Aubrey holds a Ph.D. in English and has published many articles on nineteenth century literature. In this essay, Aubrey discusses the role that Sister Soulsby plays in Ware’s fall from grace.
Poor Theron Ware. He goes from being an earnest young Methodist minister, well grounded in his faith and happily married, to a man who reeks of insincerity, embezzles money from the church and makes a complete fool of himself with a free-thinking young woman whom he can never, in spite of his fantasies, possess.
It is easy to see the triumvirate of Father Forbes, Dr. Ledsmar and Celia Madden as the ones who are chiefly responsible for Ware’s fall from grace. When a man who is educated only within the narrow confines of the Methodist religion encounters a worldly-wise and learned priest, an atheistic scientist, and a cultured, artistic woman who lets nothing interfere with her personal freedom, it is not surprising that he is torn from his simple moorings and flounders. Stepping out of one rigid belief system, he does not have the intellectual training to join any of the others. The dying Michael Madden explains this to him, telling Ware that he should have stayed with his own people and his own religion; when he strayed into another domain he was ill-equipped to understand it and his character degenerated as a result.
There is obviously much truth in this reading of the causes of Ware’s downfall. However, Ware also encounters another key figure, and that is Sister Soulsby. On the surface, the kindly Sister Soulsby seems like a beneficent influence on the minister, as well as being a very lively, entertaining character. She rescues the church from debt, gives the naïve Ware some good, common-sense advice, and in general tells him what he needs to know. This positive view of Sister Soulsby was how early reviewers and critics of the novel tended to see her. But since then, more than a few critics have reversed this interpretation. Rather than being a sympathetic character, Sister Soulsby has been presented as the direct cause of Ware’s “damnation,” a true Mephistophelean temptress in the guise of a friendly adviser. For example, Stanton Garner wrote in his book Harold Frederic, “It is she who touches Theron’s weakest point, immobilizing his moral faculties with a vision of petty illusions disguising the sordid ‘reality’ of the world.” Garner calls this a “cynical philosophy of sharp practice and self-indulgent rationalizations.” Scott Donaldson, in his article “The Seduction of Theron Ware,” also follows this line of argument. Sister Soulsby is a corrupting influence on Ware, since she teaches him to be duplicitous and also manipulates him and his congregation by every means she can in order to obtain her goals. This conclusion has been echoed by other critics since, although it is by no means the universal view. Thomas F. O’Donnell and Hoyt Franchere, for example, see nothing sinister in Sister Soulsby. In contrast, the Soulsbys provide “a sincere but realistic spiritual leadership of the kind that expedience demands.”
The crux of the matter is the extent to which moral, ethical and spiritual absolutes can be applied in the complex, day-to-day business of human affairs. Those who condemn Sister Soulsby do so on the basis of her willingness to manipulate others for what she sees as a worthy goal. For her, the means justify the ends, but for her critics, this attitude leaves her open to charges of cynicism and insincerity. Those who defend her see her modus operandi as she herself sees it: as a necessary way of accomplishing necessary things in a less than perfect world. In this view, common sense and pragmatism trump moral righteousness.
There is some truth in both these opposing views. There is no doubt that Sister Soulsby is a shameless manipulator. She is cunning, knows exactly what she wants to get out of people, and plans her actions accordingly, using every trick in the book. When she wants to persuade members of Ware’s congregation to part with their money, she invites them to a revival meeting without divulging its real purpose, reasoning with some...
(The entire section is 1728 words.)