The Man Who Was Thursday is an extraordinary work of fiction. It’s a comedy, a spy novel, an adventure story and a work of Christian apologetics all at once. It begins with a party in a London garden and ends with the face of God - with a nightmare of chase, horror and keystone cops in between. G. K. Chesterton is always good, but here he outdoes himself.
The real novel, beneath all the fun and horror, is a look into a basic mystery of existence: how can a benevolent God be reconciled with the chaos of uncaring nature and monstrous evil?
Set in Edwardian England about 1905, the plot ostensibly revolves around a cabal of anarchists (a turn of the 20th century movement of men who believed that chaos was better than order and used dynamite as their markup language). Our hero, the poet and police inspector Gabriel Syme penetrates the ruling council of this anarchist ring whose members go by the names of the days of the week. Syme wins a place as Thursday and sets himself against the monstrous evil of Sunday. Soon, however, he finds that nothing is what it seems to be and that he himself is the one to be pursued.
Chesterton handles these interesting themes with a light, but sure touch. When Syme is confronted by an anarchist who believes that chaos is exciting and that order (such as trains arriving on time) is boring, he fights back:
The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it. We feel it is epical when man with one wild arrow strikes a distant bird. Is it not also epical when man with one wild engine strikes a distant station? Chaos is dull; because in chaos the train might indeed go anywhere, to Baker Street or to Bagdad. But man is a magician, and his whole magic is in this, that he does say Victoria, and lo! it is Victoria. No, take your books of mere poetry and prose; let me read a time table, with tears of pride. Take your Byron, who commemorates the defeats of man; give me Bradshaw, who commemorates his victories. Give me Bradshaw, I say!
George Bradshaw, by the way, was the London printer who printed the monthly railway time tables.
In the middle of the chase, we find this single paragraph relating the chaos of the events to the chaos of nature, and winding lightly through all of the book's themes:
The sun on the grass was dry and hot. So in plunging into the wood they had a cool shock of shadow, as of divers who plunge into a dim pool. The inside of the wood was full of shattered sunlight and shaken shadows. They made a sort of shuddering veil, almost recalling the dizziness of a cinematograph. Even the solid figures walking with him Syme could hardly see for the patterns of sun and shade that danced upon them. Now a man's head was lit as with a light of Rembrandt, leaving all else obliterated; now again he had strong and staring white hands with the face of a negro. The ex-Marquis had pulled the old straw hat over his eyes, and the black shade of the brim cut his face so squarely in two that it seemed to be wearing one of the black half-masks of their pursuers. The fancy tinted Symes overwhelming sense of wonder. Was he wearing a mask? Was any one wearing a mask? Was any one anything? This wood of witchery, in which their figures first swelled into sunlight and then faded into formless night, this mere chaos of chiaroscuro (after the clear daylight outside), seemed to Syme a perfect symbol of the world in which he had been moving for three days, this world where men took off their beards and their spectacles and their noses, and turned into other people. That tragic self-confidence which he had felt when he believed that the Marquis was a devil had strangely disappeared now that he knew that the Marquis was a friend. He felt almost inclined to ask after all these bewilderments what was a friend and what an enemy. Was there anything that was apart from what it seemed? The Marquis had taken off his nose and turned out to be a detective. Might he not just as well take off his head and turn out to be a hobgoblin? Was not everything, after all, like this bewildering woodland, this dance of dark and light? Everything only a glimpse, the glimpse always unforeseen, and always forgotten. For Gabriel Syme had found in the heart of that sun-splashed wood what many modern painters had found there. He had found the thing which the modern people call Impressionism, which is another name for the final scepticism which can find no floor to the universe.
Chesterton believes in good and evil. He's by no means a modern moral relativist. At the same time, however, he's showing us that good and evil are parts of the same dance, part of the same chaotic fervor of nature and that it's not for us to see their clear nature, only God sees through the veil of chaos.
You don't have to be religious to enjoy the book, it's OK even for an atheist to ponder the nature of God (in fact, it's required). Chesterton takes us right to the heart of his.
's annotated version will help you with London place references and hints and tips about Edwardian England:
The Annotated Thursday
, Ignatius Press, 1999, ISBN 0-89870-744-7.