Finished: “The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

Before I read this the only things I had ever read by Chesterton were a couple of short Fr. Brown stories, which I quite liked. Pretty much every blogger I’ve ever read and half of my favorite authors love Chesterton, and he sounded right up my alley – like the C.S. Lewis of an earlier generation. So of course I had to try him out.

Here are my thoughts on Chesterton’s most famous novel, “The Man Who Was Thursday”:

The comparisons to Lewis were well-founded. Besides having a surprisingly similar life trajectory – Chesterton was an atheist convert to Christianity who, like Lewis, seemed to fear the implications of conversion – the book is as theologically rich as anything that Lewis wrote. The main difference I got is that Chesterton is much funnier, or at least, he’s more obviously funny. Lewis’s brand of humor is much dryer. Lewis’s books are also more openly allegorical than Chesterton’s. The mysterious Sunday is a much more mysterious a figure than Aslan from the Narnia books, or even, if you want to use an “adult” example, the Oyarosa of Mars in “Out of the Silent Planet”.

“The Man Who Was Thursday” is one of the funniest books I have ever read (with one of the best titles). Everything about it, from the absurd premise to the over-the-top characters to the silly situations that play out is funny. If this book is really Chesterton’s masterpiece it must be among the funniest masterpieces of any author I’ve heard of who isn’t an out and out humor writer (like Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett).

The book was a real page-turner, in the best sense of the word. I haven’t been as hooked as I was with this book for a long time. I was literally staying up until three or four in the morning because I didn’t want to stop reading.

The plot, such as it is, is an unusual one, as you might gather from my description. Gabriel Syme, a poet, accepts an offer from an anarchist to attend a secret meeting on the grounds that he doesn’t reveal anything he learns about the organization to Scotland Yard. And that’s all I’m going to say on that subject, because every single thing that follows is wonderfully twisted. To give anything away would spoil the fun of a first reading.

The ending of the book is famously surreal and obscure, and I’m not going to pretend I “got it” more than anybody else did – yes, I did indeed look up what the ending “meant” after I finished the book. Still, unusual though it is, it is undeniably compelling reading, and ultimately satisfying.

The plot has also given me some excellent ideas to use for my novel. Hopefully I can use them as the “glue” that will bring its three disparate plot threads together.

Chesterton is a wonderful writer. As of now I still prefer Lewis and his more heavily allegorical style, but I’ve already started “The Napoleon of Notting Hill” and intend to read his non-fiction soon as well. “The Man Who Was Thursday” comes with my very highest recommendation.

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5 Responses to Finished: “The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton

  1. Randy P. says:

    It is also one of my favorites. I do suggest Manalive as well. That one’s pretty twisted, but a real joy to read.

    Also read Orthodoxy for his non-fiction when you get the time. As a former agnostic, it was the first such book to really pierce my armor.

  2. Ilíon says:

    To give anything away would spoil the fun of a first reading.

    Would not.

  3. WTF Pancakes says:

    Easily my favorite Chesterton. The man has a storytelling voice that few can even approach.

  4. Strongly recommend Manalive and also The Ball and The Cross. The Napoleon of Notting Hill is an excellent political satire worthy of Swift, and gives a sort of emotional introduction to Distributism. I hope you enjoy it.

    For what it’s worth, here are some thoughts on Thursday: It was a novel Chesterton wrote before he converted to Catholicism. As such, it captures the fear, horror, and attraction of the struggling good man who sees the inescapable logic of a new faith rising up before him.

    This is the reason why the subtitle of the book is “A Nightmare” and I think also explains the odd tone of the ending. I don’t think there is a satisfactorily “logical” explanation to the end; I think the crisis and paradox Chesterton sets up for himself is irresolvable. The mystery he is attempting to elucidate to which Symes gives voice, that God has so established the universe that the good men are the underdogs, and that Satan is ultimately robbed even of the dignity of rebellion, is one of the most profound and dramatic interpretations of the subversive (or if you prefer, superversive) Gospel I have ever heard. But it is my opinion that it breaks the framework of the social analogy he has created – it breaks the story. Once it is revealed (SPOILER) that all the members of the Council of Days or whatever are actually policemen in disguise, you can sort of see Chesterton’s point looming in the distance, but I don’t think there’s any way to get there while remaining within the framework of the tale as told. In order to reveal the true identity of Sunday, MWWTh must become a dream, a nightmare.

    Chesterton’s own mix of strong feelings about his subject, the spice of a tremendous personal watershed, give a unique flavor to the story. The policemen, giving their final chase to Sunday, pursue him with longing, with desire, with fear, and with loathing, all at once. They cannot rest until they rest in Him and they cannot abide to stay in his presence. And even as the layers of fog lift and it becomes clear who Sunday must really be, he continues to cause chaos, stealing rides out of London, breaking into the zoo – there is a dismay present over his scattering of tidy domestic tranquility, even as he leaves the glow of the luminous in his passing. Such is one of the first ways we are drawn to God – in anger, in the demand He give an account for Himself.

    In this novel Chesterton establishes all of his trademark devices and style – his wild breathless enthusiasm, his mystical dialogue, paradoxes and clever puns. But in his later work, he had conviction in his religious ideas and paradox aforethought: his stories unfold themselves naturally to the metaphysical or theological point he wanted to make, and then fold themselves shut. There is a frictionless ease, a black and white to it that I sometimes find unsatisfactory.

    The Man Who Was Thursday is a deeply flawed novel; Chesterton so set it up that he could not say what he wanted to say without escaping the confines of the storytelling dilemma he set himself. Furthermore, there is an ambiguity at the heart of it about what the message should be. Sunday cannot really be God; but he certainly cannot, after all he has done, be really human. And so he must become a horrible face, a provocative image. And I think this gives a far truer and more human picture of the diplomatic relations between Earth and Heaven, preserving the mystery and the terror of the divine. Definitely, for those reasons, his best work.

    Sorry for the length of the comment; this is my favorite of his books and I would love to hear your thoughts on any of the above!

    • I totally forgot about this. Great review! I have no arguments; I think you nailed what made this novel great and how that was also its great flaw.

      Chesterton was one of those guys who just got it, so much so that he even “got” what it was like for people not to “get it”, and elucidates this idea in “The Man Who Was Thursday” in great and moving power. It’s an excellent book.

      Just started “Heretics”, but I’m co-reading a lot of stuff right now.

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