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From G. K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare.

WHEN Gabriel Syme found himself finally established in a chair, and opposite to him, fixed and final also, the lifted eyebrows and leaden eyelids of the Professor, his fears fully returned. This incomprehensible man from the fierce council, after all, had certainly pursued him. If the man had one character as a paralytic and another character as a pursuer, the antithesis might make him more interesting, but scarcely more soothing. It would be a very small comfort that he could not find the Professor out, if by some serious accident the Professor should find him out. He emptied a whole pewter pot of ale before the professor had touched his milk.

I am having trouble understanding the sentence in bold.

Edit to provide more context: Gabriel Syme had just been accepted into the inner circle of a secret society of which the professor is a member. After the first meeting, he found the professor had been following him around the town. They are now at a bar, and Gabriel Syme is worried that the professor might have guessed his identity.

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The problem is that, as it stands, the sentence simply doesn't make sense.

Not finding the professor out (penetrating his disguise or understanding his motives) wouldn't seem to be a particularly good thing. Equally, being found out by the professor would also seem to be a bad thing.

Removing the "not" in the first half of the sentence resolves the problem:

"It would be no help that he could discover the professor's identity, if by some serious accident the Professor should discover his identity."

Whatever Chesterton originally wrote, editorial intervention in some form on the part of the reader would seem to be necessary.

There's this, which may provide an explanation:

"The Man Who Was Thursday was published in February 1908 ... The unexpectedness of the book is perhaps the reason why both this and nearly all subsequent editions are marred by misprints."

The sentence as originally given may be a case of a misprint which has escaped later correction.

  • Eh, a little annoyed by the overstated case ("doesn't make much sense" != "doesn't make any sense") but upvote for actually finding a source to back up your intuition that a misprint or failure of editorial oversight was involved. Good show. – lly Jun 15 '17 at 14:01
  • In addition to @Ben's probable answer (that the passage alludes to the supposed power of the secret society to protect the identities of its members), another possible sense where the not is intended would be that It would be no help if the scary Professor did not often go out if he should somehow still accidentally discover my identity. I'm not sure if it makes sense within the work, but in the quoted passage the Prof's disability or homebody tendencies are alluded to. Then, the first find out would mean to find someone out and about on the streets and the second would have Ben's sense. – lly Jun 15 '17 at 14:06
  • @lly Fair dos! I really ought to have said, "It doesn't make entire sense to me." I did work at it a bit, trying to extract some meaning, to no avail. – Robin Hamilton Jun 18 '17 at 3:19
  • Yes, this interpretation sort of makes sense. Are we sure there was a mistake? – matt Jun 18 '17 at 7:35
  • I don't think there's any way of proving the matter one way or the other. The Man Who Was Thursday was rushed out, and Chesterton was never an exceptionally careful writer at the best of times, but that's "suggestive" rather than "confirming evidence". You pays your money and you makes your choice ... – Robin Hamilton Jun 18 '17 at 7:45
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+25

The phrase "find him out" is idiomatically used to mean "discover his secret", in this case, his identity.

The phrase "very small comfort" is used to mean "no comfort at all", or "of no use" or "of no help". This is a litotes.

It would be no help that he could not discover the professor's identity, if by some serious accident the Professor should discover his identity.

That he cannot discover the professor's identity suggests that the concealment is possible, so may give him comfort. However the professor may nonetheless discover his identity by some accident. At that point, the fact that concealment is possible is of no help.

  • What in the world is going on? What's bothering @matt about the sentence? What's wrong with your answer? Will anyone else wade into this confusion and paraphrase the quotation yet again? I have only a slender reed: "find someone out" might refer to discovering some truth about someone other than the person's identity; and maybe something is troubling about the word "accident." – Chaim Jun 12 '17 at 11:59
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    Sorry you're being inexplicably downvoted, but @Matt this is the right answer. Find sb out is an idiomatic expression that could be expanded to find out the *[*usually unpleasant] truth about sb. – lly Jun 12 '17 at 12:10
  • " (very) small comfort" means what it says, "(very) little comfort". Reinterpreting it as "no comfort at all" fails to solve the problem raised in the OP. – Robin Hamilton Jun 13 '17 at 9:14
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    @RobinHamilton, no. It's a litotes, and a very common idiom in English. "If your house has burned down, it's very small comfort that you found your key" – Ben Jun 13 '17 at 15:46
  • Actually, thinking about it, you're right -- the consequences of being found out are such that "small comfort" is an ironic understatement. I was underestimating the seriousness of Gabriel's situation However, my point stands that this doesn't resolve the problem of the sentence as a whole -- it still doesn't make sense. – Robin Hamilton Jun 13 '17 at 16:55
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Think of it this way,

if by some serious accident the Professor should find him out : if the professor finds out his identity, then

It would be a very small comfort that he could not find the Professor out: it will be disappointing to protagonist that he could not find the professors' identity beforehand.

Based on the context, I think the protagonist is pitting himself against the professor, in a battle of wits.

  • In this case, the phrase "very small comfort" seems to be a vast understatement. Shouldn't he have said something like "no comfort at all" or "in huge trouble". – matt Jun 18 '17 at 7:43
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The sentence above the troubling one and the general plot of the story is needed to discern the meaning of this sentence.

Syme is attempting to infiltrate the secret society and be elected to its ruling council. Syme wants to know whether the Professor is trying to just obstruct him ("one character as a paralytic") or pursue him ("another character as a pursuer") or both. The sentence that troubles you is Syme's thought that he will be disturbed if he can't figure the Professor out, even if the Professor discovers who he (Syme) is and what his scheme is. The thought is so disturbing, in fact, that he downs his drink quickly.

  • How does the professor being a paralytic obstruct Syme. – matt Jun 18 '17 at 7:47
  • Paralytic as in "causing paralysis" – TriskalJM Jun 18 '17 at 10:55
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I'm not confident of the following, but I should like to suggest it as a possible reading.

The difficulty in the highlighted sentence is, I suggest, to be explained by a particular understanding of the previous one:

If the man had one character as a paralytic and another character as a pursuer, the antithesis might make him more interesting, but scarcely more soothing.

How is it that the "old man" Professor De Worms is able to so effectively pursue Gabriel Syme? Whatever the truth which explains this, it's "not soothing" and the narrator wonders if perhaps it would be better for Syme's psychological health if he doesn't know the truth. If he can manage it, Syme would prefer to continue to believe De Worms to be an old man.

In this way it might be some (small) comfort not to know the devilish means by which Syme was being so effectively pursued.

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