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

Weird. Nightmare-ish. Imaginative. Chestertonian. Spoilers follow.

The Man Who Was Thursday fits all of these adjectives, and to be honest I’m not sure I understand what Chesterton was doing in this novel about a subversive policeman poet who infiltrates and stands against the forces of anarchy. Only it turns out that there are no real anarchists? Or maybe only one or two? Is Chesterton saying that evil is, in the end, only an illusion? That God provides men with the illusion of evil in order to test them and give them the opportunity to suffer and show courage? Or is it that in order to confront real evil, men must “tested by fire” and know suffering? Maybe I’m not intelligent enough for Chesterton.

However that may be, the plot moves quickly and furiously through madcap chases and revelations and surprises. The characters are rather difficult to keep straight, especially since their essential personalities keep changing or being revealed to be other than what the reader first thought them to be. The story is full of such twists and turns and unexpected developments, and by this literary technique Chesterton draws his readers into a dream world in which reality changes colors and aspects in a rapid-fire sequence of fantastical events.

The penultimate scene in the novel is a Job-like Council in which a Real Anarchist confronts the forces of Law and Order and Righteousness. And the Real Anarchist is answered, as Job was answered, with a question: “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?” The themes of the novel are revealed to be those of redemption through suffering and of the seemingly contradictory faces of God, his justice and his mercy.

It’s a strange nightmare of a vision, and yet Kafka said of Chesterton’s writing, “He is so gay, one might almost believe he had found God.” C.S. Lewis apparently (according to my book’s introduction by Jonathan Lethem) compared Chesterton to Kafka, but Lethem says that Chesterton is instead the anti-Kafka, “so thrilled by his acrobatic stroll along the razor’s edge of nihilism the he earns his sunniness anew on every page.” The book does end with more questions than answers, but also with the main character having “an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” Chesterton’s vision of the epic battle of Good versus Evil ends with a sunrise.

NOTE: I thought the strange and bewildering variety of covers at Amazon was somewhat illustrative of the many ways in which Chesterton’s nightmare turned into good news has been understood (or misunderstood) by various people. In a brief commentary appended to my edition, Chesterton even writes that a group of Bolshevists in Eastern Europe, without the author’s permission, “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.” If so, Chesterton has only himself to thank for writing a story with so many 180 degree turns and unmaskings that when a reader is finished he’s so confused that he’s not sure what’s opposite and what’s inside.

25 thoughts on “The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton

  1. This has got be one of my favorite books ever. I need to read it again (probably several more times) before I might be able to come up with anything intelligent to say about it, but it sure was an interesting ride with tons of the atmosphere that I like so much. Yes, definitely nightmare-ish.

  2. This is one of my all time favorite books. I will need to read it again (probably several times) in order to have something halfway intelligent to say about it, but it sure did have the atmosphere that I love so much. Yes, nightmarish is a good description.

  3. I don’t think I’m smart enough for this one either – I finished reading it and said, “Huh?” I’m not sure what he was geting at, either.

  4. One of my favorite books of all time! I’ve read it several times now and find it just as intriguing and startling as the first time I read it.

    Have you read any of Chesterton’s other book? I also highly recommend “Manalive”–if you haven’t come across that one already. It’s a little less confusing than “Thursday” (although not *quite* as good, in my opinion).

  5. That’s funny, Allison, I’m reading Manalive right now. I’ll let you know what I think.

  6. Thanks for reassuring me that I’m not the only Christian reader who found TMWWT pretty generally confusing. I like Chesterton, though I have a lower view of his fiction than many fans. I liked the conceit that an anarchist’s society was actually a gathering of government infiltrators, but beyond that I could make little of it. But I should probably read it again. It’s been a long time.

  7. I just read this book last month, and I feel like I misunderstood the point. Or, was that the point all along? It was entertaining, but bewildering.
    One thing I did appreciate from the book was that Chesterton’s view of God was that he was wise, unknowable, and terrible at the same time. It reminded me of CS Lewis’ description of Aslan: He was good, but not a *tame* lion.

  8. Glad to hear I’m not the only one who found this book confusing. I read it in college and enjoyed it, I recall–just didn’t understand it. Don’t remember our class discussion being particularly helpful either!

    ~Jeanne

  9. We had a book club discussion of the book last night, and I came away much more enlightened. The other ladies at the book club essentially saw the story as a big joke with a Job-like ending, as I said. It IS fun if you can just go along for the ride and not try to make everything fit neatly into one set interpretive grid.

  10. Maybe I missed a bunch of details, but I wasn’t confused at all. The story was great fun, provided you don’t know some of the things we’ve said in the comments here. As for a point to it all, it’s about suffering. In one chapter, the men all complain about their experiences with Sunday. Each of them come from different viewpoints. One is a Buddhist, I remember. One man is deeply hurt by Sunday’s silence. Another felt he was mocking him. And the anarchist charges him with being ignorant of suffering while cause so much pain on earth. But he answers with the words of Jesus, “Can ye drink of the cup I drink of?” Sunday is claiming to have suffered far more than the anarchist could ever guess. It isn’t so much like Job, because there the Lord says he is sovereign over everything and that Job has no ground for accusation. Here, Sunday claims intimate knowledge of suffering, a direct contradiction of the anarchist’s charge. I think it’s beautiful.

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  12. Gerry Forde

    Hi! This discussion could go on forever! I like your point about suffering Phil W. there is another aspect too – it’s about your ultimate choice in life – when things are at their worst, times of depression, hopelessness (the moment that all the detectives go through in the novel) you make a choice to love life or to despise it. And there’s a lot to dislike – Sunday is like nature – at times full of childish energy (like a bouncing balloon) at others ruthlessly cruel and unfeeling. And that is how life strikes us. In that ” terrible moment”, the choice we make is not from the head, but from the depth of the soul. It’s a step towards life like a leap of faith, blind from the point of view of the conscious mind but making sense on a level that is beyond rational thought. As Sunday says: In that terrible moment you remembered me. And the answer to life’s riddle is not a scientific argument or a set of religious morals but a powerful experince quoted above: “an unnatural buoyancy in his body and a crystal simplicity in his mind that seemed to be superior to everything that he said or did. He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality.” Most of us live halfway between doubt and faith, bewildered by the evil around us then suddenly lifted by sudden acts of kindness. Chesterton descended to the depths of doubt and experienced in his own words, “pure evil”. But even in the heat of hell fire he clung at some deep level to life. He made a radical choice for life on the deepest level and he experienced a spiritual uplift and insight that was permanent. This is a great book for teenagers and young people struggling to come to terms with a world that is often ugly. It was reviewed by an author who as a teenager had murdered her mother. The Man who was Thursday was the most influential book in her life, clearly it turned her around – wish I could remember her name – she followed in Chesterton’s footsteps and writes very successful detective fiction. This is one of the most profound novels ever written and discussion can only help to bring out its power.

  13. Gerry, I believe you’re referring to author Anne Perry (Juliet Hulme) who wrote about her love for Chesterton’s THe Man Who Was Thursday here. She did not murder her own mother, but helped to murder the mother of a close friend. She said:

    “I have always loved G.K. Chesterton, his prose and his poetry. “The Man Who Was Thursday” is so far my favorite single book, for its lyricism, humor and message that we all face the same battles, but to overcome when believing yourself alone, simply because you care so much, is the ultimate victory.”

  14. Gerry Forde

    Thanks Sherry! My apologies to Anne Perry. I read her review of The Man who was Thursday and it brought tears to my eyes – do you have the link to share with us?

  15. I tried reading this for the third time recently, and still didn’t finish it. Each time, I can discern its general direction while reading, but can’t seem to care… It seems like a story that’s a mere screen for its meaning, if that makes any sense.

  16. John R

    I read this novel for my honors literature course and enjoyed it immensely. The philosophy and symbolism is unlike anything that I have ever read….but…i have to that I thought the ending (Syme walking with Gregory and waking up from a dream) did not adequately suffice for the rest of the novel. Chesterton built up this mountain of action, philosophy, mystery, debate, etc. then I feel as if I was shoved off the top by the ending. I feel like the aspect of a dream discredited what he was really trying to say.

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