don't try to get outside the man. I try to get inside the murderer. … Indeed it's much more than that, don't you see? I am inside a man. I am always inside a man, moving his arms and legs; but I wait till I know I am inside a murderer, thinking his [End Page 62] thoughts, wrestling with his passions … till I am really a murderer" ("SFB," p. 498).
Having the detective become a criminal not only contributes to the solving of criminal mysteries but also helps the felon. When Flambeau reveals that he is a wanted ex-criminal in "The Secret of Flambeau," he credits Father Brown with his rehabilitation. Although he heard the "sermons of the righteous" and saw the "cold stare of the respectable" who lectured in a "lofty and distant style," they only made him laugh. Father Brown, by contrast, tells Flambeau he knows precisely why he stole—after which, Flambeau claims, he never did so again.13 The high and mighty do not understand Flambeau. Unable to penetrate his mind or soul, their reproaches are ineffective.
Father Brown also understands what induces Wilfred Bohun to kill his brother. Wilfred responds to Father Brown's explanation of precisely what led him to kill his brother by asking the priest: "How do you know all this? … Are you a devil?" Paraphrasing the Latin dictum Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto (I am human, therefore nothing human is strange to me), Father Brown answers that he is a man and thus has "all devils" in his heart ("HG," p. 145). In "The Sign of the Broken Sword," he enlists the rehabilitated Flambeau to solve a mystery, attributing Flambeau's failure to do so to the fact that his thoughts are too good and pure.14 Being a good man makes it difficult for him to be a good detective. The ability to understand evil derives from the fact that the human heart is inhabited by devils.
A scientific observer does not let his inner demons or emotions distort his gaze. In the opening paragraph of "A Scandal in Bohemia," Watson notes that Holmes has never fallen in love because he views emotion as a "distracting factor which might throw a doubt upon all his mental results."15 Rather than distracting him, Father Brown's demons form part of the process of his understanding. Human beings comprehend one another because they resemble each other. Father Brown thus shares features even with such a man as Wilfred, who climbs a tower, deserts his community, and kills his brother.
In Father Brown's presence, criminals feel understood rather than insulted or mocked. Rather than residing among the high and the mighty, Father Brown occupies the same level as the criminal. Using conversation as a tool for conversion, he seeks to penetrate the criminal's soul [End Page 63] in such a way as to commune with him instead of treating crimes as challenging riddles. Saving the criminal's soul is more important than solving the crime.
This redemption is not purely spiritual, however; it has firm social links. Father Brown's goal is to bring the criminal down from the tower and back to ground—even if this world is in need of reform. Although Flambeau is a criminal, he is no worse than the judges themselves. The modern judicial system is sick, with magistrates failing to properly "apprehend" the people they sentence. Basil Grant represents discontent with the legal system. A judge who allegedly went mad on the bench, he once sentenced a man to three years' imprisonment "under the firm, and solemn, and God-given conviction" that what he actually needed was "three months at the seaside." On another occasion, he accused criminals from the bench "not so much of their obvious legal crimes, but of things that had never been heard of in a court ofjustice, monstrous egoism, lack of humour, and morbidity deliberately encouraged" (CQT, pp. 8–9). Rather than judging the external, Basil seeks to discover the inner soul—even telling the prime minister that he should acquire a new soul, his present one not being "fit for a dog" (p. 9).
At the end of The Club of Queer Trades, the reader discovers that Basil is also a club member, responsible for establishing a substitute, voluntary court. The Man Who Was Thursday is a novel that similarly describes an alternative, philosophical police force whose work is "at once bolder and more subtle" than that of the ordinary detective. While the latter goes to pot houses to arrest thieves, the philosophical policeman attends "artistic tea-parties to detect pessimists." A regular detective, looking for regular proof, "discovers from a ledger or a diary that a crime has been committed." In contrast to the factual character of such "evidence," the philosophical policeman uses a book of sonnets to discover "that a crime will be committed," seeking to "trace the origin of those dreadful thoughts that drive men on at last to intellectual fanaticism and intellectual crime."16 Chesterton's judges and policemen, who deviate from the modes adopted by the Establishment, strive to understand the internal, convinced that the soul is the core of a person and the crime he commits only a superstructure. The establishment judges and policemen, who are becoming increasingly materialistic, demonstrate that the external gaze is not only confined to problem characters such as Wilfred Bohun and Warren Wynd but forms part of a growing social problem. [End Page 64]
The story "The Invisible Man" demonstrates how a problematic gaze can become a social norm. In it, a mailman takes advantage of his social invisibility to commit a murder. Rather than being disguised, like Flambeau in "The Queer Feet," the mailman is able to enter and leave the crime scene because the eyewitnesses fail to understand the context in which they are asked questions. Approaching one of those appointed to keep an eye on the entrance to the victim's dwelling, Father Brown asks him, "Has nobody been up and down stairs, then, since the snow began to fall?" ("IM," p. 85). The witness assumes this "somebody" to possess a certain social status, and answers in the negative, the mailman being a "nobody" to him and his companions—despite the fact that they are all of same social station. Father Brown explains the way the murderer entered and left the scene of his crime:
Have you ever noticed this—that people never answer what you say? They answer what you mean—or what they think you mean. Suppose one lady says to another in a country house, "Is anybody staying with you?" The lady doesn't answer "Yes; the butler, the three footmen, the parlourmaid," and so on, though the parlourmaid may be in the room, or the butler behind her chair. She says "There is nobody staying with us," meaning nobody of the sort you mean. But suppose a doctor inquiring into an epidemic asks, "Who is staying in the house?" then the lady will remember the butler, the parlourmaid, and the rest.("IM," p. 88)
The witness and his companions face the same circumstance as the doctor. While the latter is unconcerned about the social status of his patients, however, the witnesses act like the lady, for whom the butler, footmen, and parlormaid do not exist as social entities. These "nobodies" only become "somebodies" when they put the social order at risk.
In "The Queer Feet," Chesterton describes death as a great leveler, breaking into the "most refined retreats with the dreadful information that all men are brothers" ("QF," p. 50). Epidemics and crimes operate in a similar fashion, making social status irrelevant. While criminals are visible, waiters and mailmen are socially invisible. Flambeau and the murderous mailman take advantage of this fact. Rather than being the real criminals, they thus serve to illuminate the sins of society.
Whereas Flambeau hides himself in "The Queer Feet," the mailman is invisible for other reasons. Although visible physically, he goes unrecognized because the witnesses who see him fail to properly grasp the [End Page 65] meaning of the queries put to them. Despite the differences, the interpretive assumptions of the observers lead them astray in both stories. The fact that the witnesses in "The Invisible Man" do not understand the question they are asked is strange. Equipped with the knowledge that a murder had taken place not far from them, others witnesses would have given Father Brown a completely different answer. The detective arriving at a murder scene should be regarded by witnesses as resembling the doctor to whom Father Brown refers. For Father Brown, murder, like disease, is an external act that affects the body. When a witness is asked if he saw someone not far from a murder scene, the issue of class normally does not arise in his or her mind. When death and crime raise their heads, the working class and needy regain their visibility.
In solving "The Invisible Man" mystery, Father Brown appeals to language. The mailman is not an object perceived differently by diverse observers. He is seen by others but treated as nobody. Although the retreat to language may appear trivial and unrealistic, Chesterton employs it to demonstrate that the origin of the mailman's invisibility is social. The social norms that make him imperceptible are mirrored in language. The normative base of the relations between groups and individuals is not located in the mind of a single person; the way people look at one another is socially determined.
Rather than being pure, the human gaze is influenced by interpretation. Although scientific observers such as Sherlock Holmes believe that a pure external gaze can be achieved, they are misguided, and their mistake has grave social consequences. In a biography dedicated to William Cobbett, a champion of rural England against the changes of the Industrial Revolution, Chesterton addresses the human ability to see reality through a veil, arguing that by "a weird mesmerism which it is not here necessary to analyse, what people read has a sort of magic power over their sight," laying a "spell on their eyes, so that they see what they expect to see."17 Not seeing the "most solid and striking things that contradict what they expect to see," they "trust the map against the mountain." A "man without these magic spectacles" who "did not see what he expected to see, but what he saw" (WC, p. 149), Cobbett would have made a good eyewitness.
In his essay "Imagination and Nature," Chesterton observes that while "we hear a great deal of the huge inhuman impersonal powers of cosmos [End Page 66] or chaos, and how inspiring they are to the imagination," they are not really "very inspiring until the imagination has worked on them." Human beings do not grasp the cosmos or chaos as they are, in and of themselves, but shape them in their minds. The latter thus function as the "mirror in which these shapes become shapes of doom."18 Imagination participates in the act of creation, for in man there "also is something of the divine and the things that enter his world pass through a second creation" (CW, p. 565).
This phenomenon of the imagination may occur on an individual level—Wilfred Bohun looks at his brother and sees him as an insect, the only person to perceive his brother in this fashion—or a universal one, as in the case of cosmos and chaos. The spell cast on people's eyes and the maps they create can likewise be social. Humans are divine creators who invent mailmen, waiters, and gentlemen. The way people are grasped and treated is an outcome of social norms that human beings form in the ongoing process of creating their society.
Social norms regulate the way waiters and gentlemen are conceived and treated by one another. One method of altering social reality is by changing the maps that shape social perception. The madmen Chesterton describes in Orthodoxy are caught in the web of their personal worlds. Those who are normal can also get caught up in webs spun by their societies: social criticism is dependent upon understanding the webs in order to change them.
In an essay entitled "The Falsity of Statistics," Chesterton maintains that when "a man says something to us in the street, we hear what he means: we do not hear what he says." Such is also the case when "we read some sentence in a book, we read what it means: we cannot see what it says." It is "impossible for the human intellect (which is divine) to hear a fact as a fact. It always hears a fact as a truth (which is an entirely different thing)."19 Herein, Chesterton argues that statistical data are always interpreted, the reader going beyond the facts and figures and turning them into a narrative. The tendency to weave facts into a unified, meaningful story appears to be universal. People add something to the facts they grasp. Such an added value can be socially harmful. A mailman is not only a mailman. He is a nobody, a man with no social importance. People need to be aware of their interpretive tendencies in order to restore color to invisible people.
The witnesses in "The Invisible Man" are unconscious of their interpretive tendencies, thinking they know what Father Brown means rather than listening to what he actually asks. The fact that they all make the same [End Page 67] mistake is not coincidental. The error is not individual; it is a function of the social lenses through which the English view the working classes. Stories such as "The Invisible Man" and essays such as "The Falsity of Statistics" make readers aware of their social "frames."
"The Honour of Israel Gow," which recounts the story of an extraordinary man without magic spectacles, helps readers see how they view the world. A servant who lives in an isolated castle in Scotland, Gow inherits all of his master's gold. When he reads the will, he understands it quite literally, searching for every single piece of gold he can find—taking the gilded name of God from the Bibles in the house and the gold tooth out of his dead master's mouth.20 While he appears to be as legalistic as Shylock, he seems to serve Chesterton as a way of critiquing the Protestant interpretive tendency, representing the principle of sola Scriptura. Not in need of priests such as Father Brown, he is another form of a Chestertonian loner. Figures such as the murderous priest Wilfred Bohun and the murdered Warren Wynd are also detached from their societies; they look at others from the outside. Israel Gow is an only servant; his master's death leaves him all alone. His detachment is not purely physical, however. His detachment is embodied in his verbatim use of language. Not sharing the sane linguistic norms as his fellows, he only understands literal—rather than figurative—meanings, as evidenced by his search for his master's gold.
By contrast, Gow also demonstrates the human ability to automatically interpret his world. Lacking this capacity, he is not as linguistically flexible as others. The eyewitnesses in "The Invisible Man" who believe "nobody" to be a man of no importance are far more linguistically supple. This flexibility can also become rote, however, entailing an automatic shift from one interpretation of the word "nobody" to another. While they do not understand that they constantly interpret their world, Gow perceives the body hidden in "nobody." Recognizing the gold that became money and capital in the modern world, he prompts readers to reflect on their perspective on the world. Living in a narrow realm, his unsociability frees him from social prejudices. Lacking any interpretative ability, Gow demonstrates the fact that other people wear interpretative spectacles.
His strange and private outlook helps to evince the way in which ordinary people view the world as interpretive and communicative creatures. Human beings who treat one another as nobodies turn into [End Page 68] objects. Unconscious interpretive acts objectify human beings. A pure observer such as Gow illustrates the fact that humans are not pure observers. Rather than composed of fixed and unchangeable facts, their social world is shaped by the human gaze. The Holmesian belief in brute facts make people blind to the major role interpretation plays in their social life. Without it, the norms that make other people invisible cannot be changed.
As we have seen, Holmes's mode of understanding others is uncommunicative and alienates people. Father Brown offers an alternative, arguing that the external gaze is not totally external but an internal cultural phenomenon. Interpretation does not only concern the private life of some individuals, however. All the members of society constantly look at each other through interpretive veils that, while sometimes harmful and in need of change, are unavoidable. These modes of apprehension are not private but social. Tracing the external scientific gaze is also an act of understanding life. This gaze possesses a privileged problematic status that not only hampers communication but also blinds people to their normative spectacles, thus impeding social change. This type of inner understanding can become a form of social crime, with the scientific detective becoming more dangerous than the criminals he chases and the judge more harmful than the criminals he sends to prison.
Chesterton's detective stories demonstrate that the theoretical and abstract issue of understanding has major social ramifications, shedding light onto the role that understanding and communication play in Chesterton's social thought. This reading of Chesterton can illuminate his view of human beings as interpretive creatures who create a meaningful social world. His detective stories also demonstrate how the abstract ideas that relate to an understanding common to the social sciences are encoded in works of fiction.
1. G. K. Chesterton, The Club of Queer Trades (London: Harper & Brothers, 1905), pp. 28–29; hereafter abbreviated CQT.
2. G. K. Chesterton, "The Absence of Mr. Glass," in The Complete Father Brown Stories (Ware: Wordsworth, 1992), p. 198; hereafter abbreviated CFBS.
3. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1909), p. 32; hereafter abbreviated O.
4. G. K. Chesterton, "The Queer Feet," in CFBS, p. 63; hereafter abbreviated "QF."
6. E. A. Poe, "The Purloined Letter," in The Portable Edgar Allan Poe (New York: Penguin, 2006), p. 342.
7. Available by searching for "duck-rabbit illusion."
8. Available by searching for "vase-face illusion."
9. G. K. Chesterton, "The Hammer of God," in CFBS, p. 145; hereafter abbreviated "HG."
10. G. K. Chesterton, "The Miracle of Moon Crescent," in CFBS, p. 397; hereafter abbreviated "MMC."
11. G. K. Chesterton, "The Invisible Man," in CFBS, p. 81; hereafter abbreviated "IM."
12. G. K. Chesterton, "The Secret of Father Brown," in CFBS, p. 497; hereafter abbreviated "SFB."
13. G. K. Chesterton, "The Secret of Flambeau," in CFBS, p. 628.
14. G. K. Chesterton, "The Sign of the Broken Sword," in CFBS, p. 169.
15. A. C. Doyle, "A Scandal in Bohemia," in Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories (New York: Bantam, 1986), p. 239.
16. G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (London: J. W. Arrowsmith, 1912), p. 75.
17. G. K. Chesterton, William Cobbett (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1910), p. 149; hereafter abbreviated WC.
18. G. K. Chesterton, "Imagination and Nature," in The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, vol. 35, Illustrated London News, 1929–1931 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1992), p. 563; hereafter abbreviated CW.
19. G. K. Chesterton, "The Falsity of Statistics," in CW 27 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), p. 61.
20. G. K. Chesterton, "The Honour of Israel Gow," in CFBS, p. 101.