The Forsyte Saga led to John Galsworthy’s Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932. The novel’s initial immense popularity subsided for a time but was revived again in the 1970’s, partly as a result of a televised dramatization by the British Broadcasting Corporation in 1969. The three novels that make up the trilogy—The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let—are sequences in the history of a wealthy, middle-class English family, the Forsytes, who are conscious of their social position and eager to keep it. Their pettiness in matters of decorum is typical of the wealthy bourgeoisie of the times.
The central conflict tying the three novels and two short stories—“Indian Summer of a Forsyte” and “Awakening”—together is between the sense of beauty and the acquisitive instinct, the desire to own, both property and people. Soames believes he owns Irene, yet he loses her twice—to men who, by his lights, are immoral and have no right to her. Fleur, her father’s daughter, loves Jon desperately, but she is desperate that she may lose him, that she may not possess him. Soames becomes a perceptive collector of paintings, but in his mind, he can never really separate their artistic value from the prices they may bring. He always knows which artists are up, which down. He spends hours alone in his picture room, luxuriating in the collection he owns.
The differences among the various members of the Forsyte clan are to a great extent due to generational misunderstanding. The older members of the family, such as Uncle Swithin and Old Jolyon, lived in a different world, both chronologically and psychologically, from that of such young Forsytes as Fleur and Jon. Those two worlds are straddled by Soames and Winifred, products of the tranquil Victorian period but now faced with disturbing societal changes that make them cling to the old familiar ways and fear acceptance of new ideas and new people. The transition from the old world into the new is one of the major strengths of the novel, and Galsworthy draws readers into the lives of the Forsytes in such a way that they feel they are actually living through this time of change.
Perhaps the greatest merit of The Forsyte Saga is that while its overall aim is one of social criticism, the characters are not sacrificed to this end but used to illuminate the commentary. Although critics have claimed that most of the characters are incomplete, the mystery in each of the main characters, especially Irene and Bosinney, proves immensely engrossing.
With her striking combination of golden hair, warm brown eyes, and pale skin, Irene is the embodiment of earthly beauty. She is often likened to a goddess, to Venus, but she is a Venus who remains chaste during the twelve years between her two love affairs. Her loveliness of face and figure, her carriage, her skill at the piano, her awareness, her self-possession—all effortlessly cast an almost mystical spell over everyone in the novels, even those who are disposed to judge her. Soames never stops loving her. When others are drawn to her and her second husband (Young Jolyon has a very engaging personality), Soames is bitterly resentful. Each of them has been involved in two scandals within the family, while he considers himself blameless. Bosinney, the architect who cares only for Irene and his work, is like a character from writer Ayn Rand—although Galsworthy wrote several decades before Rand. Bosinney is an artist with complete faith in his own vision and his talent. He will design and decorate Soames’s house according to that vision...
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or not at all—no compromises. Soames’s instructions to cut costs here, eliminate features there, deter him not at all. The readers can see why he appeals to Irene.
The novel is a period piece, but it can be appreciated by readers not primarily interested in that historical age because the turns of fortune in the lives of the main characters address universal human concerns. The first episode of the story, the festive occasion of a party celebrating the engagement of young June to Bosinney, is a case in point. The setting is that of a large family gathering intended to evaluate the worthiness of a prospective new member of the family. The conversation may at times have a uniquely Victorian flavor, but the setting and mood are ageless.
The complications among the characters are likewise ageless. Irene hopes to help June obtain family acceptance for Bosinney, but she falls in love with him herself. Soames tries to gain Irene’s love by building a beautiful house for her, but he only succeeds in forcing her to leave him, which in turn makes him even more the distasteful man of property than he had been. This hardening of Soames’s character makes him more a tragic character than a bad one.
Using an episodic structure in the novels, Galsworthy succeeds in portraying the thoughts and actions of an age in transition from the staid and superficially tranquil Victorian age to the bustling, confused early twentieth century. By using a large family as the base of the novel, he is able to introduce a representative variety of events and individuals. He uses many types of personality, among them Soames, the lonely businessman; Young Jolyon, the man who renounces his family to pursue a career as an artist; Fleur, the archetypal flapper of the post-World War I era. These and other characters play important roles in the progress of the story, but beyond that they are representative of the times.
The narrative has a circular quality. Fleur marries a man whom she does not love, just as Soames married Annette, whom he did not love, and Irene married Soames, whom she did not love. The readers are invited to speculate on Fleur’s chances for a happier marriage than those that preceded hers. The family cycle ends with the death of Timothy, Soames’s uncle. He has lived for more than a century, through the entire Victorian and Edwardian periods. At the end, he is an infant once again, cared for by his faithful housekeeper and cook, themselves remnants of an age that has passed. It is for these qualities and for the overall view of the period that this trilogy will retain its position in literature.