The Man Who Was Thursday: Book Review
The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare was written by G.K. Chesterton and published in 1908. Ostensibly about a secret policeman investigating anarchists, it becomes a surreal and philosophical novel.
The Man Who Was Thursday: Logline
In Edwardian London, a poet infiltrates the anarchist underground. Elected to the post of Thursday on the anarchist council, masterminded by the monstrous Sunday, the poet tries to prevent an anarchist assassination in Paris. But when the plot takes a surreal turn, he is left unsure who to trust and even what is real.
The Man Who Was Thursday: Plot Summary
Warning: My reviews include spoilers. Major spoilers are blacked out like this [blackout]secret[/blackout]. To view them, just select/highlight them.
It’s the very early 20th century in London. At a party two poets meet. One, Lucian Gregory, is in favour of anarchy and the other, Gabriel Syme, order. They argue, and Syme suggests to Gregory that he is a poseur, not a real anarchist. After the party, Gregory tells Syme that his words have stung him and, if Syme swears not to go to the police, Gregory will show him that he is in fact a genuine anarchist.
Gregory takes Syme to a secret anarchist stronghold, underground in Southwark. Gregory tells Syme that the anarchist conspirators have code-names based on days of the week. The mastermind is ‘Sunday’, also known as ‘Bloody Sunday’, who Gregory describes as the ‘Napoleon of Anarchism’. The post of ‘Thursday’ is open as the previous man is dead. Gregory is in line for the job and the rest of the cell are about to arrive to vote him into the post.
Just as the other anarchists arrive, Syme tells Gregory he also has a secret and that if Gregory swears not to divulge it he will tell him. Gregory does so and Syme tells Gregory he is a secret policeman. Gregory is angry but Syme tells him they are simply now in the same boat and no harm can come from Syme’s presence, as he will hold to his word not to tell anyone what he witnesses.
Gregory tries to draw Syme off the trail by making a speech about anarchists supporting peaceful methods. This does not go down well with the other anarchists. Syme makes a blood and thunder speech and the anarchists desert Gregory and choose him as ‘Thursday’. Syme leaves by boat to meet with the rest of the Anarchist Council and the monstrous ‘Sunday’.
In a flashback the reader learns how Syme was recruited to a branch of intellectual spies sworn to uphold order against the ravages of anarchist intellectualism.
At the Anarchist Council meeting, Syme meets the other ‘Days of the Week’.
The ‘Days of the Week’ of the Anarchist Council
Monday – emaciated and unable to smile properly. Secretary of the Council.
Tuesday – Gogol – a polish madman with bushy hair.
Wednesday – Marquis de St Eustache – dark in dress and hair, and with a cruel face.
Thursday – Syme, police spy.
Friday – Professor de Worms – Nihilist philosopher, extremely old and apparently on the verge of death.
Saturday – Dr. Bull – stocky and wearing dark glasses.
Sunday – An enormous man, grossly fat, but also tall and with an unusually big head. President of the Council.
They are plotting an assassination in Paris, which Sunday assigns to Dr. Bull and the Marquis de St. Eustache. Syme thinks Sunday suspects him as a spy, but when Sunday announces there is a spy he turns on Tuesday – who it turns out is not a Polish anarchist but a member of the same spy organisation as Syme.
After the meeting, Syme is followed by Professor de Worms. Despite the disparity in age and fitness, Syme is unable to shake the Professor from his trail. Eventually the two men talk and Professor de Worms reveals that he too is a spy for the same organisation as Syme. The two secret policemen team up to prevent the assassination. They corner Dr. Bull but as soon as he removes his dark glasses they realise he is not an anarchist either. In fact Bull is also a spy.
The three men travel to France, where Syme comes up with a plan to stop the Marquis de St Eustache by engaging him in a duel so he misses his train to Paris. The duel continues until the train arrives and St Eustache, realising the policemen’s plan stops fighting and announces he must get the train in order to stop the assassination, as he too is a spy. But getting off the train is Monday with a posse of anarchists…
Monday [blackout]pursues the policemen by foot, horse and automobile. Eventually they are cornered on a pier, where Syme thinks to sell his life dearly by fighting Monday. When he attacks, denouncing anarchy, Monday hears the denunciation and announces he has made a mistake as he too is a spy – all the Committee except Sunday are spies.[/blackout]
The group [blackout]return to London to confront Sunday and bring him down together, meeting up with Gogol on the way. At the meeting, Sunday tells the policemen that he recruited them all as spies. Sunday then leaps off a balcony and runs, leading the policemen on a chase across London and into the country travelling by cab, elephant and hot air balloon.[/blackout]
Eventually, [blackout]the hot air balloon comes to ground. When the policemen catch up, they seem to be at Sunday’s country estate. Sunday’s servants bid them dress for a fancy dress party, where their costumes are related to their roles as the days of the week. They take their places on thrones as the party starts. [/blackout]
Gregory, [blackout]the only actual anarchist, arrives and denounces them all, and then Syme finds himself walking down a lane with Gregory and his sister.[/blackout]
The Man Who Was Thursday: Analysis
The Man Who Was Thursday has a Mission plot (see Spy Novel Plots), although the ‘final confrontation with the Antagonist’ is rather a bizarre one.
The Mission Plot
- Is given a mission to carry out by their Mentor.
- Will be opposed by the Antagonist as they try to complete the mission.
- Makes a plan to complete the mission.
- Trains and gathers resources for the Mission.
- Involves one or more Allies in their Mission (Optionally, there is a romance subplot with one of the Allies).
- Attempts to carry out the Mission, dealing with further Allies and Enemies as they encounter them.
- Is betrayed by an Ally or the Mentor (optionally).
- Narrowly avoids capture by the Antagonist (or is captured and escapes)
- Has a final confrontation with the Antagonist and completes (or fails to complete) the Mission.
The Man Who Was Thursday is subtitled “a nightmare”, and as the end approaches, the novel does start to take on the logic of a dream, with impossible scene changes for example. The final chapter goes completely off the rails as far as any kind of normal storytelling logic is concerned.
‘Sunday’ in the end seems to be [blackout]a personification of a creator god, the other anarchists/spies are the six days of Creation and Gregory is Satan. Perhaps his sister is Eve.[/blackout] But, as Chesterton himself said, he was not making a serious expression of his theological beliefs.
Philosophy and Humour
Much of The Man Who Was Thursday is taken up with philosophical discussion, as the secret police force that Syme is spying for is supposed to be a group of intellectuals sniffing out disaffection and excessive ideology. The Man Who Was Thursday, is light-hearted novel though. It is full of witty wordplay and clever aphorisms. The anarchists and particularly Syme and Sunday swap pithy remarks at every opportunity. E.g.:
The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.
The Man Who Was Thursday: My Verdict
Very readable, with a great wit, style and narrative drive. Be aware it goes surreal towards the end.
The Man Who Was Thursday: Adaptations
There have been several radio adaptations of The Man Who Was Thursday, including one by Orson Wells for the Mercury Radio Theatre. It has less philosophical discussion then the novel, concentrating on the action plot.
Want to read it?
The Man Who Was Thursday is available for free on Project Guttenberg here.
The Mercury Theatre radio adaptation of The Man Who Was Thursday with Orson Wells is available for free here.
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