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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1488

First produced: 1910

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First published: 1910

Type of work: Drama

Type of plot: Social criticism

Time of work: 1910

Locale: London

Principal Characters:

William Falder, a solicitor's clerk

Cokeson, a senior clerk

Ruth Honeywill, with whom Falder is in love


Since 1910, when this play was written, prison reforms have progressed considerably. The play is a protest against dehumanized institutionalism, with particular attention directed toward the evils of solitary confinement and the strict parole system. The problem of making a convicted man into a useful citizen once more is complex. Galsworthy thought rehabilitation likely only if all who came into contact with the man accepted their share of the responsibility.

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The Story:

Cokeson, managing clerk for the firm of James and Walter How, solicitors, was interrupted one July morning by a woman asking to see the junior clerk, Falder. The woman, Ruth Honeywill, seemed in great distress, and though it was against office rules, Cokeson permitted her to see Falder.

Falder and Ruth Honeywill were planning to run away together. Ruth's husband, a drunken brute, had abused her until she would no longer stay with him. Falder arranged to have Ruth and her two children meet him at the railway station that night. Ruth left and Falder went back to work.

Young Walter How came to the office. Cokeson was skeptical of the young man's desire to keep the firm not only on the right side of the law but also on the right side of ethics. James How entered from the partners' room. He and Walter began to check the firm's balance, which they decided was below what they remembered it should have been. Then they discovered that a check written the previous Friday had been altered from nine to ninety pounds.

The check had been cashed on the same day that another junior clerk, Davis, had gone away on some firm business. Cokeson was quickly cleared. When it became certain that the check stub had been altered after Davis had started on his trip, suspicion fell on Falder.

The bank cashier was summoned. He recognized Falder as the man who had cashed the check. James How accused Falder of the felony. Falder asked for mercy, but How, convinced that the felony had been premeditated, sent for the police. Falder was arrested.

When the case came to court, Frome, Falder's counsel, tried to show that Falder had conceived the idea and carried it out within the space of four minutes, and that at the time he had been greatly upset by the difficulties of Ruth Honeywill with her husband. Frome called Cokeson as the first witness, and the managing clerk gave the impression that Falder had not been himself on the day in question. Ruth Honeywill was the most important witness. She indicated that Falder had altered the check for her sake. Cleaver, the counsel for the prosecution, tried his utmost to make her appear an undutiful wife.

In defense of Falder, Frome tried to press the point that Falder had been almost out of his mind. Cleaver questioned Falder until the clerk admitted that he had not known what he was doing. Then Cleaver declared Falder had known enough to keep the money he had stolen and to turn in the sum for which the check originally had been written. The jury found Falder guilty and the judge sentenced him to three years.

At Christmas time Cokeson visited the prison on Falder's behalf. He attempted to have Falder released from solitary confinement and asked for permission to bring Ruth Honeywill to see Falder. Cokeson's visit accomplished nothing. Both the chaplain and the prison governor were indifferent to his appeal.

When Falder was finally released on parole, Ruth Honeywill went to intercede for him at How's office. She intimated that she had kept herself and her children alive by living with another man after she left her husband. Falder went to tell Cokeson that his relatives wanted to give him money to go to Canada. He was depressed and ill at ease; he had seen Ruth only once since his release. James How made it clear that if Falder refused to abide by strict standards of justice there would be no hope that the firm would take him back.

James How, aware that Ruth Honeywill had been living with another man, crudely broke the news to Falder. He did, however, give Falder and Ruth an opportunity to talk over their predicament. While they were talking in a side room, a detective sergeant came looking for Falder. Falder was to be arrested again because he had failed to report to the police according to the parole agreement. Although How and Cokeson refused to disclose Falder's whereabouts, the detective discovered Falder in the side room. As he was rearresting Falder, the clerk suddenly broke loose and killed himself by jumping from the office window.

Further Critical Evaluation of the Work:

John Galsworthy considered himself to be a "naturalistic" playwright, by which he meant "to create such an illusion of actual life passing on the stage as to compel the spectator for the moment to lose all sense of artifice, to think, talk and move with the people he sees thinking, talking and moving in front of him." But most of his dramas are the antithesis of what writers like Zola, Strindberg, or Norris meant by "naturalism." Galsworthy's characters have too much free choice in determining their lives and, although pressured by society, too much responsibility for their own fates to fit into the bleak, deterministic naturalist category. An important exception, however, can be seen in JUSTICE. It follows the pattern typical of such plays and novels; one extremely fallible human being, acting impulsively and irrationally, makes a small, unavoidable mistake and is thus caught up in the implacable, impersonal social system and destroyed by it.

In the powerful second act courtroom scene, Hector Frome, the defense attorney for the victim, sums up the case for mercy—and charts the course of the play:


If the prisoner be found guilty, and treated as though he were a criminal type, he will, as all experience shows, in all probability become one. . . . Justice is a machine that, when some one has once given it the starting push, rolls on of itself. Is this young man to be ground to pieces under this machine for an act which at the worst was one of weakness?

And that is, of course, exactly what happens to him. Given the rigidity of the law plus the Victorian attitudes toward private property, marriage, and sex, William Falder is convicted and sent to prison. The qualities which make him most sympathetic to the reader, his love and devotion toward Ruth Honeywell and her children and his willingness to risk prison for them, become primary charges against him; in the eyes of proper English society he is a home wrecker and suspected adulterer. After his release, broken by solitary confinement, hounded by the "ticket-of-leave" system which controls his every movement, and re-arrested on a technicality, Falder commits suicide.

The most frightening thing about his fate is that, once the process is set in motion, Falder has no chance to escape regardless of what he, or anyone else, does. And this is not because the system is consciously malevolent; it is simply impersonal, unyielding, and automatic. All of those involved in Falder's fate desire the best for him and for society. Old James How, who first accuses him, states "one must think of society"; the Judge denies him mercy on the grounds that "the Law is what it is—a majestic edifice, sheltering all of us, each stone of which rests on another"; the prison Doctor declines to release him from solitary confinement because, should he do so, he would have to do the same for others; in short, the authorities are as much trapped by the system as the victim. As Cokeson tells Falder: "You must give them credit for the best intentions. Really you must. Nobody wishes you harm, I'm sure."

The relentless progression of Falder's destruction gives the play considerable cumulative power, and several of the separate scenes are extremely potent, especially the trial scene and the short, wordless, almost hallucinatory scene in which Falder nearly goes insane in his solitary whitewashed cell. On the other hand, the absence of human decision and the emphasis on social process in this play keeps the characterization on a superficial level and deprives the play of that thematic complexity and ambiguity which is characteristic of Galsworthy's best work. In JUSTICE the "certain detachment" that Galsworthy thought essential to good playwrighting is missing; it is a didactic play which to some extent succeeded in its immediate aim—as a result of it the solitary confinement and "ticket-of-leave" policies were mitigated—but, as happens in all works narrowly directed at particular social abuses, the play has become one of Galsworthy's most dated dramatic efforts.

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