G.K. Chesterton’s Manalive: A Dare to Live Recklessly

By Emma Baldwin 

What does it mean to live recklessly? Does it by necessity mean to make dumb decisions, live wildly, and die young? Or can living recklessly mean something different? More importantly, what does it mean to live recklessly as a follower of Christ? These questions are answered triumphantly in one of the most confusing, exhilarating, refreshing, and perspective-altering stories ever written. Here’s the secret: Innocent Smith (Chesterton’s boyish protagonist) is simply unusual. He isn’t in what most would consider to be his right mind—he’s in a better one. Innocent views the world differently than everyone else in the story. He almost kills a man, yet he manages to revive him and others in the process.  

The story takes place at a boarding-house full of people who have forgotten the beauty and excitement of life itself. Chesterton opens the first chapter with a reminder of that beauty: “A wind sprang high in the west like a wave of unreasonable happiness and tore eastward across England, trailing with it the frosty scent of forests and the cold intoxication of the sea.” It’s this wind that blusters the protagonist Innocent Smith into the lives of the boarding-house members. 

Innocent spends his time at the boarding house attempting to open the residents’ eyes to the wonder of existence and to influence them to escape the sense of dullness of their daily walk. Innocent intrudes on their lives, persuading them to live more freely and (some may believe) absurdly. He decides to marry one of the other boarding-house members (who we later discover was his wife all along), and forces two other couples from the boarding-house to recognize their feelings and decide to marry as well. He ultimately shoots at a doctor that came to the boarding house because one of the residents called him because she thought Innocent was mentally ill. During this time, it surfaces that Innocent has shot at someone before. The doctors and residents hold a trial for Innocent’s attempted murder in which the residents discover more about Innocent through the letters of others that had witnessed his unconventional way of living. 

During the trial, Innocent is also accused of burglary, desertion, and polygamy. The reader begins to doubt the innocence of Smith as they discover so much about his past. But, rest assured, because these accusations can be easily (though somewhat absurdly) explained away. Innocent is not truly a burglar. The audience at the trial discovers that he simply broke into his own house so that he would remember how blessed he is to live there by gaining the perspective of an outsider and truly valuing his home. Additionally, he never deserted his family.  Or at least, he didn’t desert his family with the intention of truly abandoning them. He loved them too much for that. Instead, he traveled the world alone, simply so that he could experience the felicity of coming home to his wife and kids. He did not commit polygamy, though witnesses attested to him marrying several different women. The fact is that they were all the same woman. Smith remarried again and again his wife (though she used different names) so that he could force himself to remember how much he had always loved her. And finally, Innocent is not a murderer. On both accounts, he purposefully missed the men he shot at. He didn’t shoot out of any particular motive. Instead, he shot at them to remind them how blessed they are to still be alive.  

And that’s just it—all of Innocent’s intentions were to remind himself and the people around him of the exciting, insane, sometimes mellow, beautiful thing that life is. While at the boarding house, he never convinces the residents to escape what’s considered the dullness of life itself. Instead, he convinces them to escape the mindset that life is dull. He feels strongly that life itself is to be rejoiced in, to the greatest extent. He sees the tendency to get used to the everyday happenings, and he wants to break people out of this mindset. He challenges himself—and forces the people around him—to take every small, “mundane” aspect of life and celebrate it. 

Chesterton writes, “His principle can be quite simply stated: he refuses to die while he is still alive. He seeks to remind himself, by every electric shock to the intellect, that he is still a man alive, walking on two legs about the world. For this reason he fires bullets at his best friends, … arranges ladders and collapsible chimneys to steal his own property, … goes plodding around a whole planet to get back to his own home …and has been in the habit of taking the woman whom he loved with a permanent loyalty, and leaving her about (so to speak) at schools, boarding-houses, and places of business, so that he might recover her again and again with a raid and a romantic elopement.” 

Manalive is an excellent and, I think, often overlooked book. Chesterton gains the reader’s attention through his extravagant, unusual, and beautiful writing style and holds the reader’s attention with an interesting story line. Though the pace of the book slows a little during Innocent’s trial, this time is made up for in both an exciting beginning and a bittersweet yet rewarding ending. Chesterton’s thought processes and language are often hard to follow, but the charm and significance of the language and of the story itself are a great reward. Overall, the book is beautifully written and depicts a lovely story that convicts the reader to pursue life with a new intensity.   

G. K. Chesterton reminds the reader of the loveliness of life through the character of Innocent Smith. He encourages us to take every aspect of life with joy and excitement, escaping the mindset that the world we live in is dull, and embracing the mindset that the world we live in is far more exciting than we ever give it credit for. This brings us back to the question: What does it mean to live recklessly as a follower of Christ? Living recklessly as a follower of Christ means giving up our tendency towards apathy. That tendency may spring from selfishness, pride, ungratefulness; from weariness, hardships, or a deep suffering; or even from simple forgetfulness or distractedness. Whatever causes this tendency—it’s never too late to change. As followers of Christ, we are dared to abandon that tendency and rejoice in the world our God has created. We are dared to embrace the events of everyday life with complete felicity and praise God fearlessly. We are dared to recognize the beauty of family, Tuesday morning classes, laughter with friends, and a breath-taking sunset. We are dared to live in utter wonder and joy of the things God finds joy in—maybe even of what most consider mundane. We are dared to live entirely and richly for the Creator. However, if we try to make this change on our own, we will fail again and again, and ultimately revert to apathy. We need to rely on God, asking Him to open our eyes to the beauty of the world around us and to mold our hearts to be thankful for and joyful about the lives He’s given us. Let’s live in joy and wonder together because of God’s work in us alone.