Allie's Reviews > The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton
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's review
Aug 31, 2010

it was amazing
Read from August 31 to September 23, 2010

** spoiler alert ** This is one of the most amazing books I ever read.

If you're a fan of Chesterton, then you'll want to read this book. Do I really need to say any more? It's Chesterton. Nothing he writes is ever uninteresting or unquotable. So, with this longer foray into fiction (and by that, I mean longer than Manalive!, which is no less incredible, but shorter), you're pretty much guaranteed an incredible conjuring trick, a blend of descriptive magic and ingenious detective plot exploding with the fireworks of sanity and common sense. Even if you're not a believer in Chesterton's creed--namely, that of Catholicism--you'll want to read this just because it's good. It's both a dream and a mystery, and like any good dream or good mystery in literature, it completely messes with your mind.

Many, including the author himself, have compared it to Alice in Wonderland, and indeed it's hard not to get the idea that our hero, the poet Gabriel Syme, is certainly having a strange kind of day and running into some odd characters. But unlike Alice, a passive wanderer through a dream world, who things simply happen to, Syme is determined to take this nightmare and bend it to his own devices. If this is a dream, then he'll make it a lucid one. Actually, lucidity is a thing which means a lot to Syme, who was raised by a family of odd and extreme characters: "His respectability was spontaneous and sudden, a rebellion against rebellion...Being surrounded with every conceivable kind of revolt from infancy, Gabriel had to revolt into something, so he revolted into the only thing left - sanity. But there was just enough in him of the blood of these fanatics to make even his protest for common sense a little too fierce to be sensible."

So when Syme enters Saffron Park, an artistic community which is more like a "frail but finished work of art", and runs into Gregory, a poet who claims that true poetry is anarchism (ironically, he and all the other artists in the community look askance at any rebel who claims otherwise), he has some choice words for him: "'…Both being sick and being rebellious may be the wholesome thing on certain desperate occasions, but I'm hanged if I can see why they are poetical. Revolt in the abstract is - revolting. It's mere vomiting.'"

That's simply an excerpt from the scene, but if I could quote every hard-hitting line from Chapter One I'd have the whole thing here. It's a duel between two poets, and the poetic bullets are flying. Suffice to say that Syme succeeds, not only in outarguing Gregory, but in annoying him. This Gregory can't handle, so he meets Syme just outside the backyard where the two of them stood and swears to end their fight once and for all. My heart leaped into my mouth when he spoke those words, and I wondered--the way I'm sure Syme wondered--if he wasn't going to pull out a pistol. But instead, he simply leads Syme away, making him promise not to tell the police anything about what he'll see. In return, Gregory can only promise "'a very entertaining evening.'"

The two of them end up by themselves at a secret anarchist compound, where, Gregory informs Syme, the elected chairmen are named after days of the week. Sunday is their dark and terrible leader, also known as "Bloody Sunday." Thursday has recently passed away, and it's almost a certain thing that Gregory is going to fill the position. Gregory's brought Syme here, not only to prove a point about his philosophy, but also to show off.

None of the other anarchists having arrived yet, Syme asks Gregory if he can swear to keep a secret. Gregory swears to do so, and Syme tells him the truth. He's a policeman from Scotland Yard.

So he's a policeman hiding out in a room full of men who want to overthrow the government, who can't tell the other policemen anything. And Gregory is an anarchist who knows full well that there's a policeman in the meeting, who can't tell the other anarchists anything. If that's not the set-up for a scene charged with dramatic tension, I really, really don't know what is.

It gets better. Gregory, previously so determined to let Syme know that the anarchism in him is brutal, bloody and deadly serious, now nervously decides to throw Syme off the trail by pretending, in the speech he gives as he tries to get himself elected, to really be meek and harmless after all. This doesn't impress the anarchists, and so Syme makes his move. He gives a stirring speech flying out at everything under the sun…and gets himself elected Thursday.

And then, he thanks the stuttering Gregory for a very entertaining evening.

How could things not progress quickly after that?

There's a slight lull in the proceedings while Syme recalls his past. Years ago, a poet embittered with the world, he ran into a like-minded policemen who asked him to join a society for the defeat of anarchism. He was lead into a dark room to speak to the society's secret leader, who immediately pronounced him fit to join, since he was willing. Syme protests by saying that he's never before heard of a society in which mere willingness indicates worthiness.

The mysterious man says that he has heard of one--that of Martyrs. "'I am condemning you to death. Good day.'"

So, back in the present, Gabriel Syme, poet, detective and martyr, attends a banquet with the other six anarchists. They appear to be ordinary men, but each one is possessed of a demonic feature.

And here, the brief slowdown on the rollercoaster ends. When I read The Great Divorce, I noticed that it was subtitled "a dream", and wondered if this was what gave Chesterton the idea to dub The Man Who Was Thursday "a nightmare". And just as in The Great Divorce the dream is slow and suitably dreamy, in The Man Who Was Thursday everything happens with nightmare speed, like men slapping their cards down on a table. And very odd cards they are, too, for a wild twist of the imagination spins this dream on its side. You see, those select anarchists named after days of the week aren't what they seem at all. They're enrobed in demon disguises, and, as the formerly solitary Syme hunts each one down, he gradually realizes the truth. Every single one of them is a Scotland Yard detective like himself. Every single one was hired to Scotland Yard by a man in a dark room. The detectives all become Syme's companions, so that it's all kind of like a dramatic game of "sardines"--you know, the version of hide and seek where there's one hider and all the rest of the players are seekers, and, upon finding the hider, the seekers hide with him, one by one, until there's only one left to find everybody else. Except here, the sardines take it upon themselves to be the seekers. Realizing that they must have been hired for a reason, they at once angrily demand to know who this Sunday is and are determined to find him and get the truth out of him.

The truth is as obvious as it is unbelievable. Sunday is the man in the dark room.

The number seven is recurrent in the Bible. The angel Raphael states that there are seven archangels, and even though here there are six men and one God, the fact that Syme's first name is Gabriel suggests an angelic symbolism. At the end of Syme's nightmare, Gregory is introduced as the only true anarchist. "'My red hair, like red flames, will destroy the world,'" he says coldly. Gregory's first name is Lucian. Need I say more?

Toward the end, as the six detectives go to meet Sunday at last, they're told to dress in costumes, costumes that reveal their true selves. The man who represents Monday wears light. Tuesday wears water. You see, they're all dressed up as the days they represent in creation. Light was created first, water next, and so on.

And of course, we know who the man in the room, Sunday, really is, just as, reading Narnia, we know what Aslan means when he says he's known by another name in our world. The nightmare disintegrates at last when Syme angrily turns on Sunday--"'have you ever suffered?'" and he seems to hear a voice say, "'Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?'"

I could go a lot farther, quoting the book in a million places, but I don't have it next to me right now, so I'll just talk a little about my favorite part--every teenaged girls' favorite part, the part with the love. This is Chesterton, and whether this story is a nightmare or a detective story or whatever you might want to call it, he has to have a romance in it as well. So here is one of the oddest and most beautiful romances in all of literature, the one between Gregory Syme and Lucian Gregory's sister. Rosamund only appears at the beginning and the end, and she has a sisterly concern for Gregory, worried that he'll drop bombs. She has red hair like her brother, and after Syme leaves her, the narrative states that all throughout the adventure, even though she doesn't actually accompany him, he seems to feel the presence of her and her red hair, as if it follows him. It's easy to forget about her, reading it, but she's there. Every now and again, Syme does things like compare something to "the red hair of a woman". This is his dream, even if it is a nightmare. And when he wakes up, as if from a trance, to find himself walking next to Gregory as if nothing has happened, he sees Rosamund in the kitchen making breakfast "with all the unconscious gravity of a girl."

That's the last line in the whole story. She could represent love, or womenkind, or Mary, or Israel, or all four. It doesn't matter to me, because she represents something truly good. I've never actually read The Divine Comedy, but from what I do know about it it seems to me that Syme's love for Rosamund Gregory is an echo of Dante's love for Beatrice. It's beautiful. I love it.

Some things you can't analyze too hard, or you'll ruin them. You have to leave them, like a dandelion gone to seed, unblown, and just admire them.

I'll admire The Man Who Was Thursday as long as I live.
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Quotes Allie Liked

G.K. Chesterton
“Always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?”
G.K. Chesterton, The Man Who Was Thursday

Reading Progress

08/31/2010 page 38
17.0% "Read this already, but I'm rereading it to my sister Clair. Those first three chapters are probably the best part of the story, besides the conclusion. I'm madly in love with G.K. Chesterton's writing and wish that I could steal some of his ability for half-an-hour."
09/01/2010 page 57
25.0% "I love Syme. Now that I'm re-reading this book for the third time I can really appreciate the brilliance of a character who rebels into sanity. It rings true even in the nightmare landscape."
09/01/2010 page 59
26.0% ""Such were the six men who had sworn to destroy the world." Perfect handling of the suspense here. I can almost feel Syme's nerves screaming at him to leave."

Comments (showing 1-1)

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message 1: by Jean-marcel (new) - added it

Jean-marcel I feel bad for not being able to finish this book. I appreciated its weirdness, and Chesterton is a very sharp and at times phenomenally good writer. But the philosophy of the book seemed kind of at odds with mine, and in the mood I was in when I decided to finally read it, it came across as being a bit preachy and heavy-handed. Sometimes I am more tolerant. I think I'll take another crack at it.

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