The Man Who Was Thursday
Also called The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
Novel, 1908
approx. 58,000 words,
166 pages @350 wds/pg

First lines:

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.

Great lines:

"The most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men."

About the author:

His friend and opponent George Bernard Shaw called him a "colossal genius". If we no longer consider G.K. Chesterton a colossal genius, it is not because we consider him any.... more

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—perhaps 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 still don't get it.

Sure, I get that it's 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 found most 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 its 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 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.

— Eric

missing graphic
The Man Who Was Thursday
Get at Amazon: US Can UK

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The Annotated Thursday
Get at Amazon: US Can UK

Related:

G.K. Chesterton
author

The Innocence of Father Brown
stories