The Man Who Was Thursday is among the greatest Christian novels ever written. When first published in 1908, reviewers instantly praised it as “amazingly clever,” “a remarkable acrobatic performance” and “a scurrying, door-slamming farce that ends like a chapter in the Apocalypse.” One critic wrote that he read the book in a single sitting, putting it down at the end “completely dazed.” The Man Who Was Thursday was an immediate and overwhelming triumph and its success has continued through today, remaining Chesterton’s most famous novel. Though the story is fundamentally Christ-centered and penned by a renowned theologian, the novel has appealed to both Christians and non-Christians for decades. Why is this so, and why should every Christian read The Man Who Was Thursday?
Part of the reason lies in how Chesterton uses paradox to convey Christian truths. The novel, subtitled A Nightmare, follows the poet Gabriel Syme as he manages to infiltrate a highly ordered anarchist society and becomes one of the seven members of the high council. A detective story without detection and a tale without a clear ending, The Man Who Was Thursday is typical Chestertonian and a clear example of the great writer’s propensity for paradox. Whereas most stories are created to be appreciated, Thursday might be the only novel ever written with the intention of not being fully understood. Called by many “the Prince of Paradox,” Chesterton clearly not only meant for instances of contradictory truth to be scattered throughout the pages but also for the entire novel to be a paradox. He certainly accomplished his goal in more than just one way.
While most books start in some state of confusion, challenging the reader to draw together the scattered strands of plot, The Man Who Was Thursday’s opening scene is almost childishly simple. There is no real mystery about the characters or their actions. Everything is clear. Yet as the story continues, the plot quickly disintegrates and at last dissolves into chaos. Chesterton adds to this his complete disregard for seasons, weather and time. However, even in the final wave of confusion and bedlam, the novel is finely ordered. For Chesterton, insanity can be sanity, a traitor can be loyal in his treachery, the best way to hide is in the open and order appears in the midst of utter chaos. Why does Chesterton embrace paradox in his writing? Because many foundational truths of the Christian faith are paradoxes: the Trinity (three in one), Mary (a virgin mother) and Christ (both God and man). These mysteries are unfathomable to us but our lack of understanding does not make them any less true.
The Man Who Was Thursday is an adventure novel with an unparalleled level of hidden truth. The entire book is an allegory for one man’s dauntless pursuit of Christ and his realization of how closely suffering is intertwined with the Christian spiritual life. It is a story of suffering, how suffering is a necessary part of Christ’s message and how suffering, even when we do not fully understand it, is an essential part of being a Christian. The critic who wrote that Thursday ended like a chapter from the book of Revelation was wrong. The key to this work lies in the book of Job, the piece of divinely inspired writing Chesterton considered the greatest riddle in all of literature.
G. K. Chesterton is, without a doubt, one of Christianity’s greatest writers, and The Man Who Was Thursday not only deserves to be called his greatest novel, but also to be read by every Christian. It is an allegory, a paradox and a riveting, spellbinding read, while at the same time hilarious and quintessentially Chestertonian. Suffering is at the forefront of the story, giving the reader no choice but to confront the problem of pain. The Man Who Was Thursday causes us, along with the protagonist of the story, to struggle through the thick fog of a nightmarish world and discover suffering for what it really is, only to at last meet our Creator face to face.