The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare

By G. K. Chesterton
Book Review Details
Author: G. K. Chesterton
Publisher: London: Penguin
Edition: [1908] 1937
Page Details
Section: Book Reviews =>
Subjects: Anarchism
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G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday not only draws upon the historic stigmatisation of anarchists but also self-consciously explores and develops the caricature. The novel was first published in 1908. During the late Nineteenth Century anarchism had emerged as a distinct militant strand of socialism, a distinction underlined by the exclusion of anarchists from the Second International. By 1908 the anarchist movement had been heavily vilified due to various individualist ‘outrages’. Ravichol’s use of dynamite to attack the judiciary came in the wake of the Bourgeois reign of Terror and vicious massacre of the Communards following the Paris Commune’s destruction in 1871. More recent, high-profile and notorious instances of ‘propaganda by the deed’ were Luigi Lucheni’s assassination of Empress Elizabeth of Austria in 1898 and the particularly protracted death of US president William McKinley after Leon Czolgosz shot him in the cause of anarchism in September 1901.

As Sarah Cole points out, dynamite, Alfred Nobel’s invention of 1866, itself was yet young in the Nineteenth Century [Sarah Cole, ‘Dynamite Violence and Literary Culture’, Modernism/Modernity (April 2009) 16.2, 301.] By the 1880s, however, novels about the anarchist dynamitard were already established as a sub-genre of the political thriller (Cole, 303). Chesterton, now most well known for his Father Brown stories, exploited this popular fascination and revulsion as a point of departure for a new look at the foremost folk devil in this public demonology.  In fact so familiar was the stock representation of anarchism that Chesterton plays with the idea that the bête noir was a creature of its enemies:

They learn about anarchists from six-penny novels… They never learn about anarchists from anarchists. We have no chance of denying the mountainous slanders which are heaped on us from one end of Europe to another (Man Who Was Thursday, 33).

Chesterton, nevertheless maintains and extends the notion of the anarchist as a cruel, vindictive rationalist; motivated by profound pessimism and misanthropy, he is a conspiratorial dynamitard whose single objective is destruction. Joseph Conrad developed the caricature still further in his more famous novel The Secret Agent the following year, similarly casting the authentic anarchists as inept and tragic figures lost in a world of infiltration and bluff.

In Chesterton’s Catholic worldview there is a Manichean struggle between the positive forces of faith and common sense and the negative forces of rationalism (the members of the Central Anarchist Council are named after days of the week is, a blasphemous mockery of God’s seven days of creation). In this world anarchism represents an extreme form of rationalism, taking the improbably form here of a shady World Council following a misconceived project to force society into a pattern of its own making rather than adapting to the world’s flawed institutions. Other targets for Chesterton’s satire at the start of the Twentieth Century are feminism and modernism, equally regarded as assaults upon common sense There are three categories of anarchist – the pretentious and idealistic fool, the evil genius and the various spies and infiltrators masquerading as anarchists. The difficulty and challenge for the man and the woman in the street is to distinguish between the three.

We encounter our first anarchist, the ‘anarchic poet’ Lucian Gregory, at Saffron Park, a fictional location based on Bedford Park, a location personally familiar to Chesterton (Autobiography, Chapter 6), It was an early example of a garden suburb, the kind of place Chesterton considered to be a natural habitat for cranks and radicals, in keeping with George Orwell, who later mocked the idea of a ‘hygienic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms’ (not, apparently, his idea of fun according to ‘Why Socialists Don’t Believe in Fun’). In his crude comic caricature, Chesterton constructs Gregory as a paradoxical individual, whose superficial innocence of course fails to obscure bloodthirsty nihilism.

His dark red hair parted in the middle was literally like a woman’s, and curved into the slow curls of a virgin in a pre-Raphaelite picture. From within this almost saintly oval, however, his face projected suddenly broad and brutal, the chin carried forward with a look of cockney contempt. This combination at once tickled and terrified the nerves of a neurotic population. He seemed like a walking blasphemy, a blend of the angel and the ape (Man Who Was Thursday,10).

Just as Gregory’s physiognomy connotes the insidious lie behind anarchism, so we find that behind the peaceful exterior of the garden suburb community there are concealed caches of rifles and revolvers.  This is a remarkably enduring narrative – in the 2013 film ‘Night Moves’, for instance, the lead-character Josh, a permaculturalist and eco-warrior, motivated by a desire to save the world, rapidly degenerates into a murdering neurotic. Rejecting the ‘silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution’ the ‘fanatic’ Gregory boasts of the real anarchist project – not only to abolish government but to abolish God and Right and Wrong (Man Who Was Thursday, 23).

Set in contrast to Gregory is his nemesis, police detective Gabriel Syme. Syme’s Bohemian parents unintentionally turned their son into a conservative rebel. By the perverse influence of reverse psychology, they somehow inculcated in him a rejection of their cherished progressive causes. They motivated him instead to uphold the values of what he considers as ordinariness and decency, and to reject every social experiment they represented: self-realisation, simple living, paganism, vegetarianism, nudism and above all anarchism.

The world of anarchism in The Man Who Was Thursday, however, is not all it seems as the tale escalates into a phantasmagorical novel of pursuit, featuring many of the elements of a Gothick ‘nightmare’ (Chesterton’s sub-title). It transpires that Sunday, the Machiavellian President of the vanguardist Central Anarchist Council, has cunningly appointed to the Council all the police detectives that have been pursuing him, while Gregory, the authentic anarchist, is rejected (thus failing to become Thursday!). Consequently, Syme the ‘anarchist’ police detective – the man who does become Thursday – and several other undercover cops follow and spy on each other and are thus (temporarily) neutralised.

We are left in a bewildering world of masks and false impressions, where each guise is a disguise, each identity a mistaken identity. As Sunday’s ruse is discovered he in turn becomes the object of pursuit, a role in which he revels, evading the detectives by riding an elephant and taking off in an air balloon. Sunday is a perplexing, protean character. Just as he is always dancing ahead just out of reach of the pursuing detectives, his meaning in the novel is similarly difficult to capture. He is a ‘Pan’ like prankster, Pan being both ‘a god and an animal’ (Man Who Was Thursday, 169). At once ‘gargoyle’ and ‘sylph’, and likened to an ox and an ape, he is physically obese yet always sufficiently fast moving to evade his pursuers due to his agility of mind. His control of the situation is so effortless and complete that he even finds time to taunt his pursuers with cryptic messages. He could be a plausible prototype for Alan Moore’s eponymous ‘V’, a more sympathetic character sharing similarly mercurial qualities, in the graphic novel V for Vendetta. The character known as the Professor considers that Sunday has ‘no face’ (Man Who Was Thursday, 168), thus sharing ‘V’s’ anonymity. For Chesterton, a conservative author, Sunday’s attractiveness is ambivalent. Sunday is a compelling character, a puppet master able to shape events, yet Chesterton ultimately renders him as a nihilist rather than transcendent or appealing. In the bizarre fairy tale ending his presence is unsettling and multivalent; counter to the solid virtues that the more worldly detectives represent, with their odd penchant for Classical and Eastern philosophical traditions.

In the end, The Man Who Was Thursday as an expose of the Central Anarchist Council does not tell us much about anarchism at all. But it does give us insight into the development of anarchism’s enduring stigma, and for that, together with its idiosyncratic and unusual narrative, I found the novel well worth reading.

This book is out of copyright and is available to download for free from Gutenberg and

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