That Crucial Subtitle: G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday

For God speaks in one way,

And in two, though man does not perceive it.

In a dream, in a vision of the night,

When deep sleep falls on men,

While they slumber on their beds,

Then he opens the ears of men

And terrifies them with warnings . . .[1]

It perplexed G. K. Chesterton no end that nobody seemed to notice The Man Who Was Thursday’s subtitle: “A Nightmare.”  It especially bemused him because, as he said in his introduction to a 1926 stage adaptation of Thursday, “that sub-title is perhaps the only true and reliable statement in the book.”

Like so many statements Chesterton uttered, his statement about Thursday’s subtitle at first looks like hyperbole but, on closer inspection, turns out to be unvarnished truth.  “Nightmare” may not be a literary genre unto itself, but in Thursday Chesterton almost made it one.  The particular kind of nightmare Chesterton wrote in Thursday’s pages was the kind where the ground constantly shifts underfoot, where the vivid scenery never stays put – where little, if anything, is as it appears.  Reading Thursday is a little like walking through a house that’s equal parts madhouse, haunted house, and fun house.

The deceptive appearances and is-it-a-dream sleight of hand start on Thursday’s first page, with Chesterton’s description of Thursday’s opening set, a fictional bohemian London suburb called Saffron Park:

The place was not only pleasant, but perfect, if once he could regard it not as a deception but rather as a dream. Even if the people were not “artists,” the whole was nevertheless artistic.

After Saffron Park Thursday moves rapidly through a succession of bizarre sets, the speed of each succession heightening the story’s nightmarish quality.  A small dive that serves lobster and fine French champagne becomes a well-guarded underground bunker.  A fine morning for an al fresco breakfast on a balcony overlooking Leicester Square gives way to a wild afternoon chase through snowy London streets.  Whenever Chesterton has finished painting one scene he discards it and moves on to the next, and temporally, the sequence of the scenes makes no sense.

While the vivid scenes — by turns gloriously beautiful and utterly frightening — shift with an unnatural, unnerving rapidity, the story’s unlikely hero and title character, Gabriel Syme, gives the story some measure of consistency and coherence.  A self-styled “poet of law,” Syme is a bird so improbable that the story’s villain, Lucian Gregory, calls him a “contradiction in terms.”  Yet even for his general honesty and wholehearted embrace of his strange, paradoxical identity, Syme is not who he appears.  A “very mild-looking mortal” with “meek blue eyes,” who endures his adversary Gregory’s outbursts “with a certain submissive solemnity,” Syme is less meek than he looks.  From the beginning to the end of his wild adventures he proves to be a character of notable vigor and courage.  His courage holds him to his course in places where he can see no path before him, and allows him to face many terrors, even those that threaten to paralyze him by being so vastly inflated by his own poetic imagination:

 Utterly devoid of fear in physical dangers, he was a great deal too sensitive to the smell of spiritual evil. . . . . [L]ittle unmeaning things peeped out at him almost pruriently, and [had] given him a sense of drawing nearer and nearer to the headquarters of hell.

Syme’s mission is to infiltrate the Supreme Anarchist Council, which comprises seven members, each bearing the name of one of the days of the week, and each presenting to Syme a unique, vivid terror.  Each Councilman almost appears normal, but each has one unnerving feature – looking “as men of fashion and presence . . . with the additional twist given in a false and curved mirror.” To take three examples: Monday has an “even and classic face” with the “nightmare touch that his smile suddenly [goes] wrong,” all “on one side, going up in the right cheek and down in the left.”  Friday is one Professor de Worms, a man “in the last dissolution of senile decay,” such that Syme cannot “help thinking that whenever the man move[s] a leg or arm might fall off.”  Saturday is a medical doctor named Bull, in whom Syme sees “nothing whatever odd . . . except that he [wears] a pair of dark, almost opaque spectacles.”  The dark glasses take away “the key of the face.”  Because the enigma gives Syme’s imagination an open field in which to run wild, he fancies Dr. Bull the wickedest man on the Council.

Reviewing Thursday is a tricky task because suspense is important to the reader’s enjoyment of it.  So I have probably said about as much as can be said without stepping on Chesterton’s revelations and punchlines.  As in every nightmare, in Thursday the revelations come fast and furious – and, as in God’s climactic speech to Job, the punchlines come in gigantesque word-pictures rather than straight answers.  It isn’t giving away too much, though, to add that by story’s end, we find that Syme’s quest, like everything else in the story, has shifted: from a poet of law’s quest to defeat anarchy to a philosopher’s quest to learn the nature of reality.  That quest is bound up with getting an answer to one question: Who, or what, is Sunday?

By the time Sunday answers the question, it’s clear that Chesterton himself, no less than Syme, Syme’s friends, and the book’s readers, is following the bewildering parade of gaudy pictures, rather than leading it.


[1] Job 33:14-16 (ESV).

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Posted on November 18, 2013, in Book Review, David Mitchel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Interesting post, David. I have never read the book, but I appreciate your pointing out the subtitle and its best definition. Usually, I would assume nightmares are dream-images that invoke horror; however, they really are the things in life that we find unsettling, whether they are reality or dreams.

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