Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1183
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 upper middle class.
Galsworthy’s skill is at its best when he shows what happens to the Forsytean middle class when it moves into socially higher circles. By marrying Michael Mont, the son and heir of a baronet, Fleur has moved upward in the social scale. The salon she works so hard to assemble consists of a literary and artistic smart set comfortably sprinkled with an occasional title. For all her charm, however, Fleur tries too hard and meets a temporary defeat. In the second novel, THE SILVER SPOON (1926), the complete reversal of moral values from the Victorian-Edwardian society of the first trilogy to the decadence of the 1920’s is deftly shown in the episode of Marjorie Ferrar’s lawsuit. In defending the suit, Fleur’s lawyers must prove that Marjorie has pursued a life of sexual freedom. A revelation that would in the earlier period have condemned Marjorie to social ostracism now makes her the heroine of the modern sophisticates who surround her, and it is Fleur who is criticized for seeming to represent an outmoded moral prudery. This commentary on shifting values, however, is only a part of Galsworthy’s satire. Marjorie, the granddaughter of an earl, represents the aristocratic arrogance that has always taken it for granted that the “best” people can do as they like. It is the middle class that is either bound by convention or engaged in a daring revolt against it.
In calling this trilogy A MODERN COMEDY, Galsworthy makes it clear that he finds in postwar society a loss of permanence which renders the modern world insubstantial. While Soames Forsyte reacts with bewilderment to the changes, Galsworthy’s own vision, broader than that of his character, sees much that is attractive in the new freedom; but his view is still close enough to that of Soames to see that with the gains there are also losses. The death of Soames is the end of an era, and only the spirit of comedy, in the sense of ironic detachment, is appropriate to the new social scene.
Galsworthy’s literary reputation has passed through several stages. Before the 1920’s, he was more widely known as a playwright than as a novelist. Some critics writing at that time predicted that his fame would rest upon his plays of social protest. His novel, THE MAN OF PROPERTY, had been highly praised, but it was not until the completion of the MODERN COMEDY trilogy that the entire Forsyte chronicle emerged as a major work of fiction. Today the plays, like many topical works, seem dated whereas the social chronicle has a wider appeal. Like his contemporaries Arnold Bennett and H. G. Wells, Galsworthy has been eclipsed by the more dazzling techniques of writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf. The period in which the Forsyte chronicles are set, however, is now far enough in the past for nostalgic attraction. The popularity of the British television series based upon the Forsyte novels has revived interest in Galsworthy’s work, and it is probable that his reputation will ultimately rest upon this fictional document of a changing society.
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