Chesterton’s Overrated Novella

This year marks the pseudo-centennial of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. (First published as a pilot edition in 1907, the work was published in wider numbers the following year.) Journals as divergent as The New Yorker and The National Review have honored the anniversary with positive assessments of the book, which — like most of Chesterton’s work — has long been a favorite in conservative Catholic circles. In some regards, the book’s continued popularity is understandable, but I can’t help but think that Thursday deserves less praise than it generally receives.
 
The nightmare — as the author made a point of calling it — was Chesterton’s reaction to the culture of the 1890s, “when pessimism was dogmatic” and, through the ideas of aesthetes, nihilists, and anarchists, darkened the culture like “a thick London fog.” Without presenting Pollyannaish optimism as an alternative, Chesterton hoped to show the shallowness of anarchy, and to illustrate that those who thought themselves outnumbered in the fight against disorder had more allies than they suspected.
 
The work follows the poet-cum-detective Gabriel Syme in his “holy war” against anarchists. At the book’s opening Syme is working undercover at a garden party, where he engages in a debate about the nature of art — and, implicitly, about politics and theology — with Lucian Gregory, a poet who also happens to be an anarchist. Gregory’s politics inform his poetics: “An artist disregards all governments,” he proclaims, “abolishes all conventions. The poet delights in disorder only. If it were not so, the most poetical thing in the world would be the Underground Railway.” Syme, on the other hand, sees order as a truly remarkable achievement::
 
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull . . . .
 
As an articulation of the difference between traditional and modern theories of art, it’s hard to beat these remarks. (Though Orthodoxy, published the same year, also has many good ones.)And, of course, it’s funny. Chesterton’s humor always surprises me, because in photographs he looks like a walrus whose clams have been stolen.
 
Gregory, eager to impress Syme with the seriousness of his devotion to the New World Disorder, invites his rival to join him at a meeting of anarchists. There, Gregory expects to be elected to the prestigious General Anarchist Council, replacing a deceased member (code-named Thursday). Gregory’s hopes are spoiled when, in an especially funny scene, Syme delivers a speech so enthusiastically anarchic that he is himself elected the new Thursday.
 
At his first meeting with the General Anarchist Council, Syme meets an array of unpleasant-looking men, each with a day of the week as a nom d’anarchie; the most sinister and mysterious of these men is the Council’s president, Sunday. The meeting is productive: They discuss plans to assassinate the tsar of Russia and the president of France; and they discover and dismiss another undercover agent. The presence of a fellow spy shocks Syme, but in his ensuing attempts to foil the assassination he learns that all the other Council members were also in his detective unit. The exception, of course, is Sunday, who they eventually realize (long after the readers) is also the police chief who had hired them. The final chapters see the detectives chase and confront Sunday to determine his identity and the purpose of his machinations.
 
 
And now, to get myself in trouble with Chesterton’s many devoted readers. I agree that the story’s premise is clever, that many of its ideas about art, faith, and politics are provocative and enduring, and that Chesterton’s language is often wonderful. Still, I can’t bring myself to proclaim the work the masterpiece that many people believe it is.
 
For one thing — and I know this goes against everything that other readers say about the work — it is sometimes surprisingly monotonous, especially for such a short book. Sixconsecutive chapters follow essentially the same arc: a character (or characters) chases another character; the character is caught; just before a moment of conflict, the characters discover that they are fighting for the same side, and none of them is an anarchist. This movement is entertaining the first time; it is less entertaining the second time; it is maddeningly predictable the third time, despite moments of slapstick humor. I suppose a literary-historical defense of this repetition is that it recalls the standard dream-vision trope in which the dreamer makes the same errors. But such repetitions in works like Piers Plowman and The Divine Comedy are more succinct and much less predictable.
 
Adding to the monotony of these chases is that the last one ends in an especially unconvincing way. In France, a French colonel assists the detectives in their flight from what they think is an anarchist mob. The colonel knows the details of the intrigue and has joined the detectives because, as he explains, “I have fought for France, and it is hard if I can’t fight for civilization.” Later, when he sees that a friend of his has apparently joined the anarchists, he approaches the mob to talk some sense into him. Instead, however, the colonel joins the mob and pursues the detectives, who reasonably conclude that he has been converted to the forces of anarchy.
 
If the end of this chase isn’t already predictable to the reader, perhaps the colonel’s betrayal adds to the scene’s suspense. But even then it makes no sense: The colonel already knows that the detectives are not anarchists; he also knows that they had previously suspected each other of being anarchists, but that they had proven their true identities to each other. In other words, he knows both sides of the story, so once he learned that the mob wasn’t anarchic either, he would have been able to explain the adversaries to each other and end the chase.
 
I hope I don’t sound like the sort of person who complains that Star Wars is unrealistic. (Pushing up glasses, lecturing, “It’s highly unlikely that such a swamp could sustain organic life forms of that particular variety.”) I realize that there is supposed to be quite a bit of the fantastic in the nightmare. But the shortcoming I’m identifying isn’t the fantastic, it’s the inconsistent. Even fantasy has to abide by an internal logic. The consequence is that this climactic revelation falls flat, a disappointment that is reinforced when the mob that had been chasing the detectives — a mob that for the past two chapters had “moved with a dreadful and wicked woodenness, like a staring army of automatons” and “like black treacle,” with “an organized hate” and “all the energy of Attila,” — finally . . . well, we never learn what happens to them. We only know that they were finally good guys, but with friends like them, who needs anarchists?
 
 
All of this is before the conclusion, which is what usually gives people fits. The character of Sunday is a particular problem, because the entire purpose of the nightmare rests on his identity and significance. Chesterton explained that, contrary to what the character’s name implies, Sunday represents not God but “Nature as distinguished from God.” And elsewhere: “the ogre who appears brutal but is also cryptically benevolent is not so much God . . . but rather nature as it appears to the pantheist.” (One of the book’s most famous devotees, Kingsley Amis, rejected this explanation, and was convinced that Sunday was God.)
 
Gary Wills and others have pointed out that the book’s mystifying conclusion can be understood in the context of the Book of Job, in which God declares (in Chesterton’s words) “if there is one fine thing about the world, as far as men are concerned, it is that it cannot be explained.” The detectives do not understand who Sunday is or why he has led them on the chase; the closest thing to a definite answer is Syme’s suggestion that such suffering may be salvific. When the anarchist-poet Gregory returns and, repeating Satan’s challenge to God at the beginning of Job, claims that those who have faith do so because they do not suffer, Syme suddenly realizes that he had endured the nightmare:
 
So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, “You lie!” No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser, “We also have suffered.”
 
Their suffering, then, has made them Job-like, if not Christ-like. But Job sheds only so much light on Thursday. Because it was Satan who put Job through his trials, the Job-inflected reading implies something not only brutal but downright devilish about Sunday, an interpretation that Chesterton himself rejected.
 
Readers looking for a clear meaning of Sunday, then, will likely be disappointed by the nightmare. Is the obscurity of Sunday’s identity a major part of the book’s meaning, as it mimics the inscrutability of God’s power as presented in Job? That is possible, but the Book of Job is comprehensible, even if God’s power in it is not. Thursday, on the other hand, seems to commit the imitative fallacy by being mystifying itself to show the mystery of God’s ways.
 
I recognize that Thursday is an important contribution to Catholic letters, and I do not wish to remove it from anyone’s reading list. But it is not a masterpiece, and Chesterton’s reputation should not obscure that fact.
 
Note: there are many editions of The Man Who Was Thursday. The ones I found most helpful are both published by Ignatius: The Annotated Thursday, edited by Martin Gardner, and Volume VI of Chesterton’s Collected Works, edited by Denis J. Conlon. (The latter also includes The Club of Queer Trades and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.) Both have helpful notes as well as long extracts by Chesterton that illuminate the nightmare. Readers less obsessive-compulsive than I will have no problem finding editions by Penguin or Barnes & Noble.
 

Christopher J. Scalia is an assistant professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise. He is the literary editor of InsideCatholic.com.

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  • Christopher Scalia

    Christopher Scalia is an Assistant Professor of English at the University of Virginia’s College at Wise.

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