Chesterton’s The Man Who was Thursday: Nightmare or Dream Come True?

Although the delight of civilized readers everywhere, detective fiction is built upon an uncivilized pessimism that expects to find evil lurking behind the most civilized bulwarks—such as a butler. In the labyrinths of the mystery story, it is quite normal for the most mild-mannered of men to be the most murderous of monsters. For Sherlock Holmes and all his brethren, it is quite ordinary for the sympathetic to be discovered as the psychopathic. Goodness is merely a mask to tear away so that wickedness may be exposed. Though the whole point of such tales is to reveal corruption where it is least expected, this principle of a dark topsyturvydom is the one thing that may be entirely expected. The tale to defy all expectation would be one that tore away the mask of hell only to reveal the face of heaven.

The Man Who was Thursday is that tale, and there is no author imaginable besides Gilbert Keith Chesterton who could create such a reversal and render it a paradox of profound poignancy and profound pleasure.

It follows Gabriel Syme, an undercover policeman, who has managed to infiltrate an organization of dangerous and desperate anarchists. To thicken the plot, Mr. Syme has also managed to secure a seat on their leadership council comprised of seven—seven criminal masterminds code-named by the days of the week. Syme is the man who is Thursday. The President is the man who is Sunday—if he can be called a man at all. Each of these men who are a week possess a secret as terrible as the secret of Mr. Syme. All except Sunday, that is, who possesses a secret far, far more terrible than any other secret in the whole world.

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Chesterton CovG. K. Chesterton wrote The Man Who was Thursday in 1908 (fifteen years before his conversion to the Catholic Faith), and it is perhaps his most popular work of fiction. However, in the book’s dedicatory poem to his life-long friend, Edmund Clerihew Bentley, Chesterton warns that this adventure is difficult to understand, being drawn out of a prevalent nihilism and into a realm of ultimate idealism—or perhaps even Catholicism. Moreover, he supposes that it may be the case that no one, except E. C. Bentley, will be able to understand what the story is about. “‘Who shall understand but you?’” Chesterton reminisces in his autobiography, “In reply to which a book-reviewer very sensibly remarked that if nobody understood the book except Mr. Bentley, it seemed unreasonable to ask other people to read it.”

Daring to differ with G. K. C. and the book-reviewer, the remark was not entirely sensible.

It will always be reasonable to ask the human race to run, and The Man Who was Thursday sets a wild and wonderful course. It is a rush against pessimism under the flag of a playful, Pascalian optimism—a revolt against base human nature, courageous enough to imagine a healthier, happier conception of the cosmos. The book is, in Chesterton’s words, “meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was not so black as it was already painted.” Gabriel Syme learned this secret by flying blindly and boldly into its face, surrendering to the possibility that the impossible was possible. And it was not easy. He suffered much to be the man who was Thursday. Moreover, Mr. Syme had to win the name over another candidate. Lucian Gregory, the man who wished to be Thursday, was one who defied the good—even denied the good. He stood up with pride for a pessimism that is unpardonable because it did not wish to be pardoned. It would not serve. It was drunk with delusion, crying out for remedy, for rest—for Sunday.

What can be said of the man who was Sunday? In the words of Mr. Chesterton:

People have asked me whom I mean by Sunday. Well, I think, on the whole, and allowing for the fact that he is a person in the tale—I think you can take him to stand for Nature as distinguished from God. Huge, boisterous, full of vitality, dancing with a hundred legs, bright as the glare of the sun, and at first sight, somewhat regardless of us and our desires. There is a phrase used at the end, spoken by Sunday: “Can ye drink from the cup that I drink of?” which seems to mean that Sunday is God. That is the only serious note in the book, the face of Sunday changes, you tear off the mask of Nature and you find God.

Is Sunday, then, nothing more than a boisterous blasphemy? A crazy caricature of the Creator? No. This novel is a nightmare of falsehoods and deceits—embroiling a people blinded by an overwhelming pessimism, but who live in a world governed by a hidden optimism. God is both brutal and benevolent; and this is the trial of human existence—to discover that the terrible is also the tender. It is such stuff as nightmares are made on—but, in the end, a dream come true. To the question, “Who converted you to Catholicism?” Mrs. Chesterton was known to reply, “The devil.” Yes. Even nightmares can turn us toward the light.

For those who prepare to embark upon this boisterous rush through fog and fear with pistol and cloak, the dedicatory warning of Mr. Chesterton is also a challenge. The Man Who was Thursday is a fast-paced nightmare into the darker depths of human existence, a whirlwind of twists and turns where all experience and knowledge is called into question. Accept the challenge—but bear in mind that only a well-braced wit should be hurled against the paradox of this plot, which is so big that few are able to see its sublime truth.

Only this much can be offered as a clue to unlock this puzzling delight of a book: many diabolical anarchists are actually good citizens in disguise. This story is a cure for those on the brink of madness caused by the despair of living in a world of wolves—because it intimates that they are merely sheep in wolves’ clothing. The mystery of The Man Who was Thursday is the mystery of us all. We are all Job. We are all patriots. We are all rebels. We are all at war with one another and ourselves. We have all suffered, and that suffering shall be our salvation.


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