The Man Who Was Thursday

by G. K. Chesterton

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G. K. Chesterton is famous both as a writer of mystery stories and as a Christian apologist. In The Man Who Was Thursday, he joins the two roles. Throughout his work, Chesterton often tries to show that the joy and excitement of life do not come from destruction, negation, rebellion, and heresy, but instead from the defense of orthodoxy, which for him includes both creativity and order. To a large extent, Chesterton was reacting against the nihilism and materialism that had become fashionable in the 1890’s. Syme, like Chesterton himself, believes that struggling to maintain order and tradition is both more noble and more exciting than fighting to destroy them.

Chesterton often compares the defenders of order—in this novel, the police detectives—to the knights of the chivalric romances. From the moment he takes his place on the Central Anarchist Council, Syme carries a sword—first a sword cane, then a true knightly sword at the dress ball. He fights a duel, like a knight in single combat, to keep the anarchists at bay. When he realizes that he is alone in his struggle, he recalls passages from the medieval French epic The Song of Roland, which describes a Christian hero fighting alone against the Saracens. The defenders of order are heroes like the knights of old, and like the crusaders, they are fighting in a losing cause. That they fight in isolation for a hopeless cause seems to be part of their joy: Syme is happy because he is on the right side, even when he thinks it will not be the winning side. Sunday’s final statement confers the rebel’s dignity not only on the men who defend order but also on God himself, because as Jesus Christ, God the Son took on that role.

The novel’s allegory shows all things as coming from the same source. The forces of both order and disorder turn out to have the same leader. That figure, like the God of the Old Testament, hides himself. When he commissions his detectives, he meets them in a darkened room and speaks with his back turned. He reveals himself at last, however, as the source of all good. The detectives ultimately discover that they are not alone: They are like the angelic members of the heavenly court, looking at a wild but still orderly ball that represents all of creation. Even Gregory has his place there, taking on the role of Satan from the Book of Job and asking the question that elicits the final proof of the Lord’s righteousness. Gabriel Syme’s first name is that of an archangel, and Lucian Gregory’s recalls Lucifer, the fallen angel.

The world that Chesterton’s fantasy describes is a joyous adventure and a deliberate contrast to the grim, mechanistic struggle for existence that writers such as Herbert Spencer had described in the wake of Darwinism. Chesterton tries to show that many wonders go unnoticed simply because they are too familiar. The fact that a train departing from one station can be relied on to arrive at another is a poetic truth, a triumph for humanity, and almost a form of magic, not simply a prosaic fact. The novel is full of disguises and costumes that in fact reveal the glorious essence that would otherwise go unnoticed.

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Critical Evaluation