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Last Updated July 17, 2023.

First produced: 1910

First published: 1910

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: 1910

Locale: London

The play begins one morning in July in a lawyers’ office when a young woman named Ruth Honeywill comes to see the junior clerk, William Falder. They plan to elope that night, taking Ruth’s children away from her violent, abusive husband. On the same morning, James How, the senior partner, discovers that a check for £9 has been altered to allow the bearer to withdraw £90 from the firm’s account. He brings the cashier from the bank into the office, and the cashier promptly identifies Falder as the thief.

The managing clerk, Robert Cokeson, and James How’s son, Walter, both feel sorry for Falder, but How decides to prosecute and calls the police to take the young clerk away. How emphasizes the importance of honesty and respectability in a lawyers’ office but also claims that he has always seen signs of dishonesty in Falder, saying that he has “the eyes of a man who can’t keep his hands off when there’s money about.” Walter and Cokeson, who are also concerned with the firm’s respectability, have observed no such signs, making How’s judgment and actions appear excessively harsh.

In October of that year, Falder’s trial takes place. His barrister says that, although there can be no doubt of Falder’s guilt, he acted under extreme stress “amounting to temporary insanity.” He had to rescue the woman he loved and her children from violent physical abuse, but under normal circumstances, he never acted dishonestly. Robert Cokeson and Ruth Honeywill confirm this in their evidence, and the barrister pleads with the jury not to sentence Falder to prison but to treat him as a patient rather than a criminal.

The prosecuting barrister, however, says that this is an emotional argument rather than a legal one. The judge stresses that the jury can only find that Falder was insane if they are “thoroughly convinced that the quality of his mind was such as would have qualified him at the moment for a lunatic asylum.” The jury finds Falder guilty, and the judge sentences him to three years in prison, saying that the emotional plea for clemency put forward by his counsel amounts to a criticism of “the march of Justice.” The judge is charged with the task of applying the law, and cannot consider the possibility that the law might be wrong.

On Christmas Eve, Cokeson visits Falder in prison and finds him in very low spirits, partly caused by solitary confinement and his anxiety about Ruth. He asks the governor to allow Falder to work with other prisoners and to see the woman he loves, but the prison doctor says that solitude is doing Falder no harm. When he examines Falder later that day, he says that the young prisoner is nervous, but there is nothing to differentiate his case from many others. Alone in his cell, Falder hears the sound of other convicts banging against their doors and joins in, beating against the door of his cell with clenched fists. The futility of this gesture reveals his despair as well as the inflexibility of the system that is crushing him, along with many others.

Two years later, Ruth Honeywill visits Cokeson at his office and tells him that Falder is desperate for a job. Cokeson persuades a skeptical James How to give Falder another chance, but How stipulates that Falder must abandon Ruth. Falder wrestles with this proposition and, as he does so, is horrified when he realizes that Ruth must have been working as a prostitute to support herself while he was in prison.

A police officer enters the office to arrest Falder for failing to report to the police (a condition of his release) and for using a forged reference to apply for a job. In despair, Falder commits suicide by throwing himself out of the window. When he sees that the young man is dead, Cokeson cries out that he is “safe with gentle Jesus!” This concluding thought offers a stark contrast between divine justice and the failures of the human justice system.

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