The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
My edition of G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday includes an explanatory note at the end of the text, taken from one of Chesterton’s columns published the day before his death, in which he calls attention to the work’s subtitle and the fact that most people ignore it. For me, that subtitle– “A Nightmare”– is one of the biggest riddles of the work. As I reread it recently for a course I’m auditing, “The Catholic Imagination in 20th-Century Fiction,” that question kept coming back to me: in what terms does Chesterton view this story as a nightmare?
It’s certainly dreamlike. The protagonist, Gabriel Syme, is an undercover policeman charged with infiltrating a secret ring of anarchists. He does so by a remarkable chain of events that results in him being elected to the Central Council of Anarchists, a body in which each member is given the codename of a day of the week (hence the title). The monstrous leader of this council and of the worldwide society of anarchists is Sunday, a figure that looms over the entire narrative like a thunderhead.
The course of the novel is one of sudden reversals and switches, a series of unmaskings that are sudden and sweeping and– eventually– somewhat ludicrous. Our hero soon realizes he is not the only person on the council who is not what he appears. The frequent and increasingly elaborate disguises are certainly dreamlike. So are the sudden changes of scenery (moving from London to the French countryside and back almost effortlessly), the weird weather (a breakfast on a balcony followed by a sudden snowstorm), and the bizarre chases.
There is also throughout the book the dreamy quality that makes all of Chesterton’s work so memorable, but it is a sharp and specific dreaminess: his characteristic attention to beauty and the mythological vistas in the everyday. Syme’s prosaic London and its various scenes (buildings along the river, rides in hansom cabs through neighborhoods, glimpses of bushes across a meadow) are glorified– even sanctified– by Chesterton as things of true terror and sublimity. Syme notes, for instance, during a duel in which he realizes he may likely die, that he is not only fighting against anarchy on behalf of all ordinary and wonderful things (a parallel here I think to how Chesterton saw himself as a philosophical champion against the anarchy of nihilism) but that he would be satisfied to lay his whole life beneath a certain almond bush glimpsed across the field, looking upward through its branches.
Though aspects of the novel have a feel of a nightmare (especially the penultimate twist that seems to have Syme and his allies alone against the world), it is the final unmasking, the revelation of the nature of Sunday himself, which takes place during the most dream-like sequence of a novel, that I still don’t see in light of the subtitle. The identity of Sunday, and what it signifies for Chesterton’s view of nature and the universe, is the central theme of the novel. In many ways, I think Syme’s experience with Sunday is an analogy of Chesterton’s conversion experience: he thought he was a man alone, defending the ordinary against the forces of anarchy, but in all his defiance he found himself continually driven back to orthodoxy, always finding the figure that he thought the greatest architect of anarchy grinning out from the cracks of reality. He kept, he has Syme say, feeling he was seeing the backside of nature– all its grimness and cruelty and beauty– but he (in the character of Syme) finally sees its face. And it’s that final realization that I have trouble understanding in the context of the tale as nightmare.
The final twist might be seen coming a long way off, and the ones leading up to it might start to feel a bit ridiculous, but the entire novel still feels fresh and exuberant, if a bit slapdash. Chesterton’s prose is easy and engaging, even when it’s dashing off on a tangent to describe clouds above the city at sunset or how the buildings across the river look like monsters. This is the point, for him. The buildings are monsters. The sunset is a flame. And this may perhaps be the most poignant part of the thing called the Catholic imagination, the thing that rings through all of Chesterton’s work– the idea that the world is almost shockingly, unbelievably good, and the greatest adventure is living among the ordinary things of creation and seeing them so.
A dream, perhaps. But I hope not a nightmare.