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G.K. Chesterton lounging in a chair

Finding Christ in “The Man Who Was Thursday”

July 17, 2023


G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, a detective story revealing transcendental realities—and more particularly the redemptive Christ himself—seems to hinge on a facetious proposal. How can a surreal romp through a London suburb, involving a poet detective and a horde of anarchists, be elevated into an instruction on what man was made for? In matters of faith, mystery itself is part of the answer. To embrace the humility of knowing we can’t know it all, to be willing to watch the story unfold before us, is what opens our hearts to the gift of faith and the movement of grace in our lives. Perhaps Chesterton’s proposal is not as far-fetched as one might think. 

Relevant parallels exist between a good detective novel and Scripture. Any detective novel worth its salt reveals its resolution from the start, albeit in a veiled manner. St. Augustine of Hippo acknowledged a similarity in Scripture: “The new [testament] is in the old [testament] concealed; the old is in the new revealed.” The mystery of creation and redemption, then, is exactly the sort of material that can be addressed in a detective story. Chesterton extolled the genre in his essay “A Defence of Detective Stories” as “the earliest and only form of popular literature in which is expressed some sense of the poetry of modern life.”

In Chesterton’s early-twentieth-century England, “modern life” looked like creation, distorted. Saffron Park, the neighborhood in which the novel opens, can’t decide what it is. Its architecture is undefined, it holds vague pretenses of being an intellectual center, and one new to the scene “could only think how very oddly shaped the people must be who could fit into [the quaint red houses].” The inhabitants of this atmosphere do not know who they are; they have lost what it is to be human; they have let their own faculties of creativity decay. Though the scene is described as “pleasant,” an astute reader sees where the ironies lie. Attempts at structure rest on no firm foundation, and so they fail. It follows that the reader enters this community on an evening “that looked like the end of the world.” 

Surrendering oneself to the will of God can feel like reading a detective novel . . .  

Is it the end—or the beginning all over again? Poets Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme engage in the initial dialogue in a garden reminiscent of Eden, arguing the superiority of either chaos or order. The allusion to Lucifer in the former’s name confirms this character’s preference for chaos, for a time without God’s living word. Gregory’s desire is for a train to unexpectedly land at a station not on its schedule (later, his purpose is put more directly, to “abolish God”). Syme, whose first name recalls God’s messenger archangel, retorts that “the rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it.” All of creation—every carefully sculpted petal, each intricately formed molecule—points to something going right, to the Creator “hitting the mark,” to an end to chaos thanks to God’s almighty hand. “Chaos is dull,” Syme says, and each time a train makes its station, “man has won a battle against chaos. . . . It is the victory of Adam.” Gregory cannot be swayed. Only Syme can follow this line of reasoning, because he alone in the novel is “a humble [man].” 

Syme soon joins a band of supposed anarchists named for each day of the week. With a “roar [that] rose like the sea, the hands [that] rose like a forest,” the General Counsel of the Anarchists of Europe elect Syme to the post of Thursday. Each of the elected men sees a fault in fallen creation and thinks he has the means to correct it, whether that be simplicity, cynicism, decadence, doubt, or optimism. “[Syme] had thought at first that they were all of common stature and costume,” but upon closer inspection finds “each man subtly and differently wrong.” One by one, through a dramatic and energetic course of events, the disguises fall away and the men are exposed as not being who they proposed themselves to be. The exception is Sunday, whom Syme recognizes without an introduction, “with an unaccountable but instantaneous certainty.” Syme can’t put his finger on it, but there is something remarkable about this man. 

The men’s attempts to make sense of their cosmos, to realign the structure of their society, and to comprehend Sunday not only confuse them but also threaten to destroy them. For a major portion of the novel, they chase Sunday even as he seeks them. Chesterton’s trademark tone means the chaotic scenes are humorous, but no man ends with any stronger sense of satisfaction or peace. Likewise, when the men attempt to describe Sunday, each effort fails in its own way. Syme concludes that every man compares Sunday to “the universe itself,” something larger than any man, philosophy, or explanation. Meanwhile, Sunday is literally out of their reach, suspended in a hot air balloon. When the crew comes face to face with Sunday for a reckoning, the chaos they sought to destroy subsides and matters begin to fall into place. Still, the order Sunday offers them is unsettling: “They had all become inured to things going roughly; but things suddenly going smoothly swamped them.” 

Exhausted in mind, body, and spirit, Syme climbs into the offered carriage and surrenders to Sunday’s plans. No longer on the offensive, “there began to grow upon [Syme], as upon a man slowly waking from a healthy sleep, a pleasure in everything.” The sight of ordinary hedges and elms brings him a sense of peace, and the reader recalls the initial serenity of Eden. When the six men compared notes later, “they all agreed that in some unaccountable way the place reminded them of their boyhood.” They return to their beginnings, each to the creation of himself. Syme is particularly susceptible to this reversion, thanks to his humility. Dressed soon after in robes Sunday prepared for each man, Syme and the others “seemed to be for the first time himself and no one else,” “for these disguises did not disguise, but reveal.” Sunday, and not their own efforts, unveils who they are. 

Syme “was draped in a long robe of starless black, down the centre of which fell a band or broad stripe of pure white, like a single shaft of light.” On the fourth day of Creation—what we might call Thursday—God made the sun, moon, and stars; likewise, Syme was “a type of the poet who seeks always to make the light in special shapes, to split it up into sun and star.” On its own, Syme’s finite knowledge sans true understanding has already proven as inadequate as all the other perspectives. What further meaning might his being named Thursday, rather than Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday, hold?

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Thursday takes on a new meaning in the New Testament, in that it was on Thursday that Christ celebrated the Last Supper, instituted the Eucharist and Holy Orders, and was betrayed. On Holy Thursday each year, the Church recalls the beginning of Christ’s Passion and anticipates his death. Only through becoming man and surrendering his life could Christ redeem our lives. Syme experienced an element of this mysterious reality earlier when he faced the Marquis de Saint Eusatche in a duel. Syme nearly despairs of the evil with which he is faced (“this man was a devil—perhaps he was the Devil!”) until in a moment of grace, he finds “all that was good in him” buoying his spirit. When he considers “all the human things in his story,” he sees that he might have been chosen “as a champion of all these fresh and kindly things to cross swords with the enemy of all creation. ‘After all,’ he said to himself, ‘I am more than a devil; I am a man. I can do the one thing which Satan himself cannot do—I can die.’” Syme does not physically die, but he begins to understand the redemptive power of death to self, which Christ teaches in the Gospel of John: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a grain of wheat; but if it dies, it produces much fruit” (John 12:24). 

This message is confirmed in the penultimate scene of the novel, when the majority of the elected men articulate their inability to trust Sunday, who reveals himself as “the Sabbath,” “the peace of God.” One man “can forgive God his anger . . . but I cannot forgive Him His peace”; another describes Sunday’s revelation as simply “silly.” Still another admits being happy despite his lack of understanding, and opts to go to sleep. Syme’s reaction is nuanced and more interested in Sunday than in himself. When Sunday gazes upon Syme, he responds, 

I do not feel fierce like that. I am grateful to you, not only for wine and hospitality here, but for many a fine scamper and free fight. But I should like to know. My soul and heart are as happy and quiet here as this old garden, but my reason is still crying out. I should like to know. 

Adam, too, was happy and quiet in the garden, until his and Eve’s thirst for knowledge led them astray. Syme doesn’t demand knowledge, but makes a humble request to satisfy the reason that was crafted into him when he was made in the image and likeness of God. Chesterton argues the validity of the desire for understanding, when that hunger for reason is accompanied by faith and approached without the pride that has consumed Gregory. When his turn “to complain” comes, Gregory is more than fierce; he accuses Sunday of never suffering. Here Chesterton puts the words of Christ in Sunday’s mouth: “Can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?” Christ’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection are the mystery that make sense of the chaos of the world. Christ’s cup means humility and suffering; it also means love, right order, and peace. 

Many today choose not to drink such a cup, perhaps because they haven’t ventured to engage in the mystery it entails. They won’t risk the humility of not knowing all the answers. If they did, their communities would not be distorted as Saffron Park. They would no longer chase each other looking to destroy, but reach out in charity to their neighbors to build the other up. Such a change of heart and mode requires the humility and sincerity that Syme represents. 

Surrendering oneself to the will of God can feel like reading a detective novel—the further in one goes, the more easily he can look back and see how God was present all along, leaving clues of his love, mercy, and compassion in the most unlikely situations.