Goodreads: The Man Who Was Thursday
from the American Library edition
G. K. Chesterton’s surreal masterpiece is a psychological thriller that centers on seven anarchists in turn-of-the-century London who call themselves by the names of the days of the week. Chesterton explores the meanings of their disguised identities in what is a fascinating mystery and, ultimately, a spellbinding allegory.
As Jonathan Lethem remarks in his Introduction, The real characters are the ideas. Chesterton’s nutty agenda is really quite simple: to expose moral relativism and parlor nihilism for the devils he believes them to be. This wouldn’t be interesting at all, though, if he didn’t also show such passion for giving the devil his due. He animates the forces of chaos and anarchy with every ounce of imaginative verve and rhetorical force in his body.
I first read The Man Who Was Thursday about six years ago, but this was a welcome re-read. Enough time has past that I’d forgotten the finer details of the story (indeed, for a while I pondered whether I had even read the book at all, but Goodreads confirms that I have), but the re-read allowed me the opportunity to see more of the nuances of the work and get a better understanding of it. Yet I would still say the great strength of the story is that it seems to be both an obvious allegory for humans’ relationship with God and something of an enigma; no matter how many times I read it, I think there will always be something more to discover.
The opening of the story is not religious at all, and I think anyone who might be put off by the idea that Chesteron was a “‘lay theologian” should note that the majority of the book does not read as if Chesterton is trying to impart some message. Rather, most of the story is mystery and adventure. Protagonist Gabriel Syme, a professed lover of order, finds himself joining a group of anarchists and must figure out how to undermine the group while maintaining his disguise as one of them and without breaking an oath he made to report them to the police. (A seemingly convenient oath for the sake of the plot, but I can accept it.) So much of the book is a mix of puzzles, maneuverings, and even chase scenes through the streets, and it’s entirely exciting.
The “message,” if one will, only really comes at the end, when Syme and other characters try to work through what the “meaning” was of everything they have done and all the other people they have met (a perennial human question, really). It is here where Chesteron seems at once heavy-handed, telling readers what some of the answers are, and as if he is holding something back. Perhaps this itself is simply a representation of the fact that one can never truly know God, the meaning of life, etc., but it certainly makes for a thought-provoking story.
This is one of those rare books that will sit with me for a while and that has raised enough questions that I’d love to see others’ thoughts. I think the base themes of the story are pretty clear, but I’d love to read some scholarship on The Man Who Was Thursday to see what other readers have pulled out, and it’s times like these that I’m truly disappointed I no longer has access to university scholarly databases. This is definitely a recommended read from me. It’s short, and it’s interesting, and I don’t think anyone need be put off by fears it’s “too religious.”