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The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare is a novel by G. K. Chesterton, first published in 1908. The book is sometimes referred to as a metaphysical thriller. Its importance was recognized in its later revival in paperback by Ballantine Books as the thirty-second volume of the celebrated Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in July 1971.

Although it deals with anarchists, the novel is not an exploration or rebuttal of anarchist thought; Chesterton's ad hoc construction of "Philosophical Anarchism" is distinguished from ordinary anarchism and is referred to several times not so much as a rebellion against government but as a rebellion against God.

The novel has been described as "one of the hidden hinges of twentieth-century writing, the place where, before our eyes, the nonsense-fantastical tradition of Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear pivots and becomes the nightmare-fantastical tradition of Kafka and Borges."

Plot summary

In a surreal turn-of-the-century Londonmarker, Gabriel Syme, a poet, is recruited to a secret anti-anarchist taskforce at Scotland Yardmarker. Lucian Gregory, an anarchist poet, is the only poet in Saffron Park, until he loses his temper in an argument over the purpose of poetry with Gabriel Syme, who takes the opposite view. After some time, the frustrated Gregory finds Syme and leads him to a local anarchist meeting-place to prove that he is a true anarchist. Instead of the anarchist Gregory getting elected, the officer Syme uses his wits and is elected as the local representative to the worldwide Central Council of Anarchists. The Council consists of seven men, each using the name of a day of the week as a code name; Syme is given the name of Thursday. In his efforts to thwart the council's intentions, however, he discovers that five of the other six members are also undercover detectives; each was just as mysteriously employed and assigned to defeat the Council of Days. They all soon find out that they are fighting each other and not real anarchists; such was the mastermind plan of the genius Sunday. In a dizzying and surreal conclusion, the six champions of order and former anarchist ring-leaders chase down the disturbing and whimsical Sunday, the man who calls himself "The Peace of God".


Like most of Chesterton's fiction, the story contains some Christian allegory. Chesterton, a Christian by this time (he joined the Roman Catholic Church about 15 years later), suffered from a brief bout of depression during his college days, and claimed afterwards that he wrote this book as an unusual affirmation that goodness and right were at the heart of every aspect of the world.

On an interesting note the costumes that the anarchists/detectives don towards the end of the book represent what was created on their respective day. Sunday, "the sabbath and the peace of God", sits upon a throne in front of them. His last words, "can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?", is the question that Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38-39, to challenge their commitment in becoming his disciples. The name of the girl Syme loves, Rosamond, is derived from "Rosa Mundi", meaning "Rose of the World" in Latin, and a title given to Christ.

Gabriel Syme

The character of Gabriel Syme, a man who wants to destroy Sunday because he is afraid of him and a "man should leave nothing in the universe standing that he is afraid of", eventually finds that he embodies everything that he was fighting for. What Syme details about his upbringing is very much Chesterton's own upbringing, making him perhaps the most autobiographical of all of Chesterton's fictional characters, along with Innocent Smith, in Manalive.


Martin Gardner edited The Annotated Thursday which provides a great deal of biographical and contextual information in the form of footnotes, along with the entire text of the book, original reviews from the time of the book's first publication, and comments made by Chesterton on the book at various times. Originally published by Ignatius Press, the book has been out of print. A less thorough annotation was done for the edition of the novel published as part of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton, also from Ignatius Press.


Mercury Theatre adaptation

On September 5 1938 the Mercury Theatre on the Air staged a somewhat abridged radio-play adaptation written by Orson Welles who was a great admirer of Chesterton. This was almost two months before the more famous War of the Worlds broadcast.

Although it remained true to the book and is admired by most fans of Chesterton, its abridgements render it somewhat harder to understand, mostly because it omits some of the metaphysical and theological discussions and treats much of the whimsical and comedic asides rather too dramatically. Almost all of Chapter 14: The Six Philosophers is left out, in which the greater part of the metaphysical speculation is found. Those who have not read the book might find the play somewhat baffling.

BBC radio adaption

In 2005 the BBC broadcast the novel as read by Geoffrey Palmer, in 13 half hour parts. It has been re-broadcast several times since then, including in 2008 (one hundred years after first publication). The episodes were titled:

  1. The Unusual Soirée
  2. The Anarchists' Council
  3. The Tale of a Detective
  4. The Feast of Fear
  5. The Exposure
  6. The Unaccountable Conduct of Professor de Worms
  7. The Man in Spectacles
  8. The Duel
  9. The Criminals Chase the Police
  10. The Earth in Anarchy
  11. The Pursuit of the President
  12. The Six Philosophers
  13. The Accuser

Notable quotations


  • “The philosopher may sometimes love the infinite. The poet always loves the finite. For him, the great moment is not the creation of light, but the creation of the sun and moon.”

Gabriel Syme, the protagonist (Thursday)

  • "[...] no man should leave in the universe anything of which he is afraid."
  • "The rare, strange thing is to hit the mark; the gross, obvious thing is to miss it."
  • "Chaos is dull [...]"
  • "[...] what is there poetical about being in revolt? You might as well say that it is poetical to be sea-sick. [...] Revolt in the abstract is — revolting. It's mere vomiting. [...] It is things going right [...] that is poetical!"
  • "[...] just at present 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."
  • "[...] always be comic in a tragedy. What the deuce else can you do?"
  • "The moderns say we must not punish heretics. My only doubt is whether we have a right to punish anyone else."
  • "Don't you see we've checkmated each other? [...] I can't tell the police you are an anarchist. You can't tell the anarchists I'm a policeman."

The police

  • "No one has any experience of the Battle of Armageddon." (The Police Chief)
  • "Well, really, I don’t know of any profession of which mere willingness is the final test."
"I do. Martyrs. I am sending you to your death. Good day." (Syme and the Police Chief, again)
  • "We deny the snobbish English assumption that the uneducated are the dangerous criminals. We remember the Roman Emperors. We remember the great poisoning princes of the Renaissance. We say that the most dangerous criminal is the educated criminal. We say that the most dangerous criminal is the entirely lawless modern philosopher. Compared to him, burglars and bigamists are essentially moral people, and my heart goes out to them." (The Policeman)

Lucian Gregory, the anarchist

  • "The silly sentimentalists of the French Revolution talked about the Rights of Man! We hate rights and we hate wrongs. We have abolished right and wrong." (Lucian Gregory)

Wilks "de Worms" (Friday)

  • "Young man, I am amused to observe that you think I am a coward. As to that I will say only one word, and that shall be entirely in the manner of your own philosophical rhetoric. You think that it is possible to pull down the President. I know that it is impossible, and I am going to try it." (Friday)


  1. Gopnik, Adam, "The Back of the World: The Troubling Genius of G.K. Chesterton." New Yorker, July 7 and 14, 2008, p.52

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