I Could Never Get the Hang of Thursday

Jun 30, 2005
Review by  
Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:some mildly amusing word play

Cons:boring, shallow characters, telegraphs intent, underdeveloped plot, pretentious, horribly unsuitable twist at the end

The Bottom Line: The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare truly is a nightmare.


I'd heard only good things about G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare but for some reason I'd never actually read it. I didn't actively avoid it, it just never seemed to roll around to the top of my reading pile. I finally got around to reading it and boy, was I disappointed.

I'd been told it was a dystopia. The subtitle seemed to corroborate this, so when I opened the book I hunkered down for some deliciously dark and pointed statements about the world, circa 1908. That's not at all what I got.

I'd categorize The Man Who Was Thursday as a farce, but one that isn't funny. Like much farce, the characters have little depth and are differentiated mainly by quirky physical attributes rather than personality. The plot isn't very well developed and much of the outcome of the story is telegraphed very early. Dialogue and scene are exaggerated, presented as wackily as possible in an abstract, pseudo-intellectual style that takes a great deal of time to fully comprehend. There is some word play thrown in, and, although some of it is mildly amusing, I always get the sense that Chesterton is more enraptured with his wit than I am and that he's willing to go down any path to show off his brilliance whether or not it suits the book.

Gabriel Syme is a poet-turned-policeman who goes undercover to stop an assassination attempt by a group of anarchists. The anarchists are led by a cabal of seven, each named for a day of the week. Syme, a member of a special anti-anarchist task force at Scotland Yard, gets himself elected Thursday so he can spy on the men at the top. The group leader is Sunday, supposedly a terrifying and enigmatic man everyone else fears. Does Syme take down the group? Can he foil Sunday? Does he figure out what's going on under the surface? I'll let you find out for yourself.

From the very first moment we meet Sunday his ties to an earlier character were obvious. This connection took most of the oomph out of the story, making events that were obviously supposed to be surprising almost expected. The other big surprise was similarly obvious at a very early stage. Again I got the feeling that Chesterton wanted us to admire his brilliance in providing such lovely plot twists, but that doesn't work when you see them coming miles (or at least dozens of pages) away.

The very last chapter does have a legitimate twist, a turn to overtly religious themes that only slightly fit the book that came before it. Here and only here Chesterton managed to surprise me, although it wasn't a pleasant surprise. He took a very open and straightforward book and tried to layer all this other stuff over it at the very end. It felt like he wanted to make it grand and important rather than somewhat pointless. He failed.

The Man Who Was Thursday is drivel. It's mostly harmless, boring, and predictable drivel until the last chapter when the attempt to make it "mean something" propelled it right into the crapper. I'm much more likely to notice and appreciate an author's cleverness if he's clever enough to blend the word play, allegory, and other devices seamlessly into the story. G.K. Chesterton does not do that with The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and, as a result, the book truly is a nightmare.


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