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Tuesday, October 22, 2013

G. K. Chesterton‘s “The Angry Street”: An Analysis

Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman

What is an altar but a table made sacred by convention and design?
The first-person narrator begins his story with a surprising statement: he is unable, he says, to recall “whether this tale is true or not”; he follows it with an even more remarkable declaration, stating that he believes that the incidents that he is about to commit to paper “happened to me before I was born.”

Having captured his readers’ attention with these statements, he next begins to relate the narrative proper, hinting at the fact that it involves “atmosphere.” A number of men, all of whom are in a hurry, are seated at lunch, each with one eye upon the clock. The narrator is among them, and, into their company enters another who is dressed as they are, in gentleman’s attire, but who, unlike the others, shows a reverence for the things about him, including his “long frock coat,” his top hat, the peg upon which he hangs his hat, “the wooden chair” in which he sits and the table at which he sits. As soon as he is seated across from the narrator, he begins a “monologue.” At first, the narrator considers him “ordinary,” but is soon disturbed by the other’s gaze, which he describes as that “of a maniac.”

The odd man’s odd manner and the odd thing that he next says continue to intrigue readers. “I thought,” he says, “that another of them had gone wrong,” by which, he clarifies, he means another street. For over forty years, he explains, he has traveled the same street, walking it in the same manner. It is not a long street, he observes; walking it takes him no more than “four and a half minutes.” However, he recently took his usual stroll and found it to be not only tiring but also to have taken him longer. The street also climbed a hill, which it had never done before. The curious gentleman guessed that he had perhaps “turned down the wrong” street, despite the many years during which he has made the same journey “like clockwork.” However, as he continued his walk, it became clear to him, by the landmarks he passed, that the street was, in fact, the one that he customarily traveled. As he continued his walk, the street, instead of turning, as it had always done before, veered steeply, “straight in front of” his “face,” ascending a sharp, long upward slope that caused him to nearly fall “on the pavement.” The street, he found, had “lifted itself like a single wave, and yet every speck and detail of it was the same.” At the very summit of the street, he was able to see the “name over” his “paper shop,” as if the sign were atop “an Alpine pass.”

Quite perplexed and more than a little frightened, the pedestrian was even more astonished when, peering through “the iron trap of a coal-hole” in the street, which had now assumed the aspect of “a long iron bridge into empty space,” he “saw empty space and the stars.” When he looked up again, he saw another man, who was “leaning over the railings,” staring at the hiker, to whom the man seemed to be “not of this world,” despite his “dark and ordinary” attire and the pedestrian’s sense that he had just come out of one of the “grey row of private houses” along the “nightmare road.” The sense of the stranger’s otherworldliness is intensified by the “stars behind his head,” which appear “larger and fiercer than ought to be endured by the eyes of men.”

Calling upon the stranger, whom the traveler supposes may be either an “kind angel” of a “wise devil,” to tell him what has become of the street, which, he identifies as “Bumpton Street, which “goes to Oldgate Station.” The stranger’s reply is bizarre (and, therefore, intriguing to the story’s readers): “It goes there sometimes, Just now, however, it is going to heaven” to seek justice for the traveler’s mistreatment of it. The neglect, the stranger informs the pedestrian, lies in the traveler’s ignoring of the street that he has used (and taken for granted) for over forty years: the street, he says, “has grown tired” of the traveler’s “insolence, and it is bucking and rearing its head toward heaven.”

The pedestrian expresses his opinion that the stranger’s talk is mad; it is “nonsense,” he argues, to imagine that a street should be offended or that it should go anywhere other than where it has always led before. To the stranger’s question as to whether the traveler has ever wondered whether the street has taken him for granted, supposing him to be a non-living thing among things, the traveler has no answer. However, he confides to the story’s narrator that he has “since. . . respected the things called inanimate!” and he bows “slightly to the mustard-pot” as he takes his leave of the restaurant.

This is a short-short story. It is an odd one, certainly, as well. Among younger readers, it is apt to seem not only strange but also absurd. Some older readers, however, will comprehend the story’s theme. Because they are created by men and women, objects of art and craft are, as artifacts of design and manufacture, each with an aesthetic or a utilitarian purpose, are invested with a significance beyond their importance as mere products of technology; they are imbued with the spirit of their manufacturers. They are humanized by virtue of the fact that they are made by men and women. In that sense, they have “souls,” a point that Chesterton makes in his essay “A Piece of Chalk” as well as in this story.

If one considers a coat, a hat, a chair, a table, a mustard-pot, or a street not as a simple coat or hat, table or chair, or mustard-pot, but as an artifact designed for service or aesthetic enrichment and as a work into which a man or a woman has poured not only his or her art and craft, knowledge and skill, experience and passion, as if he or she were fashioning a gift to others as well as an expression of his or her own heart, such seemingly commonplace objects would be regarded with the respect--indeed, the reverence--that the “kind angel” or “;wise demon” suggests that they should be accorded, rather than being taken for granted and ignored.

Were the things that people make for themselves and others rightly regarded, Chesterton suggests, in “A Piece of Chalk,” it would be possible to write a book of poetry, of epic length and grandeur, about the things that one finds in his pocket or her purse. This story, absurd on its face, uses the absurdity that it generates to skew everyday reality, as represented by the street and by the restaurant and the things that each contains, so that these ordinary, everyday places and objects take on strange appearances and become, as it were, visible to readers who, in the course of their own everyday lives, are apt to dismiss their surroundings and to take things for granted much as the pedestrian in “The Angry Street” does.

By making the ordinary appear, for a moment, extraordinary, Chesterton helps his readers to see the extraordinary quality and value of the ordinary and the remarkable nature of the commonplace. Such is no mean feat, and Chesterton’s accomplishment of it in “The Angry Street” makes this story remarkable, indeed.

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