"'You want a safe disguise, do you? You want a dress which will guarantee you harmless; a dress in which no one would ever look for a bomb?' I nodded. He suddenly lifted up his lion's voice. 'Why, then, dress up as an anarchist, you fool!'"
The Man Who Was Thursday is a story of conspiracy and intrigue, candor and insanity. Beneath the rollicking exterior, it is a sober reminder that things are not always as they seem, and that we mortals chronically underestimate the possibilities and are prone to leaving important contingencies out of our calculations. When all your enemies turn out to be traitors, you may suddenly and quite unexpectedly find yourself surrounded by confused and curious friends. It can be a most disconcerting feeling.
This story is not - as it might seem - a work of fantasy; it lacks the wide-eyed wonder and bracing air of Narnia or Middle-earth. It is rather, as the subtitle suggests, a dream; and more specifically, a nightmare, complete with the appropriate nonsense and familiar sensation of squinting and straining to breathe.
The creative license afforded by this dream-like atmosphere gives Chesterton plenty of elbow room to infuse the story with his hearty and wonderfully dry brand of British humor:
"'What are we going to do?' asked the Professor.
'At this moment,' said Syme, with a scientific detachment, 'I think we are going to smash into a lamp-post.'
The next instant the automobile had come with a catastrophic jar against an iron object. The instant after that four men had crawled out from under a chaos of metal, and a tall lean lamp-post that had stood up straight on the edge of the marine parade stood out, bent and twisted, like the branch of a broken tree.
'Well, we smashed something,' said the Professor, with a faint smile. 'That's some comfort.'
'You're becoming an anarchist,' said Syme, dusting his clothes with his instinct of daintiness.
'Everyone is,' said Ratcliffe."
The willfully absurd tone of the narrative is a peculiar vantage point from which to examine anarchy, justice, and meaning in life. Perhaps it would be good for us to learn to see mortal existence as Chesterton did - for the great joke that it is. It is something of an emancipation to concede that reality is absurd.
A positive word about the Modern Library Classics edition: the introduction by Jonathan Lethem, himself an author, is quite good as introductions go, and this particular volume also includes useful commentary on the story from William Barry, Hillaire Belloc, William Morton Payne, and Chesterton himself. I recommend it.
If we stopped taking ourselves so seriously and always insisting that everything make so much sense, things might well be simpler. Chesterton understood life for the trifle that it is, and he reacted to this truth in much the same manner as Syme did near the end of the book- not with the morbidity of nihilism, but with the exuberance of having discovered something more: "He felt he was in possession of some impossible good news, which made every other thing a triviality, but an adorable triviality."