A Modern Comedy Critical Evaluation
by John Galsworthy

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Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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This trilogy, the second half of the six novels comprising John Galsworthy’s Forsyte chronicles, sees the final transformation of Soames Forsyte from the despised husband of Irene in THE MAN OF PROPERTY (1906) to the wholly sympathetic character who, by the time of his death in the closing novel SWAN SONG (1928), had become a public figure in the minds of British readers. The character of Soames reflects Galsworthy’s own changing attitude toward the society he depicts. When he wrote THE MAN OF PROPERTY, Galsworthy was an angry young man, in revolt against the stolidly Victorian values of his own Forsytean family. He was emerging as an artist instead of engaging in their world of finance. More important, he had fallen desperately in love with his cousin Arthur Galsworthy’s wife Ada, whose loveless marriage could not be terminated without inevitable scandal and social ostracism. After the death of Galsworthy’s father, the divorce did take place; Ada and John were married, and like young Jolyon and Irene, they remained devoted to each other throughout their lives. The picture of Soames Forsyte as the cold but possessive husband may not be an accurate portrayal of Arthur Galsworthy; in actual fact, Ada may have been more bored than bullied. What matters, however, is that Galsworthy believed her to be the victim of unnamed horrors, and this conviction flamed out in much of his early work. With their marriage and the consequent resolution of their personal dilemma, this theme recedes from his work and is finally reversed. In the first novel of A MODERN COMEDY, Fleur’s flirtations are treated with mild disapproval. In the third volume when she revives her passionate love affair with Jon, the lovers are not, like Irene and Bosinney, a heroic pair facing a hostile world; it is now marriage that properly triumphs, and the moral order is restored when Fleur and Jon remain with their spouses.

The shift in the character of Soames began at the end of the first trilogy in TO LET (1921), in which his love for his daughter softens the earlier rigidity of his character. In THE WHITE MONKEY (1924), the first novel of this trilogy, Soames is seen in an increasingly favorable light. He behaves with integrity in the crisis of the insurance company board, scornfully rejecting business practices that would conceal the facts from the shareholders. Those sterling moral principles of the Forsytes that once appeared so narrow and constricting are now, in the postwar world of the 1920’s, beginning to seem like strongholds of security in a rapidly deteriorating society. Soames’s relation with Irene is now seen also from his point of view. There is never any condemnation of Irene herself, who remains always the exalted symbol of Ada, but as Soames catches glimpses of her throughout the later years, the reader sees his inability to comprehend what went wrong. What seemed in the first novel to be merely the possessiveness of the “man of property” is shown now to be the tragic passion of a man who could neither express love nor receive it. Each time Soames sees Irene, the old anguish is revived; she is forever beautiful, mysterious, and unattainable. Only in his love for his daughter can he find emotional fulfillment.

Throughout his life, Galsworthy felt deep concern for the poor and actively supported liberal measures to alleviate poverty, but he is not at his best in dealing with such characters in his novels. The episodes involving Bicket and his wife Victorine and their desperate measures to acquire the means to emigrate to Australia are accurate enough in denoting their economic plight, but the characters themselves are not altogether convincing. Their mutual sacrifices for the sake of the other reflect a tendency to idealize the poor as noble victims of society rather than to present them as individualized characters. Galsworthy’s view here seems unintentionally patronizing because it lacks the satiric eye that he turns so shrewdly on his own...

(The entire section is 1,183 words.)