The Man Who Was Thursday

What an odd book this was! G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is going to be tough to write about. The plot is bizarre, and describing what happens even a little way into the book is more of a spoiler than I want to give. There have been interesting discussions going on at various blogs about spoilers, and my feeling (at the moment) is that some books are more easily “spoiled” than others. The back cover of my edition of the book has the right idea when it says only this about the plot:

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.

The description goes on, but the rest of it is focused on ideas rather than plot. But those ideas are the other thing that make this book difficult to write about, because … huh? What exactly is going on on the level of ideas is a bit of a puzzle. The book does move into the area of allegory, or, actually, probably not allegory in the strict sense of the term but more like fable or parable. Chesterton clearly has something to say about anarchy and government, about violence and order, about good and evil, and, ultimately, about the value of suffering (I think this is key to understanding the very strange final scene). It starts off as a political thriller pitting police against anarchists, but it ends up in religious or quasi-religious, mystical territory. By the time you get there, you feel as though you’ve gone on a long journey, even though the book is quite short.

But I’m making the book sound serious, when it’s really quite funny, until the very end when the seriousness takes over. It has a witty tone and a kind of joy in the absurd that makes it a pleasure to read. The novel begins with two poets at a party in a London suburb, one who claims to be an anarchist, and the other who claims to be a poet of law and order. The two of them spar over the nature of poetry and their political beliefs until one of them is goaded into proving he is serious about his anarchy, and the other into admitting that he is a police officer. The relationship gets a little crazy from there. But everything is described so briskly, and the main character, Syme, gets to be so clever and witty, that the craziness is fun. It’s enjoyable to follow all the plot twists and turns, to watch the characters undergo dangerous trials and perform amazing feats, and all the while keep their cool and get some good lines in. Obviously, this is not a realistic novel and it does not try to be; it’s more of an amusing romp that also has something serious to say.

So, obviously, I think there’s a lot to enjoy here. This is the kind of book where it’s good to know a little bit about the tone and the feel of the novel, but best to discover the plot on your own. Chesterton takes you on a long, crazy journey, and although I’m not entirely sure where we ended up, it was fun traveling there anyway.

13 Comments

Filed under Books, Fiction

13 responses to “The Man Who Was Thursday

  1. I listened to the audio version of this at some point in the last couple of years, and I went into it pretty much cold, and I tend to agree with you that this is a book in which knowing a lot about where the story goes would spoil it. I do wish I’d read the print version and I may still one day. Once it got into the allegorical section, I really wanted to pull apart some of Chesterton was saying, but that’s hard to do on audio.

  2. I read this three years ago and have to admit, as the character Gabriel Syme says: ’Well, I don’t understand anything…’ Although I was totally baffled and intrigued, I found this book one of the most ingenious, funny, and profound I’ve ever read. I wanted to know who Sunday was, since that could be the most important clue to understand the book. But as I read the addendum by the author at the end, my speculation was negated. This certainly is the kind of books that requires and deserves multiple readings. And after reading, I’ve discovered the Chesterton website and some brilliant Chesterton quotes here.

  3. I have this book unread on my Kindle, so I was a bit wary about reading your post. Thanks for not giving away the plot and you’ve whetted my appetite for reading it sooner rather than later. I’ve not read any of Chesterton’s Father Brown books, but have read Orthodoxy which he wrote at the same time as The Man Who Was Thursday, so I’m not surprised that this book features the nature of good and evil and so on.

  4. I’ve often thought about reading this but always held back. I confess I have a problem with books that don’t ‘feel real’ if you know what I mean. I don’t do crazy farce or that sort of plastic satire/caricature that means I can’t feel the humanity of the characters. And then some books like that I do enjoy (although having typed that none immediately springs to mind). It all depends on the tone. Thank you for such a clear and honest review – it does help!

  5. Isn’t this a crazy weird book? And how about the big chase? I read it long enough ago that the detail are fuzzy, but I quite enjoyed it. It made me want to keep turning the pages just to see what bizarre thing would happen next.

  6. GK Chesterson has been recommended to me so many times but I never seem to be in the right mood when I look up his books. I don’t always deal well in the abstract, not that this sounds abstract–maybe it’s the idea of the story moving into religious or mystical territory? But I do like romps so I will have to give this one a closer look.

  7. I didn’t really know Chesterton existed a few years ago when I received one of his works, which has been resting on my shelves to be read. Your review, making me want to read The Man Who Was Thursday will instead prompt me to put my other Chesterton in the number two slot on my to be read pile. Well done – and with no spoilers: very well done!

  8. Now you’ve got me intrigued. I’m going to get ahold of it.

  9. Such an intriguing write up! I have a copy of this book and have heard that it’s creepy/spooky but actually know nothing about it apart from that. Sounds like the ideal way to approach this one! I love books that work on both the plot and a more philosophical/allegorical level, so I will have to dig this one out!

  10. This sounds so intriguing; I have a copy of his Father Brown mystery collection that I haven’t gotten to yet, but I think I will really enjoy it when I do.

  11. I read a few essays by Chesterton as part of my essays project last year, and they were so effervescent I’ve been wondering ever since what a full-length novel would be like. Very odd, apparently! But I’m intrigued.

  12. I agree with you that this was overall a difficult and confusing book, idea-wise. I actually have a list of books on amazon that “I Did Not Understand” and this one is on it. I read it years ago, back when I got intrigued with some of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.
    But this one? Wow — I did not GET it.

  13. What an articulate and interesting review! I am so happy I found it!

    As for the book itself, I stumbled across it by accident when I was 13 (maybe the best way to find this particular book ;-D), and fell completely in love with it. I still love it, all these years later. It’s a great story (imo).

    BTW, I just created a “Book Trailer” for it, which speeds by a little too fast, as I was using the free animoto. (& also has a “twist” that’s not quite “by the book”). But I was very pleased that it inspired my dad, who read the book years ago, to start re-reading it. If you are interested, the video here

    And while I was posting it, I discovered an amazing trailer for a theatre production! It’s absolutely brilliant (imo), & I wish I could have seen the show. The link for that is here

    Yes, the book is quite zany, but I’ve always found it enchanting. And as I’ve grown older, I’ve also begun to see how it has influenced other authors and books I love. It struck me, in particular, that the strange ending of this book bears an uncanny resemblance to the denouement of C.S. Lewis’s “That Hideous Strength.”

    Thanks again for the great review!

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