The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

“The suburb of Saffron Park lay on the sunset side of London, as red and ragged as a cloud of sunset.”

Why, oh why, does Chesterton confuse me so?  At first this book appeared to start as a mystery.  Two poets meet in Saffron Park, one, Lucian Gregory, a creative anarchist, the other, Gabriel Syme, a conservative poet and undercover police detective.  By his wit and resources, Syme infiltrates the anarchist’s group called the Central Anarchist Council, getting himself named one of its seven members, christened “Thursday”.  Yet can he stop the assassination attempt the group is planning and expose this dastardly anarchical organization?

The book is much more than a mystery, which readily becomes apparent as the reader makes his way through the entertaining yet confusing prose. There was an initial discussion about anarchy and art, yet I soon realized that the two poets were comparing anarchy and law.  As I read my way through, various questions arose.  Why were the council members named after the days of the week?  Does this point towards some sort of creation story?  Why do all the members who appear evil are not as they seem? What are they really fighting against?  Why is the subtitle “A Nightmare”?  And what was the point of Syme’s promise to Gregory? It is mentioned numerous times so it should have some importance.

Yet the big question that hangs over the characters and the reader alike is: Who is the leader of the group, Sunday?  The Professor, named Friday, reveals:

“I confess that I should feel a bit afraid of asking Sunday who he really is.” 

“Why,” asked the Secretary, “for fear of bombs?” 

“No,” said the Professor, “for fear that he might tell me.”

In one review, the reviewer claimed that Sunday represents Nature.  Well, perhaps.  He is both benign and frightening, as this description shows:

“You would not know [his name] ……  That is his greatness.  Caesar and Napoleon put all their genius into being heard of, and they were heard of.  He puts all his genius into not being heard of, and his is not heard of.  But you cannot be for five minutes in the room with him without feeling that Caesar and Napoleon would have been children in his hands.”

Sunday’s words about himself are even more chilling:

“Since the beginning of the world all men have hunted me like a wolf —- kings and sages, and poets and law-givers, all the churches, and all the philosophers.  But I have never been caught yet, and the skies will fall in the time I turn to bay.  I have given them a good run for their money ……….  There’s one thing I’ll tell you though about who I am.  I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen.”

After its publication in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday came under a storm of critical approval.  Frighteningly complex, it has been  hailed as “amazingly clever”,  “shamelessly beautiful prose”, “a remarkable acrobatic performance” and “a scurrying, door-slamming farce that ends like a chapter in the Apocalypse.”  One reader declared himself “dazed” at the end of it, which perfectly described my puzzled demeanor as I closed the last page.

Gilbert Keith Chesterton (1909)
source Wikipedia

As you see, reading the book brought about more questions than answers, so instead I will leave you with a taste of what others have said about this novel:

“Roughly speaking, it’s about anarchists …… And roughly speaking, it’s a mystery story.  It can be guaranteed that you will never, never guess the solution until you get to the end —- it is even feared that you may not guess it then.  You may never guess what The Man Who Was Thursday is about.  But definitely, if you don’t, you’ll ask. “ 

                                                                     ~  Orson Welles  ~

“…… mystery and allegory take their turn in the scene.  Life, huge, shapeless, cruel and loving, killing and saving, full of antitheses, appearing to each one under a different aspect, measuring each man according to the strength of his soul, turns its strange face upon us.  Life, whose soul is law, nature, whose expression is law, confront the frantic lawlessness of struggling man —- and behold, those very struggles prove to be based on law again.  And when at the last you sit on the thrones with the Council of Days, you see the mad, miraculous world dance by, moving to a harmony none the less invincible because only half heard.”
                                                ~  Hildegarde Hawthorne  ~

I highly recommend this book to ……….. well, to anyone!  Read it as a mystery, read it as a commentary, read it as philosophy,  read it as a fantasy, read it as theology —- it has something for everyone. Perhaps it should be described as a mystery without end, a true symphony of brilliance by Chesterton, in which nothing is ever how it seems!

If you’ve read The Man Who Was Thursday, what do you think the story was about?

Further Reading:

12 thoughts on “The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

  1. I was so delightedly confused at first when reading this book, and nicely surprised. need to go back to it. thanks for sharing

  2. I think that you'd really enjoy it and I'd love to hear your thoughts on it. It is bizarre but I think Hawthorne's explanation pegged it best. I can't believe that I recently finished it and am already anxious to read it again!

  3. It was brilliant! *** laughs gleefully **** He has many more to choose from —- I think I'll try The Man Who Knew Too Much next. Even his Father Brown mysteries, while a little more mainstream, are chock full of underlying themes. Fun!

  4. I started reading The Man Who Was Thursday a long time ago and just couldn't finish it. I think I've matured a little as a reader since then and would now finish it. And given that I've enjoyed everything else I've read by Chesterton, I think I would end up enjoying this. I think I see reading this on the horizon.

  5. Your brilliant review makes me want to read this book again even though I have already read it twice. The first time, many years ago, I just didn't get it. The second time I got it but really liked it more as a philosophy book more than a detective mystery.The detective story device is clever, but it is not my favorite Chesterton. My favorite Chesterton, also my all-time favorite book, is his Orthodoxy, which I have read six or seven times and would be happy to read again any time. I like the Father Brown Mysteries especially "The Secret of Father Brown" and I am currently almost through The Man Who Knew Too Much.

  6. I do think you'd enjoy it now. I'll keep looking for a review of it on your blog. I'm curious as to what your reaction would be to it. I don't think anyone has read this book and said, "ah, I get it!" ….. Well, maybe good, old Hildegarde Hawthorne judging from her quote above, but nobody else. 🙂

  7. I've read his Father Brown mysteries, The Man Who Was Thursday (of course) and Orthodoxy. Oh my, Orthodoxy completely flummoxed me. I thought I'd be okay after being comfortable with C.S. Lewis, but no. I'm not sure if it was because I'm lacking a Catholic perspective, or Chesterton is simply much more brilliant than I thought. In any case, if you ever want to do a buddy read of it, I'm game. It's another book that I have mentally filed in my "Huh?-I-need-to-reread-this." category. Fortunately there are only a few books in that category ….. so far …. 🙂

    Thanks for your kind words. I'll be looking forward to reading your review of The Man Who Knew Too Much.

  8. The second read clarified a few things, plus I bought an edition which had an appendix where Chesterton explains what he was thinking when he wrote it. I almost want to do another review but it would be more Chesterton's words than mine. He had a point but he also put alot of fun and silliness into the novel, so taking it completely seriously is not the best way to approach it. I hope you get the chance to read it again. I just listened to The Man Who Knew Too Much and it was great! I highly recommend it!

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