John Galsworthy Short Fiction Analysis - Essay

John Galsworthy Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

John Galsworthy’s works have undergone critical and popular reappraisals since his death. During the last years of his career, he ranked higher in esteem than D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, or even Joseph Conrad. Yet within five years of his death, his reputation suffered dramatic reversal. As the Western world plunged more deeply into the Great Depression, the public lost interest in the values, manners, pastimes, and possessions of the privileged class Galsworthy so expertly delineated. In the decades that followed, the fiction was respectfully remembered more as social history than as living literature, while Galsworthy’s plays were relegated to community and university theater production. Only The Forsyte Saga retained a sustained readership, even receiving Hollywood attention from time to time. Critics generally concluded that while Galsworthy’s writing had forcefully protested social injustices of his time, it had failed to attain either the universality or the vital uniqueness that would permit it to survive the passing of the world it mirrored.

A twenty-six-hour serialization of “The Forsyte Chronicles” by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) decisively undermined this judgment. Faithful to the original material, the television series, which first aired in England on January 7, 1967, became a resounding international success, eventually appearing in more than forty countries and many languages, including Russian. Millions of people, to whom the Forsytes seemed as real as neighbors, demanded new editions and translations of Galsworthy’s novels and stories. Suddenly the books were better known than they had been even during the author’s lifetime, as paperback editions proliferated. The short fiction, too, was being more frequently anthologized than ever before.

“The Apple Tree”

“The Apple Tree,” one of Galsworthy’s finest tales, reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses of his art. The germ of Galsworthy’s story is the West Country tradition associated with “Jay’s Grave,” a crossroads on Dartmoor where is buried a young girl said to have killed herself out of disappointed love. The tale’s title and its epigraph, “The Apple-tree, the singing, and the gold,” relate Galsworthy’s modern treatment of destructive love to Euripides’ Hippolytus (428 b.c.e.), but the differences in the two works are perhaps more striking than the similarities. The Greek tragedy centers on psychological truths in its portrayal of Hippolytus and Phaedra, the respective embodiments of amorous deficiency and excess; Galsworthy’s story makes a social point. His young lovers, Frank Ashurst and Megan David, contrast in various ways—they are male and female, Anglo-Saxon and Celt, scion of civilization and child of nature, gentleman and common girl. All these differences are aspects of what for Galsworthy is the one great polarity: exploiter and exploited.

The story opens on a splendid spring day, the twenty-fifth anniversary of Frank and Stella Ashurst, who in honor of the occasion have driven out into the Devon countryside not far from where they first met. They stop by a grave at a crossroad on the moor. Stella brings out her colors to paint, but a vague discontent rises in Frank, who regrets his inability to seize and hold the ecstatic beauty of the spring day. Suddenly he knows that he has been here before. His mind takes him back twenty-six years to when, a young man of independent means with Oxford just behind him and the world before him, he had curtailed a walking tour at a nearby farm. There he had met Megan David, a country girl with the loveliness of a wild flower. The season and his youth, the beauty of the countryside, and the maiden combined to capture his susceptible fancy; she was dazzled by the attentions of a lordly aesthete from the Great World. After a midnight tryst in the apple orchard, they fell deeply in love. Charmed almost as much by her innocence as by the prospect of his own chivalry, Frank proposed that they elope together, to live, love, and perhaps finally marry in London. Megan acquiesced, and he departed for the nearby resort town of Torquay to procure money for the trip and a traveling wardrobe for his rustic beauty.

At Torquay, Frank encountered an old Rugby classmate, Halliday, and his sisters, Stella, Sabina, and Freda. In their company he enjoyed the ordinary holiday pleasures of the leisure class, exploring and sea bathing, taking tea, and making music. Soon the moonlit idyll in the orchard came to seem merely an interlude of vernal madness. In the company of the amiable Hallidays, particularly Stella, Ashurst’s conscience and class consciousness revived: He saw his intended elopement for what it would be, not romance but seduction: “It would only be a wild love-time, a troubled, remorseful, difficult time—and then—well, he would get tired, just because she gave him everything, was so simple, and so trustful, so dewy. And dew—wears off!” Resolving to do...

(The entire section is 2060 words.)