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Reader’s Den, eReading Room
Reader's Den: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton - Week 3
For our penultimate discussion, we will be taking a look at Chapters 9 - 12 of G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare, which is part of both Mystery Summer and the New York Public Library's monthly online book discussion Reader's Den.
The narrative takes a dramatic (and humorous) turn in Chapter 10, when Gabriel Syme challenges the Marquis de Saint Eustache to a duel by first asking to pull the latter's nose and then feigning indignation at an imagined insult to his family. Between the clash of swords — nicely captured on the cover of the 1971 Ballantine Books edition to the right — the author sneaks in some interesting digressions, such as Syme's suddenly heightened senses in the midst of the duel:
"He felt strange and vivid value in all the earth around him, in the grass under his feet; he felt the love of life in all living things. He could almost fancy that he heard the grass growing; he could almost fancy that even as he stood fresh flowers springing up and breaking into blossom in the meadow—flowers blood red and burning gold and blue, fulfilling the whole pageant of the spring. and whenever his eyes strayed for a flash from the calm, staring, hypnotic eyes of the Marquis, they saw the little tuft of almond tree against the sky-line. He had the feeling that if by some miracle he escaped he would be ready to sit for ever before that almond tree, desiring nothing else in the world."
The above scene, in which Syme becomes hyper-aware of life (in the presence of death) takes on a certain amount of poignancy if one considers that G.K. Chesterton was writing the novel after emerging from a bout of depression. The almond tree also carries a number of cultural and religious connotations, which might be seen as prefiguring the writer's growing interest in spiritual matters later in life.
This section of the novel also contains many slang words, popular at the time. In Chapter 9, Dr. Bull exclaims, "Wasn't it a rag?" in reference to his ingenious disguise. Martin Gardner's The Annotated Thursday notes that rag was slang for a "boisterous joke" and that universities often held a Rag Week "in which students engage in ridiculous activites" (p. 160).
There are also several whimsical expressions related to drunkeness, such as the Doctor claiming Syme is "as drunk as an owl" (a phrase also used by Robert Louis Stevenson in Treasure Island) as well as Syme's reference to "All the blue devils in blue hell...contributing to my blue funk." Gardner explains that blue devils are similar in meaning to pink elephants and were associated with someone suffering from delerium tremens.
Lastly, at the very beginning of Chapter 11, Inspector Ratcliffe exclaims, "Of course the President is not with them. I wish to Gemini he were." This was a common expression at the time, thought to be a corruption of Jesu Domini and also related to the later forms Jiminy or Jiminy Cricket!
- Did you detect any other cultural or religious symbols such as the almond tree mentioned above?
- If you had to describe the duel between Syme and the Marquis in one word (or subsequent chase) what would it be?
- Have you encountered British slang words or expressions from the era that gave you pause?