The Man Who was Thursday
The Man Who was Thursday
G. K. Chesterton
The following entry presents criticism of Chesterton's novel The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare (1908).
Often regarded as Chesterton's finest novel, The Man Who Was Thursday mixes elements of parable, spy fiction, and romantic fantasy as it follows the poet-detective Gabriel Syme on a mission to apprehend a mysterious anarchist known only as Sunday. Seen as humorous, bizarre, and at times diffuse by critics, the work is framed as Syme's dream-adventure and explores the existence of evil and the role of faith in the modern, materialistic world. An early work of Chesterton's, the novel invokes themes common to his writings throughout his career, including meditations on the wonder of life and the limits of human reason. In addition, The Man Who Was Thursday is said to be Chesterton's attack on the prevalent pessimism of his age, and an appeal for renewed optimism based on religious conviction.
Plot and Major Characters
The Man Who Was Thursday opens in the fictional London suburb of Saffron Park. Here two young poets, Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme, debate the relative merits of anarchy versus order. Syme, an undercover detective called upon to infiltrate the Central Anarchist Council, a secret group of seven men who plan to destroy the world, dupes Gregory into leading him deeper into the society. Managing to win the post of Thursday—one of the seven positions in the Council, each of which is named after a day of the week—Syme is brought before its remaining six members the following morning. Sunday—an imposing man of almost inhumanly large proportions—presides over the group, a motley assortment of villains: the Secretary of the Council (Monday) with his twisted smile, a hairy Pole named Gogol (Tuesday), the decadent Marquis de St Eustache (Wednesday), the almost corpse-like Professor de Worms (Friday), and a dark young physician called Dr Bull (Saturday). After some discussion of a plan to assassinate the Russian Czar and the President of the French Republic in Paris three days hence, Sunday exposes Gogol as a fraud—who, unbeknownst to Syme, was also working for Scotland Yard. Sunday, concerned that there might be a further breach of secrecy, leaves the details of the bombing to Dr Bull and the Marquis. Following the meeting Professor de Worms tracks down Syme and explains that he too is a police agent, and the two join forces only to learn that Dr Bull is likewise an undercover detective. The trio then travel to France, where Syme engages the Marquis in a duel in order to prevent him from reaching Paris and bombing the world leaders. After some swordplay the Frenchman removes his mask and introduces himself as Ratcliffe, a detective like the others. Meanwhile beset upon by Monday and a gang of masked men, a lengthy chase ensues until the Secretary catches Syme and his companions and reveals his own police credentials. Gogol soon joins the group, and all six men return to England in order to capture Sunday. The president eludes his pursuers, however, escaping by cab, elephant, and hot-air balloon. When the flight ends at Sunday's house the narrative takes on an even more fantastic tone as the six detectives are treated to the president's hospitality. After resting they are asked to clothe themselves in costumes that represent each of the six days of Biblical creation. The bewildered men are then brought before Sunday. In answer to their queries about who he really is, he replies, "I am the Sabbath.… I am the peace of God." Soon after, Syme awakes from this vision and finds himself again in Saffron Park. Dawn is breaking and he is still walking with Gregory, conversing as they had been before.
Many critics find the key to The Man Who Was Thursday in Syme's shifting perceptions of Sunday. The detective initially experiences a vague sense of evil in the presence of this enigmatic figure, but this foreboding is later replaced with an awed respect for the man, who is thought to represent the human failure to completely fathom the paradoxes of life and nature. Chesterton further dramatizes the limits of human understanding in the inability of Syme and the other police detectives to recognize one another for what they really are—each provides a threat that is only perceived, and is in actuality an ally in disguise. Overall, the novel is said to portray Chesterton's comic vision of the universe, one in which evil is nothing more than an illusion. Sunday, rather than being a menace to humanity, simply provides a test of Syme's faith and perseverance. In addition, the work is often seen as a social critique, in which Chesterton contrasts the noble qualities and hopeful optimism of Syme with what he saw as the prevalent attitude of pessimism and nihilism in vogue among his contemporaries.
Early critical speculation about The Man Who Was Thursday often focused on the allegorical qualities of Sunday and a perceived lack of artistic control on Chesterton's part in the work, when not merely dismissing the novel altogether. At the time of its publication, even Chesterton saw his story as a somewhat amusing piece that was of considerably less consequence than many of his other writings. Several decades later, however, he set out to clarify some of the misconceptions that he had observed among critics. He answered them in his 1936 Autobiography, writing, "The point is that the whole story is a nightmare of things, not as they are, but as they seemed to the young half-pessimist of the '90s; and the ogre who appears brutal but is also cryptically benevolent is not so much God, in the sense of religion or irreligion, but rather Nature as it appears to the pantheist, whose pantheism is struggling out of pessimism." In the years since, C. S. Lewis has favorably compared the work to the dream-allegory of Franz Kafka, commenting on similarities of method and the shared theme in both writers of human bewilderment in relation to the vastness of the universe. The work has also been praised for its tongue-in-cheek humor and valued as a precursor of modern detective fiction, described by some, according to Miles Copeland, as "the best spy book ever written."
SOURCE: "Mr. Chesterton's Allegory of Anarchism," in The Bookman, London, Vol. XXXIV, No. 199, April, 1908, p. 23.
[In the following review, Barry praises The Man Who Was Thursday as a skillful attack against anarchistic and decadent intellectual stance.]
There are many ways of preaching a lay sermon; and it would be strange if Mr. Chesterton did not take his own. For he combines gifts which are seldom found together. With rare insight he has detected the glory of the commonplace; he is certain that genius and the ordinary man agree in their judgment about life, death, marriage, morals, and all the things that signify. Therefore he despises in good-humoured fashion the crank, the law-breaker, the "immoralist"—senseless persons who strike an attitude because they can do nothing else. But while cleaving to the old, he arrays it in new garments of a most surprising cut and lively colours. Why should paradox be always enlisted on the wrong side? Who has a better right to laugh than the man that believes in plain and saving Realism? Laugh, accordingly, in the very thick of a struggle to defend the Highest Law, our philosopher does, yet not without grimness, for the smoke of the nether deeps circles around him. The echo of that laugh reminds us in its peculiar accent, at once grave and gay, of Robert Louis Stevenson. And, on the whole, it is Stevenson's creed that is set before us, healthy, brave,...
(The entire section is 892 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Man Who Was Thursday, in The Dial, Chicago, Vol. XLV, No. 520, August 16, 1908, p. 89.
[The longtime literary editor of several Chicago publications, Payne reviewed books for twenty-three years at the Dial, one of America's most influential journals of literature and opinion in the early twentieth century. In the following review, he faults The Man Who Was Thursday for its improbable premises.]
Among our audacious latter-day sophists, who so neatly make the worse appear the better reason, Mr. Chesterton is gaining a high place. Indeed, he may almost dispute the honors of leadership with the priest-in-chief of the cult of paradox, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw. His latest "budget of paradoxes" takes the form of a novel—or, rather, of a fantastic invention, which has to be described as fiction because it bears no conceivable relation to reality. Even the author balks at his own imaginings, and passes off the whole invention as a dream when he comes to the last chapter. It is called The Man Who Was Thursday, and has to do with the conflict between anarchy and order. A central council of anarchists, seven in number, bear the names of the days of the week (which accounts for our title), and, under the leadership of an awe-inspiring Sunday, develop their programme of treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The gigantic humor of the conception is that these seven men are...
(The entire section is 349 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man Who Was Thursday," in G. K C. as M C.: Being a Collection of Thirty-Seven Poems, edited by J. P. de Fonseka, Methuen & Co. Ltd., 1929, pp. 202-07.
[In the following essay, which was originally published in 1926 as an introduction to Mrs. Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale's stage adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton comments on the origins and themes of his novel.]
It is the more desirable that I should write a few lines to express my thanks to those who have here paid my story [The Man Who Was Thursday (a play in three acts, adapted from the novel by G. K. Chesterton), by Mrs. Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale. Messers. Ernest Benn, Ltd., 1926.] the compliment of casting it in another and (quite probably) a better form, because long after I had given to them, and to them alone, such authorization as I am capable of giving, a rather ridiculous rivalry or invasion of their rights in the matter occurred, it would appear, in Eastern Europe. The Bolshevists have done a good many silly things; but the most strangely silly thing that ever I heard of was that they tried to turn this Anti-Anarchist romance into an Anarchist play. Heaven only knows what they really made of it; beyond apparently making it mean the opposite of everything it meant. Probably they thought that being able to see that a policeman is funny means thinking that a policeman is futile....
(The entire section is 1296 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man Who Was Thursday (1947)," in G. K Chesterton: A Half Century of Views, edited by D. J. Conlon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, pp. 72-4.
[Waugh was England's leading satirical novelist of the mid-twentieth century. In such works as Vile Bodies (1930), Scoop (1938), and The Loved One (1948), he skewered such targets as the bored young sophisticates of the 1920s, the questionable values of the British press, and the American commercial trivialization of death. Considered a major Catholic author after his conversion in 1930, Waugh is best known today for his novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), which examines the lives of members of a wealthy Catholic family. In the following essay, which was originally published in The Commonweal on 21 March 1947, he notes that the circumstances of the happy ending portrayed in Chesterton's novel seem improbable to readers of the post-World War II generation.]
The need for a secret society is one that many story-tellers have felt. Most good stories are, in some fashion, the conflict between Good and Evil, and whereas it is easy enough to pile up virtues until some fairly plausible hero has been created, villains, however black the crimes attributed to them, tend to remain limp in their makers' hands. Iago is wicked, but the reasons he gives for his actions are so fatuous that few readers, offhand, can remember...
(The entire section is 1191 words.)
SOURCE: "Paradox and Nightmare," in Chesterton: Man and Mask, Sheed & Ward, 1961, pp. 35-54.
[Wills is an American editor, educator, and critic who has written on diverse topics, including Chesterton, Catholicism, and race relations. He is best known for political commentaries, especially his examination of Richard Nixon's political career, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man (1970). In the following excerpt, he places The Man Who Was Thursday in the context of Chesterton's developing personal philosophy.]
The Wild Knight is typical, and a guide to Chesterton's work, precisely because it was born out of his early bafflement. It is true that Chesterton does not mention it when listing the works which sprang from this crisis, but that is almost certainly because of its attacks on priestcraft and narrow dogma. Instead, he cites The Man Who Was Thursday as the most complete expression of his youthful encounter with the aesthetes. Although the novel did not appear until 1908, its dedicatory poem bears out Chesterton's memory of the matter. The story of his plight is indirectly presented here (not, be it noticed, as a private fancy of his own adolescence, but as an historic mood shared by many). Solipsism and Impressionism are the foes:
Science announced nonentity and art admired decay.
Stevenson and Whitman are the allies:...
(The entire section is 2094 words.)
SOURCE: Review of The Man Who Was Thursday, in The New York Times Book Review, October 13, 1968, p. 2.
[A distinguished English novelist, poet, essayist, and editor, Amis was one of the Angry Young Men, a group of British writers of the 1950s whose writings expressed bitterness and disillusionment with society. Amis's first and most widely praised novel, Lucky Jim (1954), is characteristic of the movement and demonstrates his skill as a satirist. Amis later rejected alliance with any literary group, pursuing instead his own artistic aims. Throughout his career Amis sustained an interest in science fiction; he was coeditor of the Spectrum anthologies and was the author of one of the first major critical surveys of the genre in New Maps of Hell (1960). In the following essay, he offers an appreciation of Chesterton's novel.]
Of supposedly serious contemporary writers, Gilbert Keith Chesterton was the first to make a strong and genuine impression on me. "Contemporary" is perhaps misleading: he and I only overlapped by 14 years, but I had come to value him enough to be dashed and bewildered by his death in 1936. One never quite gets over any early attachment. Even now I see something romantic, almost heroic, about Chesterton, while deploring what in those days I knew nothing of, his self-indulgent polemical writing and the whimsical playing with paradoxes so common in his later...
(The entire section is 1475 words.)
SOURCE: "Detectives and Apocalypses," in G. K. Chesterton, Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1974, pp. 120-44.
[In the following excerpt, Clipper highlights the religious themes of The Man Who Was Thursday.]
If one wishes to date the beginning of Chesterton's commitment to religion as an answer to the problems of modern man, it is safe to point to 1908, the year of both Orthodoxy and The Man Who Was Thursday. In a later essay, he said that the novel was written "in the middle of a thick London fog of positive pessimism and materialism," and the dedication to E. C. Bentley speaks of that era when
A cloud was on the mind of men, and wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul when we were boys together.
The subtitle A Nightmare, underscores one of its features (and also relates it to almost all his other romances). In the nightmare the hero, a young poet named Syme, hears of a Super-Council of Anarchists bent on the destruction of society, law, and religion. When Syme vows to fight this monstrous conspiracy, he joins a chapter of detectives whose sole purpose is to track down and destroy the anarchists. By accident, he is then introduced into a meeting of the Council of Seven Days, the very Anarchist Super-Council he has been seeking. The strange name is derived from the fact that its seven members...
(The entire section is 1070 words.)
SOURCE: "The Pre-War Novels," in The Novels of G. K Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda, Barnes & Noble Books, 1975, pp. 40-76.
[In the following excerpt, Boyd centers on the various types of allegory apparent in Chesterton's novel.]
It is difficult to find any obvious common characteristic in the novels which Chesterton published between 1908 and 1914. They mark a distinctive period in his literary development and accurately reflect his political thinking in the pre-War years, but more than any other group of novels they create the impression of being heterogeneous in character. The themes found in each of them suggest his preoccupations in a particular period, but they are themes which link them not so much to each other, but to the earlier and later groups of novels. The curious double allegory of The Man Who Was Thursday has only a slight connection with the themes developed in the other pre-War novels, but its dramatization of a purely personal mood and its treatment of anarchy and order anticipates some of the themes dealt with in the later fiction, particularly in The Poet and the Lwatkcs and Tbe Paradoxes of Mr Pond. Manalive has the same curious air of being isolated from the other novels in the pre-War group, but its treatment of the theme of wonder recalls The Napoleon of Notting Hill and the part played by Innocent Smith recalls the role of Father Michael...
(The entire section is 4664 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man Who Was Thursday (1975)," in A Half Century of Views, edited by D. J. Conlon, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1987, pp. 335-42.
[In the following essay, which was originally published as an introduction to The Man Who Was Thursday, Wills discusses Chesterton's use of symbolism in the novel.]
Chesterton restrained himself from being Edgar Allan Poe or Franz Kafka, but something in the makeup of his personality leaned toward the nightmarish, something secret, and blind and central.
Borges, Other Inquisitions
This 1908 novel [The Man Who Was Thursday] has long enjoyed a kind of underground cult among those with a special interest in fantasy. It is the story of a conspiratorial council of seven anarchists, each one named for a day of the week, with the mysterious Sunday as their president. Admirers of the tale have included J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, W. H. Auden, Jorge Luis Borges, and T. S. Eliot. Kingsley Amis has frequently written about it. Yet the wider reading public remains largely unaware of it.
No wonder. It is a detective story that seems to solve itself too easily, and lose its mystery. But those who stay with it, even after they think they have seen through it, are teased back and back by its ultimately unresolved nature, all the puzzles that...
(The entire section is 3417 words.)
SOURCE: "Politics and Perspective in The Man Who Was Thursday," in The Chesterton Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, November, 1981, pp. 329-36.
[Leigh is an American educator and critic. In the following essay, he analyzes Chesterton's use of allegory in The Man Who Was Thursday.]
The rediscovery of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday by the critics (and even by Time, April 7, 1975) has illuminated the complexity of the allegorical nightmare which even G.K.C. admitted was overloaded with meaning. Although most critics—e.g., Barker, Clipper, Wills, Youngberg—call Thursday Chesterton's best novel, several critics find serious flaws of incoherence. In particular, Ian Boyd finds the novel's two allegories—philosophical and political—"never completely integrated into a coherent whole" [The Novels of G. K Chesterton: A Study in Art and Propaganda, 1975].
In this article, I will contend that Thursday can be read as a coherent pattern blending three main allegories: the approach to the Ultimate (chapters 1-12), the revelation of the nature of the Ultimate (chapters 13-15), and the social-political consequences of these two main allegories (passim). In interpreting these three allegories, the reader must adjust to the genre of eschatological allegory. In eschatological symbolism, the primary meaning dominates, in either its metaphysical implications (the...
(The entire section is 2478 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man Who Was Thursday," in Litterae et Lingua: In Honorem Premislavi Mroczkowski, edited by Jan Nowakowski, Zaklad Narodowy im. Ossolinakich, 1984, pp. 141-52.
[In the following essay, Ostrowski examines the relationship between the conventions of detective novels, the phenomena of nightmares, and the structure of The Man Who Was Thursday.]
G. K. Chesterton's book The Man Who Was Thursday is one of the most curious and interesting literary compositions to a scholar who studies the relationship between the meaning and the structure and the typology of the novel.
Chesterton himself saw in the book "the very formless form of a piece of fiction", but a form justified by the fact that it was related to a nightmare. In fact, writing in his Autobiography about the disorientation of the critics which the book had provoked, he says: "But what interests me about it was this; that hardly anybody who looked at the title ever seems to have looked at the sub-title; which was 'A Nightmare', and the answer to a good many critical questions."
NIGHTMARE AS MEANING AND FORM
Perhaps the best starting point for an analysis of this novel is to take the hint from the author and to concentrate on the word Nightmare. It implies both a certain characteristic content and a certain form in which the unpleasant content is presented....
(The entire section is 5832 words.)
SOURCE: "The Man Who Was Orthodox," in Gilbert: The Man Who Was G. K. Chesterton, Jonathan Cape, 1989, pp. 167-89.
[It the following excerpt, Coren provides an overview of The Man Who Was Thursday.]
Gilbert's second novel, a work which he was unsure of and not satisfied with, appeared in the February of 1908. Subtitled 'A Nightmare', as The Man Who Was Thursday it received more recognition than any of his previous writings. He dedicated it to Edmund Clerihew Bentley, with an introductory poem
A cloud was on the mind of men,
And wailing went the weather,
Yea, a sick cloud upon the soul
When we were boys together.
Science announced nonentity
And art admired decay;
The world was old and ended:
But you and I were gay;
Round us in antic order
Crippled vices came—
Lust that had lost its laughter,
Fear that had lost its shame.
Like the white lock of Whistler,
That lit our aimless gloom,
Men showed their own white feather
As proudly as a plume.
Life was a fly that faded,
And death a drone that stung;
The world was very old indeed
When you and I were young.
They twisted even decent sin
To shapes not to be named:
(The entire section is 1777 words.)
Carter, Huntley. "Chesterton on the Moscow Stage." The Outlook LIII, No. 1362 (8 March 1924): 156-57.
Sees in the Moscow Kamerny Theatre adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday a display of the dual nature of the Chestertonian hero—as both collectivist and individualist.
Review of The Man Who Was Thursday. The Dublin Review 143, No. 286 (July 1908): 190-91.
Calls The Man Who Was Thursday "a very fine parable," but faults Chesterton's lack of restraint in the work.
Youngberg, Karin. "Job and the Gargoyles: A Study of The Man Who Was Thursday." The Chesterton Review II, No. 2 (Spring-Summer 1976): 240-52.
Analysis of The Man Who Was Thursday that concentrates on the work as a piece of detective fiction concerned with paradox and "the riddles of life." Summarizes by calling the novel "a fantasy-search for meaning in the modern world."
Additional coverage of Chesterton's life and career is contained in the following sources published by Gale Research: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 132; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 10,19, 34, 70, 98,149; Major Twentieth-Century Writers, Something about the Author, Vol. 27; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 1; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 6....
(The entire section is 181 words.)