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."