Interpreting “The Man Who Was Thursday”
January 6, 2022

I just finished re-reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday. I have in the past had the temerity to say that I believe it to be the best novel of the 20th century. Be that as it may, I still maintain that it is at least one of the best of the last century.

Chesterton was one of those artists who was quite autobiographical. Karl Stern, the great Catholic psychoanalyst maintains that there are two kinds of artists. The impersonal ones seem to be conduits of something that comes to them from the outside, and you can never tell anything about them as persons by the content of their art (Mozart and Shakespeare are the two consummate examples). The other kind are the autobiographical ones who write out of their own experience and life. Tolstoy is here the great example. Tolstoy is Pierre in War and Peace, and Levin in Anna Kerenina. Tolstoy’s poor wife lived in a state of almost constant embarrassment. She was always showing up in all of his novels, both positively and negatively.

Chesterton was the second sort of artist.

The Man Who Was Thursday is somewhat difficult to interpret. Gabriel Syme finds himself on the Great Council of Anarchists, but he knows himself to be in fact, an underground policeman whose real calling is to stop the nihilists. He was assigned to be a philosophical policeman by a mysterious man in a dark room, whom he never saw, but could only hear. He is assigned to overcome not just anarchists, but the poisonous nihilistic thought of the anarchists that is the root of their hatred of all law, order, and even existence. Later, he encounters the fearful Sunday, who is the Great Chairman of the Grand Council of Anarchists. Sunday appears to be superhuman, and invincible. Step by step, in successive conflicts with the other members of the Council, he learns to his (and their) amazement that each one of the members is likewise an underground policeman who was also appointed to be such by the same mysterious man in the dark room. In the end, it is discovered that the fearful Sunday was in fact the mysterious man in the dark room. He appears to be fighting against himself.

The real question is, “who is Sunday?” It is sometimes maintained that he is Nature, and there are grounds for this interpretation. But he is clearly a person, and the last two chapters, and especially, the last sentence lead one to a different conclusion. The final question put to Sunday by Gabriel Syme, after a lengthy query as to why he allowed them each to suffer so terribly, to come so close to hell, was

“Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?”

I believe Sunday is in fact Jesus Christ. The story is a theodicy, an answer to the question of evil, and it is the best theodicy I have ever seen. But the autobiography of the book I think, lay in Chesterton’s own ascent out of pantheism up into real Orthodoxy, into real Christianity. It is well known that Chesterton himself went through “nightmare years.” This novel is subtitled, “A Nightmare.” It is the nightmare that turns to glory in the end. Sunday seems to first appear as the universe itself as an amoral expression of nature. But as the surprising story progresses, the hoped for liberation of anarchy is transformed into a kind of hell. In the end, what was thought to be nature rises up to the Author of nature, and pantheism is transcended. The discovery is that all one hoped for out of any form of pantheism in the end turns nightmare (there is a snake at the bottom of this bottle). The universe, if left to itself, is endless cycles of suffering and destruction and only if one is fortunate will one end in extinction. The All, if that is all there is, is something to desire an end to. That is how horrible it is. And, all modern pantheisms (as opposed to ancient pantheism) are some form or other of egoism. Chesterton had a positive horror of all of these modern versions, which meant that one would be shut up inside oneself for eternity. Modern pantheisms are actually also solipsisims. If all of the universe is an extension of me, I can never escape myself. Hell is worshiping yourself, even if it includes the Everything.

It is also clear that each of us as Christians, find ourselves associated with the “Council of Anarchists” and all of the destruction that they represent. Christianity has destroyed all the old orders. It appears to be on the side of the anarchists at times. Old China for example, had a great deal of order that is now gone. A civilization does not survive, and even thrive for 3,000 years without a great deal that is very positive. And, one can argue, as I have, that it was the Gospel that at bottom, swept it all away. What a mystery. And yet each of us who appear to be on the Council of Anarchists, was assigned to be a secret policeman by someone we have never seen.

The Theodicy comes toward the end of the novel when the real anarchist, Gregory shows up at the Grand Council of the Days, to accuse Sunday and everyone else.

“Gregory!” gasped Syme, half-rising from his seat.

“Why, this is the real anarchist!”

“Yes,” said Gregory, with a great and dangerous restraint,

“I am the real anarchist.”

” ‘Now there was a day,’ ” murmured Bull, who seemed really to have fallen asleep, ” ‘when the sons of God came to presentthemselves before the Lord, and Satan came also among them.’”

“You are right,” said Gregory, and gazed all round.

“I am a destroyer. I would destroy the world if I could.”

A sense of a pathos far under the earth stirred up in Syme, and he spoke brokenly and without sequence.

“Oh, most unhappy man,” he cried, “try to be happy!

You have red hair like your sister.”

“My red hair, like red flames, shall burn up the world,” said Gregory. “I thought I hated everything more than common men can hate anything; but I find that I do not hate everything so much as I hate you! ”

“I never hated you,” said Syme very sadly.

Then out of this unintelligible creature the last thunders broke.

“You! ” he cried. “You never hated because you never lived.

I know what you are all of you, from first to last–you are the people in power! You are the police–the great fat, smiling men in blue and buttons! You are the Law, and you have never been broken. But is there a free soul alive that does not long to break you, only because you have never been broken?

We in revolt talk all kind of nonsense doubtless about this crime or that crime of the Government.

It is all folly!

The only crime of the Government is that it governs.

The unpardonable sin of the supreme power is that it is supreme.

I do not curse you for being cruel. I do not curse you (though I might) for being kind. I curse you for being safe!

You sit in your chairs of stone, and have never come down from them.

You are the seven angels of heaven, and you have had no troubles.

Oh, I could forgive you everything, you that rule all mankind, if I could feel for once that you had suffered for one hour a real agony such as I–”

Syme sprang to his feet, shaking from head to foot.

“I see everything,” he cried, “everything that there is.

Why does each thing on the earth war against each other thing?

Why does each small thing in the world have to fight against the world itself? Why does a fly have to fight the whole universe?

Why does a dandelion have to fight the whole universe?

For the same reason that I had to be alone in the dreadful Council of the Days. So that each thing that obeys law may have the glory and isolation of the anarchist.

So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter. So that the real lie of Satan may be flung back in the face of this blasphemer, so that by tears and torture we may earn the right to say to this man, ‘You lie!’

No agonies can be too great to buy the right to say to this accuser,

‘We also have suffered.’

“It is not true that we have never been broken. We have been broken upon the wheel. It is not true that we have never descended from these thrones. We have descended into hell.

We were complaining of unforgettable miseries even at the very moment when this man entered insolently to accuse us of happiness.

I repel the slander; we have not been happy. I can answer for every one of the great guards of Law whom he has accused.

At least–”

He had turned his eyes so as to see suddenly the great face of Sunday, which wore a strange smile.

It is then that Syme asks Sunday his great question, and the great answer is given.

“Have you,” he cried in a dreadful voice, “have you ever suffered?”

As he gazed, the great face grew to an awful size, grew larger than the colossal mask of Memnon, which had made him scream as a child. It grew larger and larger, filling the whole sky; then everything went black. Only in the blackness before it entirely destroyed his brain did he seem to hear a distant voice saying a commonplace text that he had heard somewhere,” Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?”

Gabriel Syme then awakens from his nightmare.

In this last quoted paragraph, we see Sunday fill the whole sky. He in fact achieves what every form of pantheism hopes for, but never achieves. He “fills all in all,” (Ephesians 1:23) and reconnects everything. He becomes the “cosmic Christ,” not of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, but of Paul in Ephesians and Colossians. Sunday is the voice that leads one out of the hell of selfist pantheism to heaven. But only the brave, the believing, and the grateful, will arrive. God will not abandon His Everlasting Covenant, and He will triumph. Praise be to God for His victory in and through us.

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