(Spoilers for the solution to "The Oracle of the Dog".)

In "The Oracle of the Dog" by G. K. Chesterton, Father Brown was talking about

a gambler nephew, who had left the Indian police through breaking some red-tape regulations and took a sudden decision to kill his rich uncle, who wore a white coat, from his back by a sword through the thin loopholed wall of his summer house.

Brown said (emphasis added),

It is the megalomania of the gambler. The more incongruous the coincidence, the more instantaneous the decision, the more likely he is to snatch the chance. The accident, the very triviality of the white speck and the hole in the hedge intoxicated him like a vision of the world’s desire. Nobody clever enough to see such a combination of accidents could be cowardly enough not to use them! That is how the devil talks to the gambler. But the devil himself would hardly have induced that unhappy man to go down in a dull, deliberate way and kill an old uncle from whom he’d always had expectations. It would be too respectable.

What's is meant here by "vision of the world’s desire"?

And how a murder would be "too respectable"?

1 Answer 1


“Vision of the world’s desire” is an allusion to the novel The World’s Desire (1890) by H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang. In chapter 2, also titled “The Vision of the World’s Desire”, the goddess Athena shows Odysseus a vision of Helen of Troy:

‘Nay, Odysseus, didst thou not once give me one little hour? Fear not, for thou shalt not see me at this time, but lift thy head and look on The World’s Desire!

Then the Wanderer lifted his head, and he saw, as it were in a picture or in a mirror of bronze, the vision of a girl. She was more than mortal tall, and though still in the first flower of youth, and almost a child in years, she seemed fair as a goddess, and so beautiful that Aphrodite herself may perchance have envied this loveliness. She was slim and gracious as a young shoot of a palm tree, and her eyes were fearless and innocent as a child’s. On her head she bore a shining urn of bronze, as if she were bringing water from the wells, and behind her was the foliage of a plane tree. Then the Wanderer knew her, and saw her once again as he had seen her, when in his boyhood he had journeyed to the Court of her father, King Tyndareus. For, as he entered Sparta, and came down the hill Taygetus, and as his chariot wheels flashed through the ford of Eurotas, he had met her there on her way from the river. There, in his youth, his eyes had gazed on the loveliness of Helen, and his heart had been filled with the desire of the fairest of women, and like all the princes of Achaia he had sought her hand in marriage. But Helen was given to another man, to Menelaus, Atreus’ son, of an evil house, that the knees of many might be loosened in death, and that there might be a song in the ears of men in after time.

H. Rider Haggard and Andrew Lang (1890). The World’s Desire, pp. 18–19. London: Longmans.

In the Greek myths, Helen is the most beautiful of women, desired by all, hence “the world’s desire”. In “The Oracle of the Dog”, the sudden apprehension of how he can clear his debts and restore his fortunes by secretly murdering his uncle strikes the young man with as much force as the sight of Helen of Troy struck the princes of Achaia. It is quite a grotesque comparison: monetary greed likened to sexual cupidity.

“Too respectable” is a paradox—of course murder is not respectable. There are two ways to resolve it, depending on how we interpret “the devil himself would hardly have induced”. If we take this to mean “the devil himself would hardly have wanted to induce”, then what Father Brown means is that killing one’s rich relation in order to inherit their fortune is a commonplace, ordinary kind of murder, the kind carried out by ordinary and respectable people, and the devil is not interested in that kind of murder. But if we take it to mean “the devil himself would hardly have been able to induce”, then what Father Brown means is that the young man’s self-conception would not permit him to carry out a murder in a commonplace manner, but that a daring and risky chance was something he could not resist.

  • 1
    An excellent answer, but if I might quibble, I think it is not The Devil who doesn't like ordinary, commonplace murder but the man who, as an adventurer and a gambler, thinks himself "above" such "commonplace" activities. May 7, 2020 at 23:45
  • @DJClayworth: I think it works both ways — the sentence as written is ambiguous between "the devil himself would hardly have been able to induce" (your interpretation) and "the devil himself would hardly have wanted to induce" (mine). May 8, 2020 at 13:38
  • You make a good point. May 8, 2020 at 13:44
  • Your point is good too and I'll update my answer accordingly. May 8, 2020 at 13:56

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