Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 678
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:Frome: 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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