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Reader's Den: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton - Week 2


Capricon Books, 1960 (cover by Milton Glaser)Capricon Books, 1960 (cover by Milton Glaser)This week, we will be discussing Chapters 5-8 of The Man Who Was Thursday, A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton as part of the New York Public Library's Reader's Den.

If you don't have a copy of the book yet, please visit the first post for links to request a library copy or download the FREE ebook.

In this week's reading, Gabriel Syme is pursued by the seemingly decrepit Professor de Worms. Several scholars, including Joseph Keogh and John Batchelor have noted similarities between the latter character and the chemistry professor found in Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent, which was first published as a serial in 1906 in the periodical Ridgway's. In a 1974 article, Batchelor even went so far to call Chesterton's 1908 novel, a "wild parody of Conrad's The Secret Agent."

Those curious about the similarities between the two works can download a free ebook of the Conrad novel from Project Gutenberg. It's also available as free audiobook from the Internet Archive.

It's interesting to note that while the chase between the two men takes on a surreal, nightmarish quality as Syme frantically seeks to escape the frail, older man only to find the professor ordering yet another glass of milk, this is eventually resolved with a rational explanation in Chapter 8.

However, one feature of the novel that remains inexplicable is the bizarre shifts in weather, noted by Martin Gardner in The Annotated Thursday. He writes,

"It opens with a garden party in Saffron Park at a time when leaves are on the trees. A few days later, when Syme is about to board a tug, we are told it was 'half-past one on a February night.' Earlier in the same paragraph Syme is said to have outfitted himself in an 'exquisite summer suit.' He arrives in London for breakfast with Sunday in 'glowing sunlight,' on an open-air hotel balcony. Below on the street are trees with 'sunlit leaves.' When Syme leaves the hotel, 'the bright, cold day had grown increasingly colder,' and it is starting to snow" (p. 117).

The nonsensical weather changes might cause some readers to interpret the story, as Garry Wills does in his introduction to the book, as merely a series of dreams within Gabriel Syme's imagination. Shortly before his death in 1936, G.K. Chesterton himself clarified his position in an article in the Illustrated London News, emphasizing that the novel's subtitle is "A Nightmare" and as he further explained:

"it 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. Above we noted the similarities to Joseph Conrad's The Secret Agent. Thus far, does Chesterton's novel remind you of any other books you have read?
  2. In Chapters 5-8, we are introduced to a host of strange characters: the madman Gogol, the paralytic Professor de Worms, the fashionable Marquis de St. Eustache, the enigmatic Dr. Bull, and of course, President Sunday. Was there a single character's description you especially enjoyed?
  3. Has there been a point in the story so far which has caused you to question whether this is a realistic or fantastic novel?   



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Week 2 Questions

1. The book does not remind me of other books but, once again referring to the Jonathan Lethem introduction in the edition of the book I am reading, Lethem mentions that the..."absolute and preposterous terms" are "in the manner found most often in certain children's books, Alice in Wonderland, or Norton Juster's The Phantom Tollbooth, or Russell Hoban's The Mouse and His Child. He also touches on the comparison to The Secret Agent as well as to The Wind in the Willows which he says were both published the same year that this book came out and that it serves as "a perfect midpoint between the two better-known books." 2. My favorite description, because it made me laugh, was of President Sunday. Syme describes how large his face is and that he is afraid that he will shout out loud when he gets closer to him and will realize that the face is "too big to be possible." He sits down near Sunday and observes: "His face was very large, but it was still possible to humanity." I know I digress here but I have to mention the following parts in addition to those of his description when speaking of Sunday. When Sunday talks about Gogol the humor ensues as Gogol claims he is not ashamed of "the cause". Sunday replies: "Yes you are, my boy, and so is the cause of you..." Sunday goes on to talk about Gogol wearing his top hat all the time, its impracticality, and that whenever a household resident might observe a man under his/her bed they most certainly will pause to wonder why that someone is there, but when they notice a man in a top hat under their bed, that that will be an occurrence that will highly be something they are not likely to forget about. "Now when you were found under Admiral Biffin's bed--" Gogol's response: "I am not good at deception." Ha! 3. There are points every few pages where the reader is going on just fine (e.g., walks in the park and dining out at a resturant) and then something odd begins to happen (e.g., the table begins to spin). Of course, the story does feel more fantastic than realistic but the ideas can be deemed realistic, in many ways, even if the setting is not continuously.

Re: Week 2 Questions

Thanks for your comments! I can definitely see some similarities with the children's books you mentioned. Did you catch the "jabberwock" reference in this week's reading? I believe it's in Chapter 10. With this novel, I found that the further I got into the story, the less I believed the story was "real".

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