The Man Who Was Thursday

This is my third or fourth time reading The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, and it just gets better every time. On the face of it, it’s the story of Gabriel Syme, an undercover detective hired to infiltrate an international anarchist organization bent on world destruction. Oh, yes, and then things get weird. Like metaphysical, philosophical, Christopher-Nolanesque weird. Many people who read this book enjoy the beginning and then fall off the cart as the story progresses into surreal territory. Other people read the story and see nothing more than a religious allegory. Both of these groups are missing the wonderful thing that Chesterton accomplishes with this book, the interweaving of the spy novel with the fantastic.

Professor Eric Rabkin defines the fantastic as the psychological affect generated by the diametric, diachronic reversal of the ground rules of the narrative world. In a fantasy-genre novel, this reversal usually happens in the opening lines. “Once upon a time…” and then we’re totally on board with a story involving talking animals, wizards, dwarves, dragons, the whole shebang. More unusual are novels that incorporate the fantastic by reversing the ground rules of the narrative at all levels that conserve diachronic information: plot, character development, thematic development, and style. Alice in Wonderland is an example of a book that does this, continually pulling the rug out from under the reader and generating the feeling of the fantastic. Even more unusual are novels that reverse the ground rules at every level and simultaneously attempt to preserve, more or less, the conventions of a given genre. The Man Who Was Thursday is Chesterton’s attempt to do this with a spy novel. The plot of the book shifts pretty drastically at times, characters who seem to develop in a certain direction are suddenly revealed to be different than they were perceived, the theme of the book changes suddenly, and the style gradually morphs from a fairly standard, but Chestertonian, detective story to something more akin to a cross between John Bunyan and Charles Williams. Those looking for a conventional spy thriller are going to be disappointed by how demanding and unusual this book turns out to be. While almost all of Chesterton’s novels rely heavily on the fantastic, aside from Manalive, The Man Who Was Thursday is the only one I can think of in which he employs the fantastic to its fullest extent. The Man Who Was Thursday is a true fantastic, as much as anything written by Poe, Hoffman, or Blackwood.


I won’t give away the ending to the book, but I will say that it is truly ambiguous and should leave you thinking long afterward. The lessons learned by the main character, however, are not ambiguous at all and are not going to be unusual for those who have read anything else by Chesterton.

Comments

Jesse said…
Hi Rick,

Glad to see that you have read this a few times. I recently heard Michael Ward of Planet Narnia fame say that he thinks this is Chesterton's planetary novel. Ward thinks Chesterton is offering a visual way of seeing how the modern cosmological system is off kilter because it has anarchy at its root. Basically, he is running the modern view out to its logical extreme. Any thoughts on that idea? I want to read the story again now with that idea in mind and see what it does to explain the ending.

Blessings,
Jesse Sumpter