The Man Who Was Thursday The Man Who was Thursday - Essay

G. K. Chesterton


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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."

William Barry (essay date 1908)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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, rather high-strung, tender at last with a pity that hides itself in schoolboy fun and frolic.

But all do not construe allegory when they see it; a nightmare is an uncanny sort of vision, and the crowd may not understand. The Man Who Was Thursday begins like any other Anarchist make-up; singularly resembling "The Angel of the Revolution," but ironical, whereas that was no more playful than a thrust with a dagger. We get the thrill and the shock and are led cleverly astray. The "special constables of order"—a conception worthy of Sir Conan Doyle—put us on the qui vive; but for a time bewilder us, as they ought in so good a story. Their purpose—and here Mr. Chesterton means what he...

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William Morton Payne (essay date 1908)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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 really Scotland Yard detectives, spying upon each other; for each of them thinks that all the others are genuine anarchists. The amount of fun that Mr. Chesterton gets out of this situation may readily be imagined, as well as the opportunity it affords him for the exercise of his talent for paradox. Like most dreams, the story grows more wildly impossible as the awakening is neared. It is a highly entertaining yarn, and exhibits the author in the light in which he ought always to be viewed—the light of a man not for a moment to be taken seriously upon any subject, but simply to be admired for a combination of nimble wit with diabolical cleverness.

G. K. Chesterton (essay date 1926)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Evelyn Waugh (essay date 1947)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Garry Wills (essay date 1961)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kingsley Amis (essay date 1968)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Lawrence J. Clipper (essay date 1974)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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,...

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Ian Boyd (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Garry Wills (essay date 1975)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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David J. Leigh, S. J. (essay date 1981)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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....

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Witold Ostrowski (essay date 1984)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Michael Coren (essay date 1989)

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.


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