Lack of class among the upper class

Chris Chan

Eight hundred and eighty pages, and not a single character that I could really like. Maybe that’s a bit harsh. After all, one of the points that a lot of critics really admire about The Forsyte Saga is that John Galsworthy is not afraid to show both the appealing and the unflattering sides of all of his characters. If the Forsyte family is not exactly lovable, at least it is interesting. The Forsyte Saga is a highbrow soap opera, extremely well written and enjoyable, but somehow it seems that its heart isn?t quite in the right place.The Forsyte Saga is composed of five parts. Three novels: The Man of Property, In Chancery, and To Let; and two connecting short stories: Indian Summer of a Forsyte and Awakenings. The trilogy was written in the early years of the twentieth century, and it is a sharp-edged satire of the English gentry of that era. It was partially autobiographical, but it was fueled by Galsworthy’s desire to “pickle” the members of the upper middle class. Galsworthy despised what he considered the false pretensions and petty aspirations of that caste of society (to which he technically belonged) and attacked them in his writings. Perhaps the saga would have been more enjoyable if Galsworthy had felt some affection towards his subject matter. Then again, if Galsworthy felt that way, he might not have written the saga at all.

The story encompasses a few dozen characters, but it centers around the relationship between Soames Forsyte and his wife, Irene. Soames is a man who is obsessed with increasing his property and keeping up appearances. Irene is beautiful, a good deal younger than Soames, and not in the least attracted to her husband. Soames, who sees everything in terms of monetary value and sterile contract, is determined to possess his distant wife body and soul. Irene wants none of Soames’s style of marriage and the relationship deteriorates from there, eventually involving the whole of the family. Using the failing marriage as a backdrop, Galsworthy criticizes the social institutions and expectations of late nineteenth century high society.

Like I said earlier, it’s a soap opera. There are scads of affairs, elopements, infatuations, deaths that occur at rather pat times, marriages, divorces, pregnancies, and more. In the hands of a lesser writer, this book would be an unbearable mess. But under Galsworthy’s direction, it works. The social injustices of that era are made manifest, although the so-called remedies to these problems often produced equally destructive consequences. Just as there are no real heroes in the book, there are no total villains, either. The selfish, controlling miser is gradually revealed to be a semi-sympathetic, perhaps even pitiable man who can?t catch a break or find love. We are reminded that the spoiled and scheming pseudo-ingnue is really just a headstrong kid. The rascals who hurt those nearest and dearest to them are later presented as poor saps that have sought out happiness in the worst possible places.

It’s a very compelling portrait, and yet there’s something forced about it all. These characters, unfortunate enough to be born into a class rich enough to be more than comfortable yet insufficiently moneyed to be real aristocracy, are caught up in Galsworthy’s awful web of predestination. No one is allowed to be really happy, just respectably successful. He’s so determined to criticize this stratum of society that he refuses to allow them any escape from the purgatory on earth that he feels that they deserve simply for being unlucky enough to be born into the Forsyte family. The Forsyte Saga has always been very popular. For a while it was the most commonly read book on United States college campuses. It?s been made into a bunch of movies, and it has also been adapted into two critically acclaimed television miniseries, none of which I have yet seen. When the Nobel Committee awarded the Literature Prize to Galsworthy in the 1930’s, their citation stated that it was primarily for The Forsyte Saga. Of course, Galsworthy had many critics as well. He was one of Britain’s most popular writers during the first few decades of the twentieth century, but several modernists, including Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, argued that his style of writing was outdated. Others charged him with being the embodiment of the values and social order that he became famous for criticizing.

As for myself, I don’t care much for Galsworthy’s forced restrictions on his characters’ lives, but I have to give him credit. He knows how to create characters that can thoroughly interest the reader, he’s got a gift for plots, and he is never boring. I liked this book a lot, but Galsworthy is so desperate to promote his views on society that the realism gives way to what is at best partial truth.