ROOTING FOR THE ANTIHERO
The recent arrival of the GTL tablet with its online library has prompted me to discard many paper copies of my books, but not my nine Forsyte novels by John Galsworthy.
Galsworthy grouped his nine novels into three trilogies and the GTL library stocks a Duke Classics edition of The Forsyte Saga, the first trilogy. The novels earned Galsworthy great acclaim and count as the chief reason for his 1932 Nobel Prize for literature.
Set in 1886, the story focuses on Soames Forsyte, a successful London lawyer, and Irene, a woman worshipped by Soames but who has zero interest in him. Soames, though, persists and after much relentless pursuit, Irene’s diminished economic circumstances force her to marry him.
The trilogy consists of The Man of Property, In Chancery and To Let and includes the short stories “Indian Summer of a Forsyte” and “Awakening” that connect the novels. The GTL library offers To Let as a standalone, but reading the works out of sequence would only create confusion.
Galsworthy’s superb writing shows the beginning of the decline of the marriage in Chapter IV, which opens with a scene that characterizes Soames’s life with Irene from his point of view:
He had left his wife sitting on the sofa in the drawing-room, her hands crossed in her lap, manifestly waiting for him to go out. This was not unusual. It happened, in fact, every day.
He could not understand what she found wrong with him. It was not as if he drank! Did he run into debt, or gamble, or swear; was he violent; were his friends rackety; did he stay out at night? On the contrary.
The profound, subdued aversion which he felt in his wife was a mystery to him, and a source of the most terrible irritation. That she had made a mistake, and did not love him, had tried to love him and could not love him, was obviously no reason.
The GTL library lends classic novels a renewed currency. Instantaneous availability puts such books quite literally at the fingertips of incarcerated readers and lack of access no longer counts as an excuse for not reading them. The app lists The Forsyte Saga as “always available.”
Like many members of the Forsyte family, Soames tried to solve his problem with his wealth: He decided to build an extraordinary house in a far-away suburb so to isolate Irene from life in London. The decision only compounded his problems: Irene fell in love with the architect.
The concept of property remains central to the novels. Soames liked to own — and, even worse, compulsively to collect — only great beauties: houses, paintings and… Irene. Houses and paintings do not have to like him back and he has serious problems with the latter beauty not liking him at all. The novel showed me just how little human notions about property have changed in over a century.
The marriage soon failed, but Soames did not give up: his obsession with Irene continued. In Soames, Galsworthy created an unusual character in fiction: a very rare, utterly realistic and timeless antihero. Many incarcerated persons might know someone like Soames; perhaps they only have to look in a mirror.
As much as Soames’s behavior bothered me, Galsworthy made me sympathize with him and not fault him for his flaws. At the end of the third novel, the writing made me feel sorry for the antihero and gave me the impression of Soames as a victim of circumstances he had created for himself, possibly even against his will.
Writers might notice two unique aspects of Galsworthy’s style:
First, tightly integrated paragraphs give the prose an unmistakable rhythm.
Second, Galsworthy uses a formal word choice with expansive diction and an occasionally complex but highly accessible vocabulary.
Re-reading the novels made me aware of the lessons the novels had taught me: love has greater value than property and generosity has greater power than possession, lessons that took me years to learn. Readers should remember: Whatever Soames does, just do the opposite.