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Literature / The Man Who Was Thursday

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"Each man of you finds Sunday quite different, yet each man of you can only find one thing to compare him to — the universe itself."
"First of all, what is it really all about? What is it you object to? You want to abolish Government?"

"To abolish God!" said Gregory, opening the eyes of a fanatic. "We do not only want to upset a few despotisms and police regulations; that sort of anarchism does exist, but it is a mere branch of the Nonconformists. We dig deeper and we blow you higher. We wish to deny all those arbitrary distinctions of vice and virtue, honour and treachery, upon which mere rebels base themselves. The silly sentimentalists of The French Revolution talked of the Rights of Man! We hate Rights as we hate Wrongs. We have abolished Right and Wrong."

"And Right and Left," said Syme with a simple eagerness, "I hope you will abolish them too. They are much more troublesome to me."

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare is a metaphysical thriller by G. K. Chesterton, and stands alongside his Father Brown stories as his most famous work.

The story concerns special detective Gabriel Syme, a member of a secret police force dedicated to fighting the forces of Anarchy, who encounters a self-professed anarchist poet by the name of Lucian Gregory. After a spirited debate on the subject of Order Versus Chaos, Gregory invites Syme to a secret meeting of the anarchist force to which he belongs. There, Syme manages to get himself elected as the new Thursday on the anarchists' supreme council, the Council of Days, where each member is named for a different day of the week, in order to penetrate the anarchist organization and bring it down. The council is led by the terrifyingly cheerful and enigmatic figure of Sunday, and what follows is Syme's attempt to stay sane in the face of what seems to be true evil, and to answer the maddening question: "Who is Sunday?"

The book deals with the conflict of Order and Chaos, and serves to deconstruct the concept of the Bomb Throwing Anarchist (which was popular at the time) in favour of dealing with philosophical anarchism, that Chesterton felt to be actual nihilism that seeks to abolish not just government and authority, but the very concepts of good, evil, and God. It contains elements of the spy novel, Mystery Fiction, satire, Magical Realism, humour, and horror, and has also had a rather eclectic variety of fans in the literary world, including Michael Collins, Jorge Luis Borges, and Franz Kafka.

An adaptation starring François Arnaud, Ana Ularu, and Jordi Molia was released in 2016 to critical acclaim.

You can read it online here.

The novel contains examples of:

  • Affably Evil: Sunday has his moments.
    "Now listen to me. I like you. The consequence is that it would annoy me for just about two and a half minutes if I heard that you had died in torments. Well, if you ever tell the police or any human soul about us, I shall have that two and a half minutes of discomfort. On your discomfort I will not dwell. Good-day. Mind the step."
  • All Just a Dream: No, that's not a spoiler; it's right there in the subtitle. Chesterton actually wrote an article specifically criticizing the readers and critics who overlooked that in their interpretations of the work. To be fair, it's not totally clear given that the protagonist "wakes" to find himself walking and in the middle of a conversation. But again, it's right in the damn title.
  • Anarchy Is Chaos: The anarchists themselves take this position, as exemplified in the page quote. It's pointed out that there is a distinction between a revolutionary who throws a bomb to kill a king, and an anarchist who throws a bomb to kill anybody. Though, in fairness, it turns out that none of them are actually anarchists except Gregory.
  • Alternate Character Interpretation: In-Universe example: Almost a whole chapter is dedicated to each Council member's different interpretation of Sunday.
  • Badass Boast: Sunday gives one before revealing he is the man in the dark room.
  • Beauty Equals Goodness: Good characters look wholesome, evil characters look creepy in some way—and seeing what a character really looks like is enough to convince the other characters what side he's really on. But many characters are wearing some form of disguise. The beauty that marks their goodness is subsurface.
  • Beneath Notice: Subverted; Sunday's method of keeping the anarchists away from suspicion is for them to claim explicitly to be Bomb-Throwing Anarchists, while appearing to be (eccentric) respectable gentlemen.
  • Belief Makes You Stupid: Played with. The anarchist Gregory tries impersonating a bishop. “ “When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, 'Down! down! presumptuous human reason!' they found out in some way that I was not a bishop at all.”
  • Bizarrchitecture: Saffron Park (based on the real Bedford Park), as well as the homes of Monday and Sunday.
  • Blue Blood: A recurring theme of the novel is that the working/lower class, even criminals, will never be swayed into philosophical anarchy, only the rich/upper class and intellectuals. It appears to be subverted in a big way later in the novel, but is actually played straight.
  • Bomb Throwing Anarchist: Deconstructed. The anarchists' constant state of revolt for its own sake is shown to be more self-destructive than anything else. And this ends up being intentional, as the vast majority of the leadership are in fact undercover police officers who have been fighting amongst themselves without knowing it. Additionally, behaving in the stereotypical manner, as Gregory does, is shown to be worse than ineffectual, with Sunday insisting that behaving as ordinary gentlemen is a far more effective tactic.
  • Bored with Insanity: Syme embraced Order and rejected radicalism because his whole family was made up of radicals for various causes and ideologies.
    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.
  • Car Chase: No, seriously. Since this was published in 1908, it might well be the Ur-Example.
  • Catapult Nightmare: Averted, and lampshaded in the process.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Syme. He is very strange to say the least. His background plays into this, as he's a Blue Blood philosopher with a chip on his shoulder who joins the Anti-Anarchist Task Force mainly for a lack of anything better to do with himself. He seems to regard the whole thing as a philosophical exercise rather than a task of law enforcement, and behaves accordingly.
  • Code Name Title: "Thursday" is the code name for one of the seven positions on the anarchist council, each of which is a "Day of the Week" Name.
  • Cold-Blooded Torture: Tuesday is threatened with this.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: A webcomic, actually: Little Tales intersperses an adapted version between its usual Slice of Life strips.
  • Costume Porn: The masquerade costumes in the last chapter — not done in excruciating detail, though.
  • Crazy Sane: Syme. He self-describes as a "rebel against rebellion," being as frenetic and feverish about law and order as the anarchists are about revolution. In fact, he seems downright crazed when he delivers his Motive Rant to Gregory.
  • "Day of the Week" Name: Naturally. Though in a slight aversion, the weekday names are actually code names (with the possible exception of Sunday) for the seven leaders of an anarchist organization. In another aversion, they turn out to be based on the days of the Creation week, slightly adjusted.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Syme and Wednesday/Rickert especially, though all the characters have their moments.
  • Did We Just Have Tea with Cthulhu?: Played with. The other council members, having rumbled each other, are invited to a fancy dinner party by Sunday, where he seems to intimate that he might be God, or at least God-like.
  • Dress-Coded for Your Convenience: At the climax of the story, each Council member is dressed in clothes featuring a motif based on what was created on his respective day in Genesis: Monday has a single white stripe for the light created on the first day; Tuesday, blue parted robes; Wednesday, a tree/green motif; Thursday, the sun and moon; Friday, fish and birds, and Saturday, beasts and a man. In addition, Sunday is in all white robes, and Gregory in all black.
    • Sunday encourages the members of his organization to dress the part of the stereotypical morning-coated, top hat-wearing gentleman, an aversion of the stereotypical caricature of the Bomb Throwing Anarchist. However:
      • This is subverted by Tuesday, who normally does dress as the caricature and is uncomfortable in gentleman's clothes, and doubly subverted when that costume is revealed to be itself an assumed role.
      • More profoundly, it is subverted by the explicit statement that the real anarchists are the rich aristocrats, the sort of men who do wear top hats and evening dress.
      • And again when it's revealed that nobody was actually an anarchist, but were only trying to nab the people who they thought were anarchists - who also weren't anarchists.
  • Duel to the Death: Syme intentionally provokes one with the Marquis de St. Eustache to prevent him from getting to Paris to carry out an assassination. (It's not actually to the death, though.)
  • Evil Redhead: Gregory. But not his equally redheaded sister, Rosamond.
    "My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world ... "
  • Evil Virtues: Discussed as the difference between an ordinary criminal and a Bomb Throwing Anarchist.
    "Thieves respect property. They merely wish the property to become their property that they may more perfectly respect it."
  • Feigning Intelligence: An actor successfully impersonates a professor of philosophy by talking nonsense, which everyone assumes to be abstruse erudite knowledge since they can't understand it.
    "Then he tried to blast my claims intellectually. I countered that by a very simple dodge. Whenever he said something that nobody but he could understand, I replied with something which I could not even understand myself."
  • Flock of Wolves: Used to the point of hilarity, as well as one the novel's major twists.
  • Gainax Ending: The whole thing takes a major turn for the surreal, right before the protagonist wakes up from his dream. Which he somehow had while walking, in the midst of a conversation.
  • Gender Lift: Dr. "Saturday" Bell, a male, was played by female Ana Ularu in the film adaptation.
  • God: No, Sunday is not He. Further Word of God on the subject, from two different articles:
    "...I think you can take him to stand for Nature as distinguished from God. Huge, boisterous, full of vitality, dancing with a hundred legs, bright with the glare of the sun, and at first sight, somewhat regardless of us and our desires."
    "But you will note that I hold that when the mask of Nature is lifted you find God behind."
  • Good Colors, Evil Colors: A character with red hair is almost always Good in Chesterton. Less frequently, blond hair is evil, especially if the blondness looks somehow artificial gilded. However, this novel subverts this with the honourable protagonist Syme (who is blond) and the antagonist(?) Gregory (maybe), who is red-haired.
    • On the other hand, his sister, also red-haired, is unambiguously good — and probably a tribute to Chesterton's own wife, Frances.
  • Happy Ending: Or at least, it appears to be.
  • Heroes Want Redheads: Syme is surprised, "but with a curious pleasure," to have Gregory's red-headed sister Rosamond for company after his debate.
  • Hidden in Plain Sight: Syme, who straight up tells Gregory he's a cop, but swears him to secrecy first. This turns out to be the case for the whole Council of Days, all of whom are secretly police, and none of whom realize this.
  • Honor Before Reason: Why Gregory can't out Syme to the rest of the anarchist assembly and Syme won't go to the police with the whereabouts of the Council of Days, because each made the other swear he wouldn't.
  • The Infiltration: How the plot is framed, with Syme using an argument with Gregory as an opportunity to infiltrate an anarchist cell and subvert it from within.
  • It Runs in the Family: Ideological radicalism runs in Syme's family, himself being the exception.
  • Large and in Charge: Sunday, the head of the council, is describe as being intimidatingly large compared to the other council members.
  • Masquerade Ball: See Dress-Coded for Your Convenience.
  • Meaningful Name: Rosamond, whose name is derived from the Latin rosa mundi, or "Rose of the World," one of the many, many titles given to Jesus. Also, the titles for the members of the Council of Days.
  • Mind Screw: The story gets progressively Screwier as it goes on, and the ending takes the cake.
  • Misery Poker: Between Syme and Sunday at the end. Sunday wins. Before that, one between Syme and Gregory, which Syme wins.
  • Mistaken for an Imposter: How Wilks got into the Council and the role of Professor De Worms/Friday.
  • Mockstery Tale: There was really never any anarchist conspiracy, and the whole detective plot is just a framing device for a religious story.
  • The Mole: We know from the start that Syme is one among others.
  • Mole in Charge: Syme finds himself in this role at first, but it's much more complicated than he expects.
  • Motive Rant: Gregory gives one at the climax of the book; it also doubles as a Hannibal Lecture.
  • Mundane Made Awesome: As part of his beginning rant, Gregory attacks the train system, suggesting that the clerks look so dull because their lives are ordered. Symes then says:
    "It is you who are unpoetical," replied the poet Syme. "If what you say of clerks is true, they can only be as prosaic as your poetry. 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!"
    "Must you go?" inquired Gregory sarcastically.
    "I tell you," went on Syme with passion, "that every time a train comes in I feel that it has broken past batteries of besiegers, and that man has won a battle against chaos. You say contemptuously that when one has left Sloane Square one must come to Victoria. I say that one might do a thousand things instead, and that whenever I really come there I have the sense of hairbreadth escape. And when I hear the guard shout out the word 'Victoria,' it is not an unmeaning word. It is to me the cry of a herald announcing conquest. It is to me indeed 'Victoria'; it is the victory of Adam."
  • Mutual Masquerade: The secret police force is so secret that none of its agents knows the identity of any of its other agents.
  • Nietzsche Wannabe: Professor De Worms, a philosophical nihilist, or at least Wilks' impression of him.
  • The Noun Who Verbed: The title.
  • Omniscient Council of Vagueness: The Anarchist council. Subverted, as all the members save Sunday are policemen in disguise.
  • The Only Believer: Only Gregory is an actual anarchist, all the other members are police spies. When Gregory learns this he is not happy.
  • Paper-Thin Disguise: Gregory's Epic Fail attempts at undercover agent work.
  • The Password Is Always "Swordfish": When entering the guarded anarchists' lair, you knock five times and then are asked who you are. The correct response is "Mr. Joseph Chamberlain", an influential British politician of the time. So, a celebrity, but an odd choice for the anarchists!
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: The paralyzed Professor De Worms is a less convincing cripple than the impostor Wilks.
  • Refuge in Audacity: Syme's method of getting himself elected to as the new Thursday and baiting the Marquis/Wednesday into their Duel to the Death. See also Beneath Notice.
  • The Reveal: Sunday was both the leader of the Council of Days and the "man in the dark room". Also, all the members of the Council of Days were undercover policemen like Syme.
  • Right Hand Versus Left Hand: The council turns out to be exclusively made up of undercover police officers working against each other, and Sunday, who is apparently playing both sides against each other.
  • Running Both Sides: Sunday, as part of The Reveal.
  • Sinister Shades: Bull wears a pair of smoked spectacles that obscure his eyes to uncanny effect. Without them, his friendly eyes give him away as an agent of law and order, rather than anarchy.
"Put him in a pair of smoked spectacles... and you give even that honest angel a visage that would make a child scream."
  • Sour Supporter: The Professor thinks that the task before them is impossible, but still will work on it.
  • Terrorists Without a Cause: Discussed as the distinction between revolutionaries who throw bombs with specific political targets, and anarchists who throw bombs to kill indiscriminately.
  • Victory by First Blood: Exaggerated when a duel that's meant as a distraction is stipulated to go to first serious injury to make sure the distraction lasts long enough.
  • Wall of Weapons: The corridor leading to the assembly room in the underground anarchist HQ at the beginning of the book is covered with various pistols, rifles, and other weapons. The assembly room proper is lined with bombs.
  • The War on Straw: Gregory's explanation of his own failed attempts to go undercover:
    "The history of the thing might amuse you," he said. "When first I became one of the New Anarchists I tried all kinds of respectable disguises. I dressed up as a bishop. I read up all about bishops in our anarchist pamphlets, in Superstition the Vampire and Priests of Prey. I certainly understood from them that bishops are strange and terrible old men keeping a cruel secret from mankind. I was misinformed. When on my first appearing in episcopal gaiters in a drawing-room I cried out in a voice of thunder, 'Down! down! presumptuous human reason!' they found out in some way that I was not a bishop at all. I was nabbed at once. Then I made up as a millionaire; but I defended Capital with so much intelligence that a fool could see that I was quite poor. Then I tried being a major. Now I am a humanitarian myself, but I have, I hope, enough intellectual breadth to understand the position of those who, like Nietzsche, admire violence — the proud, mad war of Nature and all that, you know. I threw myself into the major. I drew my sword and waved it constantly. I called out 'Blood!' abstractedly, like a man calling for wine. I often said, 'Let the weak perish; it is the Law.' Well, well, it seems majors don't do this. I was nabbed again."
  • Warrior Poet: Syme is a poet, and, judging by his performance in his duel with the Marquis, something of a warrior.
  • We Need a Distraction: See Duel to the Death.
  • Wham Line: "I am the man in the dark room, who made you all policemen."
  • White Sheep: Syme, from his own point of view. He comes from a family of political radicals, and seems to be the sole exception. Played with in that he's a fanatic of a different kind, in the opposite direction.
  • Witch Hunt: A form of it is seen later in the novel when the now-revealed-as-policemen Council members are pursued across the countryside by a mob of townspeople and men they thought were allies, led by the Secretary/Monday (who is also a policeman), who are under the mistaken impression that they are the anarchists. It gets cleared up by the end of the chapter, though.
  • Word-Salad Horror: Sunday leaves behind inexplicable messages to the members of the council — messages that only make sense to the individuals for whom they are meant, thanks to the incredibly private information Sunday would have needed to know, and that frighten and enrage them for the same reason.
    "The word, I fancy, should be 'pink'."
    "What about Martin Tupper now?"
    "Fly at once. The truth about your trouser-stretchers is known. —A FRIEND."