RELEVANT Reviews the Classics

First published in 1907, GK Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is a classic work of fiction that was right at home in its era but also way ahead of its time. In it, a secret council of seven terrorists (named for each day of the week) is infiltrated by a philosophizing poet turned undercover policeman who begins by investigating a murderous scheme and ends up unraveling the deepest mysteries of life.

Set in Britain around the turn of the century, when a mood of doubt and nihilism had settled over the people, the story opens with a fast-paced duel of words between two poets: Lucian Gregory and Gabriel Syme. In a typical explosion of poetic debate, Gregory points to a lamp post and a tree and exclaims:

“There is your precious order, that lean, iron lamp, ugly and barren; and there is anarchy, rich, living, reproducing itself–there is anarchy, splendid in green and gold.”

To this Syme replies “All the same … you only see the tree by the light of the lamp. I wonder when you would ever see the lamp by the light of the tree.”

Inasmuch as the paradoxical poet has turned the tables on Gregory, as the story unravels so do we see the tables turned on Gabriel Syme over and over again. Mysteries are not solved in the usual way but are answered by further mystery still. Right down to the last line of the story the riddles pile on top of each other, exploding in the brain and touching the heart instead. The ending is as mind-boggling as it is satisfying.

What is most remarkable about this fast-paced novel is the theological edge contained within it. Through story rather than systematic theology it probes questions of God’s hiddenness and the problem of evil. It helps the reader see God not despite but through these mysteries and in fact poses a new dilemma: the problem of good. Along the way its characters are allowed to pose some of the hardest questions of life; questions that reverberate in the souls of many a reader:

“‘I am not happy,’ said the Professor with his head in his hands, ‘because I do not understand. You let me stray a little too near to hell.’

And then Gogol said, with the absolute simplicity of a child:

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‘I wish I knew why I was hurt so much.’”

Some have called this book a metaphysical thriller. Chesterton himself subtitled it A Nightmare. Despite what these labels might imply, this book will neither put you to sleep nor leave you with fever dreams. To the contrary, it is the sort of nightmare one wakes up from just glad to be alive. Chesterton wrote this story alongside Orthodoxy, his spiritual autobiography, and together these books comprised both a personal catharsis and a positive declaration of his faith to the world.

Besides being profound and compelling, this classic novel is pure and simple a fantastic read. Due to both the plot of the story and the questions it asks, a hundred years later The Man Who Was Thursday is no less riveting than the day it was released.

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