Over the past few years I’ve read almost every work written by Chesterton. This book, however, stands above the others as having been my first glimpse into his paradoxical yet brilliant mind. I was first exposed to it in a video-game, Deus Ex, which coincidentally turns out to be one of the greatest video-games ever created – whether or not this was in part because portions of this text were included in it perhaps we’ll never know…
Written in 1908, The Man Who Was Thursday is a book which is difficult to pin down, though it has stood the test of time and remains one of Chesterton’s most famous works. Not only is it hard to pin down now, but it was hard to for critics to pin down back then as well, and even Chesterton in his autobiography keeps from completely explaining what exactly is going on. It’s part espionage, part mystery, part allegory and part philosophy on the state of man. At less than 200 pages it’s certainly worth the time it takes to read it.
The story revolves around the man Gabriel Syme as he is recruited into a new sect of Scotland Yard, a group who believe that “the most dangerous criminal now is the entirely lawless modern philosopher,” and thus seek to infiltrate the Council of Days, the intellectual dynamiters who would reek anarchy upon the nation. At the center of this council is the ominous and ambiguous Sunday, a leviathan of a man who seems to posses an unclear and yet overwhelming power of being. It is a story that is at once compelling and comic, surreal and yet touching on the heart of the human condition. It has a pattern of predictability and yet still manages to keep to the reader guessing though to the puzzling end.
The only thing left worth stating are Chesterton’s own words on the book, though to get a true idea of his vision one must of course read the book: “So far as the story had any sense in it, it was meant to begin with the picture of the world at its worst and to work towards the suggestion that the picture was no so black as it was already painted…. I was trying vaguely to found a new optimism, not on the maximum but the minimum of good. I did not so much mind the pessimist who complained that there was so little good. But I was furious, even to slaying, with the pessimist who asked what was the good of good.”
–“…burglars and bigamists are essentially moral men; my heart goes out to them. They accept the central ideal of man; they merely seek it wrongly. Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it.”
–“No one has any experience,” said the other, “of the Battle of Armageddon.”
“But I am really unfit-“
“You are willing, that is enough,” said the unknown.
“Well, really,” said Syme, ” I don’t know any profession of which mere willingness is the final test.”
“I do,” said the other-“martyrs. I am condemning you to death. Good day.”
–“Yes,” he said in a voice indescribable, “you are right. I am afraid of him. Therefore I swear by God that I will seek out this man whom I fear until I find him, and strike him in the mouth. If heaven were his throne and the earth his footstool, I swear I would pull him down.”
“How?” asked the staring Professor. “Why?”
“Because I am afraid of him,” said Syme; “and no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid.”
If you wanted to criticize something about this book there are two big points you could use. The first is the repetition of similar twists, resulting in a predictable pattern of events once you notice what’s going on. The second is that the ending of the book, and thus the book as a whole, is very hard to make sense of.
On the first, while there is this element of repetition to the book I don’t necessarily view it as a bad thing. It’s like using a trope or a cliche, it’s only bad if you use it poorly. Chesterton doesn’t use pattern poorly, but instead uses it to give an overall flow and form to the novel, similar to the bass-line in music. It is somewhat predictable, but that’s not what it’s about, it’s about everything that’s going on around it and where that pattern leads.
On the second, there’s not much I can say about this, especially without just giving away the ending. Hopefully the commentary given by Chesterton helps in resolving that.