The Man Who Was Thursday
He came of a family of cranks, in which all the oldest people had all the newest notions. One of his uncles always walked about without a hat, and another had made an unsuccessful attempt to walk about with a hat and nothing else.
"The most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men."
There he saw the sister of Gregory, the girl with gold-red hair, cutting lilac before breakfast, with the great unconscious gravity of a girl.
The Man Who Was Thursday
A spiritual mystery
If you come to Chesterton's avowed masterpiece expecting a piece of early twentieth-century realism, you're going to be very surprised.
If you come to it having heard that it's a mystery—hopefully along the lines of his beloved Father Brown stories—you may also be very disappointed.
In fact, I can't think of anything that might prepare you for The Man Who Was Thursday.
I, for one, still don't get it.
Sure, I get that it's considered a Christian allegory, a morality tale, a comment on the decadence of Western society and the deep need for a spiritual foundation. All that. It's obvious.
But I don't get it as a novel. Once past the first few intriguing chapters, it never feels right to me as a story I could care about.
It starts like a mystery or an early thriller. The poet-turned-detective Gabriel Syme uncovers an anarchist conspiracy against the world. Members of the gang he infiltrates are named after the days of the week. He becomes Thursday. The kingpin is Sunday, who is the most enigmatic figure and the key to uncovering the real, apocalyptic goal of the secret organization. Is he God or is he Satan?
Everyone talks like Chesterton at his paradoxical wittiest in aphorisms that defy logic, turning good and evil upside-down. The narrative similarly twists and turns, at every juncture overthrowing what you may think you knew before (though I confess I found some of the "surprises" quite predictable).
The Annotated Thursday, an edition of The Man Who Was Thursday annotated by the very non-religious Martin Gardner, is particularly useful for understanding this often hard-to-follow novel.
By the way, Chesterton in an article denied the story is a Christian allegory, pointing to the novel's subtitle, A Nightmare, and claiming it's just a whimsical tale about the duality of hope and despair.
But why all the Christian imagery then?
Oddly, the story has been adapted for radio broadcast several times, including once by Orson Welles.
Despite the above warnings, the novel is worth reading, if only to participate in the mystery—the mystery of what it's all about. And the mystery of how this hard-to-fathom novel can have the power to keep you wondering long after you've finished reading it.