Considering that G.K. Chesterton is the master of paradox, we should not be surprised to discover that his greatest novel is itself the greatest of paradoxes. The Man Who Was Thursday is the darkest and lightest of novels, as well as being one of the most beguiling and confusing. Subtitled “A Nightmare,” it is a dark and dismal dreamscape, predating and perhaps prophesying the rise of surrealism, though very different from surrealism in its inspirational source and in its solution to the problems posed by the psychological subjectivism that it confronts.
The novel’s inspirational source was Chesterton’s own experience of the Decadence of the 1890s and his recoiling in horror from the radical pessimism of fashionable philosophers, such as Schopenhauer. Speaking in old age of his experience of such subjectivism as an impressionable young man, he wrote that “my eyes were turned inwards rather than outwards; giving my moral personality, I should imagine, a very unattractive squint”:
I was still oppressed with the metaphysical nightmare of negations about mind and matter, with the morbid imagery of evil, with the burden of my own mysterious brain and body; but by this time I was in revolt against them; and trying to construct a healthier conception of cosmic life, even if it were one that should err on the side of health. I even called myself an optimist, because I was so horribly near to being a pessimist. It is the only excuse I can offer.
These lines from Chesterton’s autobiography immediately precede his discussion of The Man Who Was Thursday, indicating that the novel grew from the murkiness and mawkishness of the author’s doubt-filled adolescence: “[T]he whole story is a nightmare of things, not as they are, but as they seemed to the young half-pessimist of the ’90s….”
Although The Man Who Was Thursday is inspired by the confusion of the fin de siècle, it aspires to dispel and disperse the clouds of despondency with the piercing light of Christian clarity and charity. It cannot be stressed enough that this critical distance between the inspirational and aspirational aspects of the novel is crucial to our understanding of it. Thursday was written at around the same time that Chesterton was also writing Orthodoxy, his masterpiece of Christian apologetics, both books being published in 1908. And it is perilous to our understanding of the former book if we fail to read it in the light of the latter.
Seeing Thursday in the contemporaneous light of Orthodoxy and its “ethics of elfland,” we can see that it encapsulates the paradox, embodied in the character of Chesterton’s delightful priest-detective Father Brown, that wisdom can only be found in innocence. This is nothing less than the truth that Christ teaches. We will not be with Him in Heaven unless we become as little children.
The paradoxical heart of The Man Who Was Thursday is the tension that exists between the childlikeness demanded by Christ and the childishness that St. Paul tells us to avoid. We have to remain childlike by ceasing to be childish. The first is the wisdom of innocence, or the sanity of sanctity, whereby we see the miracle of life with eyes full of wonder; the second is the self-centeredness of one who refuses the challenge of growing up. Chesterton’s Man Who Was Thursday is essentially about childish detectives attaining childlike wisdom, just as his later novel Manalive illustrates how the pure childlikeness of the aptly-named Innocent Smith is misunderstood by the childish world in which he finds himself.
These priceless lessons are taught in The Man Who Was Thursday through the quest for truth of six philosopher-detectives and their efforts to uncover the real identity of the mysterious character of Sunday, the President of the Central Anarchist Council. These detectives infiltrate the anarchist council on the orders of a chief of police who is as mysterious as Sunday himself.
As the “six philosophers” unmask each other, one by one, each having suspected that the others were anarchists, they realize that Sunday has tricked them and has played a joke on them for no discernible reason. All that is then left is the quest to unmask Sunday.
As the chase begins, Chesterton, as a master of the detective story, provides priceless clues, which are so well concealed that the reader misses them, as do the detectives. He gives three clues in quick succession to the identity of Sunday, which connects him to the divine attributes of omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience. These go unnoticed as we pursue more obvious clues that are finally revealed as red herrings.
Chesterton leads the reader on a wild goose chase in the quest for Sunday, in much the same way as Sunday himself leads the detectives on such a chase. The meaning of the quest is finally revealed as the adventure of true philosophy to remove the secret “mask” which is worn by a peaceful, suffering, and ultimately mirthful God. This ultimate purpose and goal of philosophy is revealed at the novel’s climax.
Indeed, like all good detective stories, the mystery is solved in the final pages. Or is it? It is the mark of the beguiling brilliance of The Man Who Was Thursday that many or most readers are still scratching their heads even after the final mask is removed.
The ending of the novel is, however, less complicated than we might think it is. Sunday refers to himself within the context of the Book of Genesis and the Days of Creation as “the Sabbath” and “the peace of God,” and, as if to hammer the point home, his final words are those of Christ Himself, asking his interlocutors, “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” We simply need to take Sunday at his word. He is the peace of God and, at the same time, he is the suffering God.
The ending of the novel should be read in parallel with the ending of Orthodoxy. Orthodoxy ends with the suggestion that God plays hide and seek and that the one thing that he is always hiding is his mirth. This should also be seen in the light of Chesterton’s poem “The Skeleton,” in which death is described as the good king’s jest. It is this God of peace and mirth whose presence makes sense of the real suffering and nonsensical nightmare that His perceived absence presents.
The Man Who Was Thursday shows us the paradoxical truth that it takes a big man to know how small he is. It shows us that thinking we are big is childish, whilst knowing that we are small is childlike. Thinking we are big, the sin of pride, turns our world into a living nightmare. Knowing we are small wakes us up. In a world that is somnambulating deeper and deeper into the living nightmare it has made for itself, we are in more need than ever of the wide-awake awareness of G.K. Chesterton, a visionary who was larger than life because he spent his life on his knees.
Editor’s Note: This is the thirty-seventh in an ongoing series of articles explaining the great works of literature “in a nutshell.”