Authors: G.K. Chesterton
From “Mr. Chesterton’s Allegory of Anarchism,” in
vol. XXXIV, No. 199, April 1908
Among our audacious latter-day sophists, who so neatly make the worse appear the better reason, Mr. Chesterton is gaining a high place. Indeed, he may almost dispute the honors of leadership with the priest-in-chief of the cult of paradox, Mr. G. Bernard Shaw. His latest “budget of paradoxes” takes the form of a novel—or, rather, of a fantastic invention, which has to be described as fiction because it bears no conceivable relation to reality. Even the author balks at his own imaginings, and passes off the whole invention as a dream when he comes to the last chapter. It is called
The Man Who Was Thursday
, and has to do with the conflict between anarchy and order. A central council of anarchists, seven in number, bear the names of the days of the week (which accounts for our title), and, under the leadership of an awe-inspiring Sunday, develop their programme of treasons, stratagems, and spoils. The gigantic humor of the conception is that these seven men are really Scotland Yard detectives, spying upon each other; for each of them thinks that all the others are genuine anarchists. The amount of fun that Mr. Chesterton gets out of this situation may readily be imagined, as well as the opportunity it affords him for the exercise of his talent for paradox. Like most dreams, the story grows more wildly impossible as the awakening is neared. It is a highly entertaining yarn, and exhibits the author in the light in which he ought always to be viewed—the light of a man not for a moment to be taken seriously upon any subject, but simply to be admired for a combination of nimble wit with diabolical cleverness.
, vol. XLV, No. 520, August 16, 1908
It is the more desirable that I should write a few lines to express my thanks to those who have here paid my story [
The Man Who Was Thursday
(a play in three acts, adapted from the novel by G. K. Chesterton), by Mrs. Cecil Chesterton and Ralph Neale. Messers. Ernest Benn, Ltd., 1926.] the compliment of casting it in another and (quite probably) a better form, because long after I had given to them, and to them alone, such authorization as I am capable of giving, a rather ridiculous rivalry or invasion of their rights in the matter occurred, it would appear,
in Eastern Europe. The Bolshevists have done a good many silly things; but the most strangely silly thing that ever I heard of was that they tried to turn this Anti-Anarchist romance into an Anarchist play. Heaven only knows what they really made of it; beyond apparently making it mean the opposite of everything it meant. Probably they thought that being able to see that a policeman is funny means thinking that a policeman is futile. Probably they would say that thinking Don Quixote funny means thinking chivalry futile; in other words, they are barbarians and have not learnt how to laugh. But in this case a certain consequence follows. Making fun of a policeman would always be fun enough for me. Treating this tale as a farce of balloons and escaped elephants would never trouble me; and I would never bore anybody about the meaning of the allegory. But if somebody, even in Moscow or Vienna, starts making it mean something totally different, or flatly contrary, I cannot avoid a word about its real origin or outline. I do not want to take myself seriously; it is Bolshevism, among its other crimes, that is making me a serious person for a moment.
So many people have lately been occupied in turning good novels into bad plays, that the authors of this adaption have conceived the bolder and more hopeful scheme of turning a bad novel into a good play. For though I know very little about
The Man Who Was Thursday
, only a very casual acquaintance is needed to make sure that if it is a novel it is a bad novel. To do it justice, by its own description, it is not a novel but a nightmare. And since that subtitle is perhaps the only true and reliable statement in the book, I may plead it as a sort of excuse for my share in the matter. Nightmares on the stage are not uncommon nowadays; and some of them are regarded as realistic studies, because they are examples of that very deep and bottomless sort of nightmare from which it happens to be difficult to wake up. Nevertheless, a distinction between the dreams of today and those of that remoter day, or rather night, is essential to understanding whatever there may be to understand. To do them justice, the new nightmares do generally belong to a night: as day-dreams belong to a day. They are aspects; they are fragmentary and, to do them justice, they are frivolous. It was not so with a certain spirit that brooded for a certain time over the literature of my youth. I can remember the time when pessimism was dogmatic, when it was even orthodox. The people who had read Schopenhauer regarded themselves as having found out everything and found that it was nothing. Their system was a system, and therefore had a character
of surrounding the mind. It therefore really resembled a nightmare, in the sense of being imprisoned or even bound hand and foot; of being none the less captive because it was rather in a lunatic asylum than a reasonable hell or place of punishment. There is a great deal in the modern world that I think evil and a great deal more that I think silly; but it does seem to me to have escaped from this mere prison of pessimism. Our civilization may be breaking up; there are not wanting many exhilarating signs of it breaking down. But it is not merely closing in; and therefore it is not a nightmare, like the narrow despair of the nineties. In so far as it is breaking down, it seems to me more of a mental breakdown than a moral breakdown. In so far as it is breaking up, it may let in a certain amount of daylight as well as a great deal of wind. But it is not stifling like positive pessimism and materialism; and it was in the middle of a thick London fog of these things that I sat down and tried to write this story, nearly twenty years ago.
It is in relation to that particular heresy that much of its main suggestion must be understood. Perhaps it is not worth while to try to kill heresies which so rapidly kill themselves—and the cult of suicide committed suicide some time ago. But I should not wish it supposed, as some I think have supposed, that in resisting the heresy of pessimism I implied the equally morbid and diseased insanity of optimism. I was not then considering whether anything is really evil, but whether everything is really evil; and in relation to the latter nightmare it does still seem to me relevant to say that nightmares are not true; and that in them even the faces of friends may appear as the faces of fiends. I tried to turn this notion of resistance to a nightmare into a topsy-turvy tale about a man who fancied himself alone among enemies, and found that each of the enemies was in fact on his own side and in his own solitude. That is the only thing that can be called a meaning in the story; all the rest of it was written for fun; and though it was great fun for me, I do not forget that sobering epigram which tells us that easy writing is dashed hard reading. I think, however, the thing has possibilities as a play; because by the plan of it the changes are, as they should be in drama, only half expected but not wholly unexpected. I have been responsible for many murders in my time, generally in the milder and more vicarious forms of detective stories; and I have noticed a fashionable fallacy that is not irrelevant here. Because murdering or being murdered is generally felt by the individual involved to have something about it dramatic and striking, it is often supposed that any detective
story will make a drama. The thing has been done and may be done again, but it is not easy to do. In such a story the secret is too sensational to be dramatic. The revelation comes too suddenly to be understood; and until it is understood all that ought to seem mystifying only seems meaningless. But in this foolish farce, it is at least true that the action proceeds along a certain course that can be followed, and I offer it gravely as an attempt to restore the canons of Aristotle and the classical unities of antiquity. In other words, a man may watch for the end of the play, when he would put down the book under the impression that he knew the story by having read half of it.
From “The Man Who Was Thursday,” in
G.K.C. as M.C.: Being a
Collection of Thirty-Seven Poems
What is the Council’s objective throughout the book? Do you think it ultimately represents Good or Evil? Is such a distinction possible, in Chesterton’s view?
Discuss the Council’s role as a secret society. What is important about their ability to function as a group and their determination to keep their activities secret? What is the point of their conspiracy?
What is the meaning of the book’s title? How does the title’s ambiguity and mystery characterize the book as a whole? Is personal identity less important than collective identity, in Chesterton’s view? Does Syme, in effect, lose his identity? What does he gain?
What is the significance of the book’s subtitle, “A Nightmare”? What does Chesterton mean by this? Discuss the dedicatory poem that follows. What kind of tone is Chesterton trying to establish? Does he succeed?
Discuss the idea of anarchy as presented in the book. What kinds of activities does Gabriel Syme find himself engaged in? Are they dangerous
to society, in your opinion? How do you reconcile the council members being revealed as policemen?
Critics have discussed the book as an allegorical work, particularly in Christian terms. Do you agree with this assessment? Who or what, in your opinion, does Sunday represent?
Daniel J. Boorstin
A. S. Byatt
Stephen Jay Gould
Joyce Carol Oates
Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.
2001 Modern Library Paperback
Biographical note and reading group guide copyright © 2001 by
Random House, Inc.
Introduction copyright © 2001 by Jonathan Lethem
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith), 1874–1936.
The man who was Thursday: a nightmare / G. K. Chesterton; introduction
by Jonathan Lethem.
p. cm.—(Modern Library classics)
1. Anarchists—Fiction. 2. London (England)—Fiction. I. Title. II. Series.
PR4453.C4 M4 2001
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