The Man Who Was Thursday

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.

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare
Chesterton - The Man Who Was Thursday.djvu
First edition
AuthorG. K. Chesterton
CountryUnited Kingdom
Genrethriller, philosophical novel, adventure, fantasy
Set inLondon and France, 1900s
PublisherJ. W. Arrowsmith
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)
Pagesviii, 330 pp
LC ClassPZ3.C4265Mn9
TextThe Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare at Wikisource

Plot summaryEdit

In Victorian-era London, Gabriel Syme is recruited at Scotland Yard to a secret anti-anarchist police corps. Lucian Gregory, an anarchistic poet, lives in the suburb of Saffron Park. Syme meets him at a party and they debate the meaning of poetry. Gregory argues that revolt is the basis of poetry. Syme demurs, insisting the essence of poetry is not revolution but law. He antagonises Gregory by asserting that the most poetical of human creations is the timetable for the London Underground. He suggests Gregory isn't really serious about anarchism, which so irritates Gregory that he takes Syme to an underground anarchist meeting place, under oath not to disclose its existence to anyone, revealing his public endorsement of anarchy is a ruse to make him seem harmless, when in fact he is an influential member of the local chapter of the European anarchist council.

The central council consists of seven men, each using the name of a day of the week as a cover; the position of Thursday is about to be elected by Gregory's local chapter. Gregory expects to win the election but just before, Syme reveals to Gregory after an oath of secrecy that he is a secret policeman. In order to make Syme think that the anarchists are harmless after all, Gregory speaks very unconvincingly to the local chapter, so that they feel that he is not zealous enough for the job. Syme makes a rousing anarchist speech in which he denounces everything that Gregory has said and wins the vote. He is sent immediately as the chapter's delegate to the central council.

In his efforts to thwart the council, Syme eventually discovers that five of the other six members are also undercover detectives; each was employed just as mysteriously and assigned to defeat the Council. They soon find out they were fighting each other and not real anarchists; such was the mastermind plan of their president, Sunday. In a surreal conclusion, Sunday is unmasked as only seeming to be terrible; in fact, he is a force of good like the detectives. Sunday is unable to give an answer to the question of why he caused so much trouble and pain for the detectives. Gregory, the only real anarchist, seems to challenge the good council. His accusation is that they, as rulers, have never suffered like Gregory and their other subjects and so their power is illegitimate. Syme refutes the accusation immediately, because of the terrors inflicted by Sunday on the rest of the council.

The dream ends when Sunday is asked if he has ever suffered. His last words, "can ye drink of the cup that I drink of?", is the question Jesus asks St. James and St. John in the Gospel of Mark, chapter 10, vs 38–39, a rhetorical question intended to demonstrate that the disciples are wrong to covet his glory because they are unable to bear the suffering for the sins of the world for which he is destined.


The work is prefixed with a poem written to Edmund Clerihew Bentley, revisiting the pair's early history and the challenges presented to their early faith by the times.

Like most of Chesterton's fiction, the story includes some Christian allegory. Chesterton, a Protestant at 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 he wrote this book as an unusual affirmation that goodness and right were at the heart of every aspect of the world. However, he insisted: "The book ... was not intended to describe the real world as it was, or as I thought it was, even when my thoughts were considerably less settled than they are now. It was intended to describe the world of wild doubt and despair which the pessimists were generally describing at that date; with just a gleam of hope in some double meaning of the doubt, which even the pessimists felt in some fitful fashion".[1]

The costumes the 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. The name of the girl Syme likes, Rosamond, is derived from "Rosa Mundi," meaning "Rose of the World" in Latin, and a title given to Jesus. (Usually a title given to the Virgin Mary.)

The Man Who Was Thursday allegedly inspired the Irish Republican Michael Collins with the idea "if you didn't seem to be hiding nobody hunted you out".[2] The philosopher John Gray argues the story is more pessimistic than Christian:

"Though some have tried to interpret The Man Who Was Thursday as a type of Christian allegory, the world it describes has more in common with the interminable labyrinth of Kafka's Castle. In the orderly Christian cosmos, in which Chesterton wanted to believe, nothing is finally tragic, still less absurd. The world is a divine comedy, the ultimate significance of which is never in doubt. In The Man Who Was Thursday, the world is illegible and may well be nonsensical. This was the nightmare he struggled, for the most part successfully, to forget. Producing a succession of wearisome polemics and mechanical paradoxes, he spent his life denying the vision that informed his greatest work."[3]


Many have noted the influence of The Man Who Was Thursday on surrealism and spy thrillers. In his last essay, Christopher Hitchens writes, "As to the durability or importance of GKC as a fictionist: the late Sir Kingsley Amis once told me that he reread The Man Who Was Thursday every year, and on one of his annual visitations wrote a tribute. That novel, with its evocation of eeriness and solitude, and its fascination with anonymity, has been credited by some with a share of influence on Franz Kafka."[4] Critic Adam Gopnik also concurs, "The Man Who Was Thursday is 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. It is also, along with Chesterton's The Napoleon of Notting Hill, the nearest thing that this masterly writer wrote to a masterpiece."[5]


Martin Gardner edited The Annotated Thursday, which provides a great deal of biographical and contextual information in the form of footnotes, along with the text of the book, original reviews from the time of the book's first publication and comments made by Chesterton on the book.[6] A less thorough annotation was done for the edition of the novel published as part of The Collected Works of G. K. Chesterton (D. J. Conlon, 1986–).


The novelist Kingsley Amis describes his reading of the novel thusly,

By 'thrilling' I mean not only doing what a first-rate action-writer like Ian Fleming or Dick Francis can do -- keep you in continual and almost painful suspense, put you in fear for the hero's survival -- but persuading you that something wonderful is afoot, that the events described have a mysterious and momentous significance you hardly dare guess at. ... The Man Who Was Thursday...remains the most thrilling book I have ever read. ... The plot concerns spying, terrorism, an anarchist plot and a secret New Detective Corps organized to overthrow it: so much is clear from almost the beginning. But even earlier... whatever mysteries lie ahead, they are going to reach further and deeper than the twists and turns of an adventure story. ... What we expect from fantasy or a nightmare is that it should develop in an illogical, unpredictable way or perhaps not actually develop at all. But the feeling of the reader of The Man Who Was of being pulled inexorably along an inevitable path. Even the bizarre scenes turn out to have a definite and intelligible purpose. ... In one way or another, then, the nightmare is a controlled nightmare, and so in its way believable. But the sense of mystery remains, heightened indeed by glimpses of the ordinary world, the backcloth against which the drama or melodrama or whatever we decide to call it takes place. Definition remains impossible: The Man Who Was Thursday is not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three. What it has most of is a boy's adventure story...[7]


Mercury Theatre adaptationEdit

On 5 September 1938 The Mercury Theatre on the Air presented an abridged radio-play adaptation, written by Orson Welles, who was a great admirer of Chesterton. This was almost two months before the infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.[8]

The adaptation omits some of the metaphysical and theological discussions and treats much of the whimsical and comedic asides more seriously. Almost all of Chapter 14: The Six Philosophers is left out, in which the greater part of the metaphysical speculation is found.

APJAC Productions musical adaptationEdit

It was reported in January 1967 that Jerome Hellman and Arthur P. Jacobs' APJAC Productions were preparing movie projects including a musical adaptation of Chesterton's novel by Leslie Bricusse.[9] The film was not made.

BBC radio adaptationsEdit

There have been at least two adaptations broadcast by BBC radio over the years.

In 1986 the BBC broadcast a four-part series dramatised by Peter Buckman and directed by Glyn Dearman. It featured Michael Hadley as Thursday/Gabriel Syme, Natasha Pyne as Rosamond and Edward de Souza as Wednesday/The Marquis de St. Eustache. The episodes were titled:

  1. The Secret of Gabriel Syme
  2. The Man in Spectacles
  3. The Earth in Anarchy
  4. The Pursuit of the President

In 2005 the BBC broadcast the novel as read by Geoffrey Palmer, as thirteen half-hour parts. It has been re-broadcast several times since then, including in 2008 (one hundred years after first publication) 2016 and 2020. 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

2016 filmEdit

Hungarian Balázs Juszt wrote and directed a film inspired by Chesterton's book, starring François Arnaud, Ana Ularu and Jordi Mollà, which was premiered on 21 June 2016 at the Edinburgh Film Festival.[10] Juszt's inspiration was his mentor, István Szabó.

Popular cultureEdit

The 2000 video game Deus Ex features several excerpts from the book and lists Gabriel Syme as a current resident of the "Ton Hotel".

In Neil Gaiman's The Sandman comics, the Library of Dream's castle contains every story ever written plus every story dreamed of but never written. Among the latter is The Man Who Was October by G. K. Chesterton, which is supposedly a sequel to his Thursday. Also, the metaphysical being known as "Fiddler's Green" manifests in a physical form resembling Chesterton.

In Kim Newman's Anno Dracula: 1895, the Council of Days, led by Sunday, exists and is plotting to overthrow Dracula during the tenth anniversary of his rule over Britain. The Council includes Gabriel Syme, Peter the Painter (Friday), and Newman's recurring character Kate Reed.

In Echo Bazaar, the Council of Days is referenced as the Calendar Council, an anarchist cell under the leadership of December.

In One Piece, female frontier agents of the criminal organization Baroque Works follow the naming conventions for the Council of Days.

Martin Wallace used The Man Who Was Thursday as one of his sources of inspiration (together with Neil Gaiman's short story "A Study in Emerald" and Alex Butterworth's The World That Never Was: A True Story of Dreamers, Schemers, Anarchists, and Secret Agents) in his boardgame A Study in Emerald.


  1. ^ "Here is the text from the PENGUIN EDITION of The Man Who Was Thursday, 1972, PP. 185, 186" (TXT). Retrieved 24 October 2016.
  2. ^ Margery Forester, Michael Collins – The Lost Leader, p.35., Gill & MacMillan, 2006, ISBN 978-0717140145
  3. ^ Gray, John (9 December 2010). "The Wit and Wisdom of G K Chesterton: G K Chesterton's metaphysical nightmare". The New Statesman. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  4. ^ Hitchens, Christopher (March 2012). "The Reactionary: The charming, sinister G. K. Chesterton". The Atlantic. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  5. ^ Gopnik, Adam (30 June 2008). "The Back of the World". The New Yorker (July 7, 2008 Issue). Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  6. ^ Martin Gardner (ed.), The Annotated Thursday - G.K.Chesterton's Masterpiece "The Man Who Was Thursday", Ignatius Press, 1999, ISBN 978-0-89870-744-1
  7. ^ Amis, Kingsley (1 January 1990). The Amis Collection, Selected Non-Fiction 1954-1990 (First ed.). New York: Penguin Books. pp. 43–46. ISBN 0091739705. Retrieved 14 June 2020.
  8. ^ The Mercury Theatre on the Air: First Person Singular — "The Man Who Was Thursday" at the Paley Center for Media; retrieved 16 June 2012
  9. ^ "Jacobs, Hellman Merge Under APJAC Banner", BoxOffice (PDF), p. 17, 16 January 1967, archived from the original on 16 August 2016, retrieved 28 May 2017
  10. ^ "The Man Who Was Thursday | 2016 | Film Archive | Edinburgh International Film Festival 2016",, archived from the original on 5 October 2016, retrieved 28 May 2017

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit