Red Booth Notes: Understanding GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (Part 2)
Roughly speaking, it’s about anarchists…And roughly speaking, it’s a mystery story. It can be guaranteed that you will never, never guess the solution until you get to the end—it is even feared that you may not guess it then. You may never guess what The Man Who Was Thursday is about. But definitely, if you don’t, you’ll ask.
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously stated in his début novel, This Side of Paradise, that his protagonist, Amory Blaine, had read The Man Who Was Thursday, “which he liked without understanding.” Others expressed admiration upon the novel’s release, but confessed it had an inscrutable quality about it, or that it seemed to defy description. In a review for The New York Times, published in May 1908, Hildegarde Hawthorne, grandson of Nathaniel, said that the book “is apparently the tale of men under a spell of adventure and endeavor.” But no, it was something more than that. In Chesterton’s novel, she stated:
mystery and allegory take their turn in the scene. Life, huge, shapeless, cruel and loving, killing and saving, full of antitheses, appearing to each one under a different aspect, measuring each man according to the strength of his soul, turns its strange face upon us. Life, whose soul is law, nature, whose expression is law, confront the frantic lawlessness of struggling man—and behold, those very struggles prove to be based on law again. And when at the last you sit on the thrones with the Council of Days, you see the mad, miraculous world dance by, moving to a harmony none the less invincible because only half heard.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Ms. Hawthorne had here just described The Book of Job, not The Man Who Was Thursday. If Chesterton read Hawthorne’s review, which he may have done when sent press clippings by his publisher—a practice common at the time—he might well have smiled. For he knew, as few would have guessed, how greatly influenced his novel had been by the numeric symbolism, motifs, constructs and imagery found in this celebrated Old Testament narrative.
Fifty years ago, in 1961, Chesterton scholar Garry Wills stated in specific terms that Chesterton was deeply influenced by The Book of Job, and offered some initial leads as to how this Old Testament narrative had in turn shaped the creation of The Man Who Was Thursday. But not until now has the full story of Chesterton’s indebtedness to this narrative been told. There is a cracking good mystery here to be explored, and such is the purpose of this book. Or, to paraphrase Fitzgerald, the intent is to help readers both like and understand Chesterton’s novel.
* * *
“Do they that know Him not see His days?” we read in Job chapter twenty-four, verse one. It would seem that in writing The Man Who Was Thursday, Chesterton assayed to do just that: to re-imagine the seven days of Job through the medium of fiction. The story of Job had in part turned his captivity from despair. In his troubled historical moment, the Edwardian era of nihilism, bombings and anarchists, he would pen a novel that might help turn the captivity of others. It was a very cleverly disguised didactic romance, or, if you like, a morality tale.
But one dressed in fantastic clothes to be sure. The Man Who Was Thursday contains echoes of the nightmarish, chilling suspense found in detective fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. Not for nothing has Chesterton’s novel been described by the noted critic Kingsley Amis as a “metaphysical thriller.”
But it was the recurring conceit of the seven days in The Book of Job, and how Chesterton drew upon it, that lends his novel a uniqueness all its own. Many had heretofore written novels of chilling suspense, Poe to be sure, but also Robert Louis Stevenson, as in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. What made The Man Who Was Thursday distinctive was Chesterton’s use of metaphysical, otherworldly elements from Job. In one sense, he tilled familiar fictional ground, but he did so in a way no one might have guessed. He posed a cosmic riddle. And he did so in a book subtitled “a nightmare.”
* * *
When the protagonist of Chesterton’s novel, Gabriel Syme, suddenly finds himself immersed in a shadowy underworld of anarchists and conspirators in London, he soon discovers that the ringleaders of this movement are known only by the their code names: the various days of the week. Chief among them is the man called Sunday, a giant of a man whose authority will brook no rival, and who inspires as much fear as he does unquestioning loyalty.
Syme first learns of Sunday’s existence in a way that chills him to the marrow. Lucian Gregory, who introduced Syme to this world of anarchy and conspiracy, tells him “there are seven members of the Central Anarchist Council, and they are named after days of the week. He is called Sunday—by some of his admirers Bloody Sunday.” When Syme tries to wring Sunday’s real name out of Gregory, he is met with this answer:
You would not know [his name]…That is his greatness. Cæsar and Napoleon put all their genius into being heard of, and they were heard of. He puts all his genius into not being heard of, and he is not heard of. But you cannot be for five minutes in the room with him without feeling that Cæsar and Napoleon would have been children in his hands.
And what of the other co-conspirators, the other “days” of the week? As Syme finds himself more deeply enmeshed in the twilight world they inhabit, he makes one discovery after another he hadn’t reckoned on. Through a clever ruse—we are first told that Syme is in reality an undercover detective at Scotland Yard—he succeeds in having himself elected the new “Thursday.” The previous conspirator to hold the post had recently died.
Understandably believing himself to be the only person who holds to right and order among the hierarchy of Central Anarchist Council, Syme sets out to infiltrate their ranks. He will do what he can to bring them down. But as he embarks on his mission, he will discover that no one is who he seems. Each is an emissary bearing an individual mystery.
Syme first encounters Gogol, known among the circle of days by the code name Tuesday. He was a walking caricature, and purported to be a rather “common or garden-variety Dynamiter.” He wore a high white collar and satin tie, “but out of this collar there sprang a head quite unmanageable and quite unmistakable, a bewildering bush of brown hair and beard” that almost obscured his eyes. “But the eyes,” Syme noted, “did look out of the tangle, and they were the sad eyes of some Russian serf.” He seemed to be mad.
Syme had seen Gogol among the first full gathering of the Council of Days that he attended. As he looked about the room throughout that first fateful meeting with “the secret conclave of the European Dynamiters,” the entire scene seemed to become more and more unnerving. He began to see in each of them “a demoniac detail somewhere.” Further, each man “had something about him, perceived perhaps at the tenth or twentieth glance, which was not normal, and which seemed hardly human. The only metaphor he could think of was this, that they all looked as men of fashion and presence would look, with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror.”
The man who bore the title of Monday served as secretary of the Council of Days. He had a fine, but emaciated face, one that made Syme think that “it must be wasted with some disease.” Yet somehow the very distress in the man’s dark eyes seemed to deny this. “It was no physical ill that troubled him,” Syme thought to himself. “His eyes were alive with intellectual torture, as if pure thought was pain.”
The man known as Wednesday was in fact the Marquis de St. Eustache. To Syme he initially seemed to look the part of an aristocrat, wearing “fashionable clothes as if they were really his own.” But after a time, Syme thought he detected more. Increasingly, he came to feel “somehow that the man carried a rich atmosphere with him, a rich atmosphere that suffocated. It reminded one irrationally of drowsy odours and of dying lamps in the darker poems of Byron and Poe.”
A very old man, Professor de Worms, occupied the chair of Friday. He seemed to carry with him the pall of near death. When he spoke, his intellect was on full display, but otherwise his appearance conjured images of the macabre. To Syme, “the whole hideous effect was as if some drunken dandies had put their clothes upon a corpse.” When de Worms rose or sat down, it was with great effort, but “something worse was expressed than mere weakness, something indefinably connected with the horror of the whole scene. It did not express decrepitude merely, but corruption. Another hateful fancy crossed Syme’s quivering mind. He could not help thinking that whenever the man moved a leg or arm might fall off.”
The man called Dr. Bull, but known amongst the Council as Saturday, proved in some ways the most baffling and unnerving to Syme. He was a short, square man with a dark, clean-shaven face, and seemed to exude “a combination of savoir-faire with a sort of well-groomed coarseness” not uncommon among young doctors. At first Syme saw nothing odd in him, “except that he wore a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles. It may have been merely a crescendo of nervous fancy that had gone before, but those black discs were dreadful to Syme; they reminded him of half-remembered ugly tales, of some story about pennies being put on the eyes of the dead.” Syme was chilled by the thought that those bleak, black spectacles “took away the key” of Bull’s face.
Lastly, we come to the man who is Thursday, Syme himself. On a night of portents, with a strange sunset that “looked like the end of the world,” he had declared himself amid a small salon of the fashionably counter-cultural to be a “poet of law, a poet of order.” Challenged by Lucian Gregory, a self-proclaimed anarchist then leading the meeting, Syme takes it upon himself to counter every argument Gregory can muster. Greatly angered, Gregory issues a challenge not unlike a duel to Syme: accompany him to an undisclosed location—and Gregory will prove that he is indeed an anarchist bent on violence, not merely a canting impostor. But first, Syme must swear upon his word of honor not to disclose anything he might see or hear.
So it is that all alone, Syme enters a dangerous world of which he knows nothing, believing in the cause of right. When he does learn that Gregory is who he purports to be, Syme resolves, no matter the cost, to thwart the terrorist plot he learns the anarchists are planning against two European heads of state. It is he for whom Chesterton reserves the highest praise, saying: “the soul must be solitary, or there would be no place for courage.”
 From Orson Welles’s spoken Introduction to his radio play adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday, broadcast nationwide, and throughout Canada by the CBC, on September 5, 1938. Welles’s adaptation was the ninth and final installment of the fall season of the famous Mercury Theater on the Air series, one which also included his celebrated adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds.
 From page 36 of This Side of Paradise, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1920).
 Hildegarde Hawthorne, “G.K. Chesterton’s Fantastic Novel,” review in The New York Times, 2 May 1908, BR 253. The poet and author Hildegarde Hawthorne (1871–1952) was the granddaughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne.
 For the comparison of Chesterton to Poe I am indebted to Jorge Luis Borges. And for the description of The Man Who Was Thursday as a metaphysical thriller I am indebted to Kingsley Amis. “Chesterton,” Borges wrote, “restrained himself from being Edgar Allan Poe or Franz Kafka, but something in the makeup of his personality leaned toward the nightmarish, something secret, and blind, and central.” See Garry Wills, Chesterton (New York: Doubleday, 2001), 273.
Kingsley Amis called The Man Who Was Thursday “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” See Amis, introduction to G. K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday (London: Penguin Books, 1986). Amis also called The Man Who Was Thursday a “metaphysical adventure” in “Speaking of Books: ‘ The Man Who Was Thursday,’ ” the New York Times Book Review, BR2.
 From page 28 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From page 26 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 Information and quotes from pages 75, 76 & 79 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From page 73 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From page 78 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From page 79 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From page 79 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From pages 80-81 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 From pages 81 & 82 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 The information in this paragraph, including the quotes therein, appears on pages 5 & 15 of The Man Who Was Thursday, by G.K. Chesterton, (New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1908).
 GKC, as quoted on page 193 of Maisie Ward, Gilbert Keith Chesterton, (New York: Sheed and Ward, 1943).