Chesterton, G.K.: Man Who Was Thursday, The

I am probably the only person in the world who doesn’t know this, but G.K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is an allegory. It is not a mystery, or a thriller, or a comedy (in the genre senses of the words). It literally does not make sense on any level other than the allegorical.

It is important to know this, because otherwise you might be like me and start listening to an unabridged reading recorded off BBC7 under the vague impression that it’s a thriller. And then things start making less and less sense, and you get annoyed, and you decide to just skim the book rather than spend more time with people who aren’t very smart, and then boom! suddenly you’ve got allegory all over you.

Which is a terrible thing to happen when you’re not expecting it.


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  1. Allegory for what? Standard Jesus, or something more interesting?

  2. Mike, it’s theological. I’m not sure if this is a spoiler, so ROT13: gur ceboyrz bs rivy (EDIT: gurer vf n wrfhf svther, ohg vg jbhyq or zvfyrnqvat gb fnl gung’f gur rkgrag bs gur nyyrtbel).

  3. I think it’s possible to read The Man Who Was Thursday as merely a novel of symbols, rather than a true allegory. I suppose it’s a fine line. While we’re on the topic, I always recommend Eric Walker’s comments on Chesterton and TMWWT at his Great SF and Fantasy Works webiste.
    Personally, while I liked TMWWT very much, it’s not my favorite Chesterton novel — that would be Manalive.

  4. (Aside: why didn’t anyone *tell* me I’d misspelled the author’s name?!)
    David, I don’t know what the distinction between a novel of symbols and an allegory is.

  5. why didn’t anyone *tell* me I’d misspelled the author’s name?!
    Um, in my case, because I didn’t notice.
    As for the difference between a “novel of symbols” and an allegory, I think it has to do with the consistency and ubiquity of the mapping between symbol and referent. I think of Tolkien’s comments on The Lord of the Rings, which he fervently denied was in any way an allegory, but which he happily admitted was full of symbolism.
    For a work to be an allegory, you have to be able to say that (say) Fred the Butcher represents man’s inhumanity to man, and *always* represents man’s inhumanity to man, while Jane the Seamstress represents (always) faith in the Divine. It’s not just that there are symbols, but the symbols persist and their relationships are static and have referents outside the work.
    A novel of symbols (as I understand the term) is content with transient symbolism — the One Ring might be symbolic of the seduction of power at one point, of the burden of virtue at a different point, of hubris at a third point. The journey from the Shire to Mordor might be symbolic, in a way, of the path from childhood to maturity — but not in any systematic way, with specific events along the way meant to correspond to First Love or Loss of Innocence or Acceptance of Mortality.
    That’s what I meant by it, anyway.

  6. Ah, thank you.
    Given the ending, I think it a stretch to say that the symbols in this book are not specific static referents, but I admit that my philosophical education is patchy.

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