Justice by John Galsworthy (Book Review)

  • Divyanshu Jindal
  • July 26, 2020

Content :

NAME OF PUBLICATION HOUSE: Surjeet publications(1 Jan 2007 )
ISBN : 987-81229-0299-0

John Galsworthy (1867-1933) was an English novelist and playwright.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932  He studied law and was called to the bar in 1890  Shortly afterwards, with a goal to specialize in marine law, he took a voyage around the world in which he met and befriended Joseph Conrad  The Encyclopedia Britannica calls Galsworthy “A passionate partisan of liberal humanitarianism, he had little sympathy with the modern movement in the arts taking place around him. … He had, in short, no profound understanding of human nature, only a keen emotional feeling for the society in which he had himself been brought up and a sentimental esteem for the underdog.The article gave most of its attention to Galsworthy’s Forsyth Saga, but did have a short comment on this particular work; “Justice (1910), a realistic portrayal of prison life that roused so much feeling that it led to reform.”  I do not doubt that the media and general public perceived it this way, however, I do not agree that this is an accurate portrayal of Justice.  In this book there is no question as to Falder’s guilt.  Instead, the dilemma is on the temptation to violate the sanctity of equality under the law.  When do we make an exception?  Should there be an exception?  Who decides, and on what criteria?  We see this in Act One when Cokeson wants to make an exception and appeals to James How.  We see this in Act Two in the trial when the lawyer, Frome,  asks for an exception.  And again in Act Three, when we see Cokeson pleading with the prison Governor for exceptions that he knows he should not ask for, but does anyhow.  And finally, in Act Four, when James How finally relents to an exception, against his better judgment, to take the ex-con back, it is revealed that everything is just as he had feared it would be, and Falder, the man of “weak character,” selfishly throws away his life, over a case of misplaced passion, making his last mistake in series of many.

Therefore, I believe this play is not about instigating prison reform, but rather about how passion and familiarity with vice entices us to slide down that slippery slope of moral degradation.  To defend my position, I will explore the dynamic changes that occur in the character Cokeson over the course of the play, the fair trial that Falder, the man of “weak character” receives, and finally the portrayal of the prison in which that “realistic portrayal of prison life that roused so much feeling,” will be debunked and actually shown to be the most humane prison that I have ever read about.

The play opens and closes with the character Robert Cokeson.  He is described as “a man of sixty, wearing spectacles; rather short, with a bald head, and an honest, pug-dog face.  He is dressed in a well-worn black frock-coat and pepper-and-salt trousers.”  He has spent the last twenty-nine years as the managing clerk of the Law Firm of James and Walter How, a father and son establishment dealing with estate cases.  This respectable place of employment is suddenly disturbed by the arrival of a distraught woman, Mrs. Ruth Honeywill, and her two young children. She pleads to Cokeson that she must talk to William Falder, one of the junior clerks.  Cokeson learns that there is no acceptable relationship between the two and tells her that he cannot possibly allow that to happen and she must seek him out elsewhere.  She passionately exclaims that “It’s a matter of life and death,” and reluctantly Cokeson accedes.

We are then privy to the private conversation of Ruth and Falder.  She is trying to escape from an abusive husband and they have plans to run away that very night to South America and pose as husband and wife.  He gives her seven pounds and she leaves to get ready for their journey.  The partners arrive and discover that there is a discrepancy in the books.  They learn that a nine-pound bank note was forged to look like 90 pounds.  The blame initially falls on Davis, a young clerk who is on a ship headed to Australia with his young wife. Scotland Yard is notified, and plans are being made to have Davis arrested in Naples on his way to Australia.  Cokeson is very distressed by this incident as he thinks very highly of Davis.  The bank cashier, Cowley, who cashed the funds is sent for to get more information.  They wish Davis was there so that Cowley could identify him.  Falder is asked to come out of the office, just to cover all bases, and to the surprise of everyone, he identifies him as the one who cashed the forged note.  Falder denies this at first, and even tries to put the blame on the honeymooner.  But soon realizes he is caught and begs for forgiveness and vows to repay what he stole.  Falder claims it was a spur of the moment decision, but the elder How instead sums it all up as “weak character.”  The inspector shows up, arrests Falder, and takes him away.  The act ends with Cokeson so upset, that he cannot eat his lunch.

In act two, at Falder’s trial, Cokeson on the witness stand, states that he was a “nice, pleasant-spoken young man,” and that they “were all very jolly and pleasant together, until this happened.”  Cokeson’s life up until this time has been orderly and respectable.  He knew things happened out there in the real world, but not to him and his associates.  This made it personal, and as such he was having a hard time dealing with it.  He relies on custom and prescription to guide his actions, but this shakes him up.  He is very particular to answer all the questions posed to him honestly and precisely.  For example, when asked how long Falder had worked for the company he responded, “Two years.  No, I’m wrong there – all but seventeen days.”   Cokeson replies that dishonesty would never do, that, “Every man of business knows that honesty’s the sine qua non.”   In his testimony, Cokeson states that Falder on the morning of the forgery was jumpy.  He likened him to a “dog that’s lost its master.”  This is interesting, in the act of committing the crime, he compared Falder to be acting or taking on an animal characteristic.   Falder is found guilty in the trial and goes to prison.

In act three, Cokeson visits Falder, and then goes to see the Governor of the prison.  He tells the Governor, “Fact is, I oughtn’t to be here by rights. … Well, I take an interest in him.  He was our junior – I go to the same chapel – and I didn’t like to refuse.  And what I wanted to tell you was, he seems lonely here.”  Cokeson is worried, but is he really worried for Falder, or for the trouble it is causing him, as in when he says, “I’m afraid it’ll prey on my mind.”  Cokeson asks the Governor if he can make an exception with Falder.  It seems when prisoners first arrived they were kept in a cell for three months, before they were allowed to participate in group activities.  Cokeson is here to plead for leniency.  He hates to see a man cry, and his problems are due to a woman.  A man may indeed be lonely when he goes to prison.  What is wrong with having a few months to think things out, collect your thoughts, and reflect on why you are there?  He petitions to the Governor to make an exception and allow Ruth to visit Falder.  The governor refuses this request also and Cokeson goes on to tell us her sad plight.  He explains that she came to him saying she didn’t know what else to do and was going to have to go into the workhouse, but he couldn’t let that happen so he was helping her out, and wanted to give her some money.  She said, “I don’t like to take it from you.  I think I’d better go back to my husband.”  Cokeson said it was this news that upset Falder.  He tells the governor, “He’s got his three years to serve. I want things to be pleasant for him.”  Is prison supposed to be pleasant?  Cokeson tells the chaplain that he keeps dogs and that he “wouldn’t shut one of them up all by himself, month after month, not if he bit me all over.”  The Chaplain responds, “Unfortunately, the criminal is not a dog; he has a sense of right and wrong.”  Cokeson replies back, “But that’s not the way to make him feel it.”  The Chaplain then says, “Ah! There I’m afraid we must differ.”  Cokeson, has visited the prison, even though he knew he had no right to, asked for exceptions for Falder to see a married woman, and compared the prisoners condition as worse than dogs.  It is quite apparent that he is out of his element and is simply being motivated by passion.  He is concerned about their feelings.  The Chaplain politely disagrees with him and the prison officials shake their head at this old mans naivety.

A couple of years later, Ruth shows up again at the law office.  This time she is well received by Cokeson.  She wants Falder to have his old job back and he agrees to talk to him about it.  He asks how she is getting along and is startled to find out she is now a prostitute.  She goes downstairs and sends Falder up.  Cokeson is flustered and thought he would have more time to grasp everything as Falder pours out his story of looking for work and sleeping in the park.  Then the law partners arrive.  They hear his sad situation and how hard it is to find work for a felon.  The elder How finally agrees to take him back if he would just denounce Ruth and give it all a fresh start.  Falder adamantly refuses.  She is his everything.  She was his whole reason for going to prison, how could he just give her up.  The elder How has been informed in a whisper the condition of Ruth and decides to appeal to her judgment that if she really wants what best for Falder she will convince him to give her up and start his life anew.  She grudgingly does this.  Falder starts to suspect something has changed and realizes what she has done to her reputation.  Just then the Detective-Sergeant Wister from Scotland Yard inspector shows up, the same as in act one.  Before he comes in the room they tell Falder and Ruth to hide in a side room.  They learn from Wister that Falder has not checked in like he was supposed to these last three months and not only that, but he has been forging his references.  So, he is here to take him back to prison to serve his last remaining six months.  He was led to believe he would be here.  Everyone denies he is there.  He reminds them that harboring a criminal is a criminal offense.  Cokeson and the two partners vehemently deny that Falder is there just as they all look down and focus on his hat sitting on the table in the middle of the room.  The inspector is on to them, he goes to leave, but suddenly switches directions and opens the door to the room where Falder and Ruth are waiting.  There is a momentary lapse and then Wister “comes out with his arm twisted in Falder’s.  The latter gives a white, staring look at the other three men.”  By the look on his face he now knows the truth about Ruth.  As he is being taken away he gives a queer, desperate laugh and exclaims, “Good!” This will be his last word, as he leaves “Flinging a look back at Ruth, he throws up his head, and goes out through the outer office, half dragging Wister after him.”  Suddenly, there is the sound of a heavy thud.  It appears Falder has jumped down the stairs to his death rather than go back to prison.  Cokeson consoles Ruth and states “No one’ll touch him now!  Never again! He’s safe with gentle Jesus!”  The last scene has Cokeson bending humbly before Ruth, holding out his hand as one would to a lost dog. Now I read this as the more and more that Cokeson got involved in the passionate details and the life of Faldur and Ruth, the more he lost sight of his moral compass.  In the end he was harboring a criminal, aiding a man that had never truly repented what he had done, and even helping a woman who had degraded herself by selling her own body.  I believe by trying to “help” them the way he did, he only enabled them further.  What I think Galsworthy was doing is putting the issue in our face.  What truly is justice?  Do we follow our laws and custom or do we make exceptions and give in.  The trial is where this becomes most apparent.

Act two is the trial of Falder; and Galsworthy explains that the testimonies of James and Walter How, Cowley the cashier, and Wister the detective have already been given, clearly implying that his focus is not on them.  Cokeson is the first testimony we hear, but the stage is set first with the defense attorney, Hector Frome, who states, “I am not going to dispute the fact that the prisoner altered this cheque, but I am going to put before you evidence as to the condition of his mind, and to submit that you would not be justified in finding that he was responsible for his actions at the time.”  This is the crux of the play.  We know that Falder is guilty, that fact is never disputed.  But, we are asked to overlook the actual crime committed; and instead, sympathize with the accused and sympathize with his passion and think about what we would have done if we were in his place.  For, after all, the young man is only twenty-three years old, and “little more than a boy,” in the words of Frome.  How does his age excuse this crime at all?  Now this is truly putting a false impression and definite attempt to manipulate our emotions.  Frome continues with, “I am not, of course saying that it’s either right or desirable for a young man to fall in love with a married woman, or that it’s his business to rescue her from an ogre-like husband.”  In actuality, he is asking us to say exactly that.  He sums it all up with a misdirect, “married to a drunken and violent husband, she has no power to get rid of him; for as you know, another offence besides violence is necessary to enable a woman to obtain a divorce; and of this offense it does not appear that her husband is guilty.”  Who is on trial here, the husband or Falder?  Or is it a progressive push for divorce reform?  No, it is a deliberate attempt to cloud the issue.  Galsworthy was a lawyer, he knows this and is presenting it to our eyes so we can clearly understand the situation.

Ruth is called on the stand.  She is mostly questioned by the defense to show how upset Falder was about Ruth’s situation and how this might have clouded his judgment.  The prosecuter asks her one question, “When you left him on the morning of Friday the 7th you would not say that he was out of his mind, I suppose?”  This was the morning right before he forged the check and stole the money.  She responded, “No, sir.”  Cleaver the prosecutor had no further questions after that.
Falder then takes the stand.  He is asked if he knew Ruth’s husband and he replied “Only through her – he’s a brute.”  He admits the entire crime.  After he regains his seat the defense, Frome, gives his final argument.  He states, “But is a man to be lost because he is bred and born with a weak character?  Gentlemen, men like the prisoner are destroyed daily under our law for want of that human insight which sees them as they are, patients, and not criminals.  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.”  This idea of a patient was repeated later in the prison where the chaplain comments that Cokeson thinks the prison should be a hospital.  Frome compares Justice to a machine and then asks, “Is this young man to be ground to pieces under this machine for an act which at the worst was one of weakness?”  What crime was ever committed where the perpetrator did not suffer from moral weakness?

Cleaver the prosecutor then proceeds.  He states, “if the prisoner had pleaded guilty my friend would have had to rely on a simple appeal to his lordship.  Instead of that, he has gone into the byways and hedges and found this – er – peculiar plea, which has enabled him to show you the proverbial woman, to put her in the box – to give, in fact, a romantic glow to this affair.”  He continues to state the core of the defense’s case relies on the possibility that the defendant was insane.  “We have therefore the plea that a man who is sane at ten minutes past one, and sane at fifteen minutes past, may, for the purposes of avoiding the crime, call himself insane between those points of time.”  Galsworthy provides also for the fact that Falder had to go back four days later and forge the foil duplicate, and that he knew that Davis would get the blame to seal any doubt about Falder’s innocence.  But still, some will read this, and be moved by passion, not morals, not custom, not our law, and try to excuse his crime.He saw this as a problem in 1910 and it is a problem today.  The jury retires and then returns with the verdict of guilty.

The judge declares that in his opinion the jury has rightly found him guilty of forgery.  He states that the defense has really presented its case as an appeal for mercy.  “Whether he was well advised to do so is another matter.”  The Judge gives an excellent sentencing statement, that, though long, I will quote.

And there it is. There is nothing wrong with Falder, he is just having trouble dealing with his quasi-isolation.  There is an interesting description of Falder’s room.  He has the novel, “Lorna Doone,” lying open on a table, but devotional books on are on a shelf not used.  He did not seek inspiration, but rather his own fantasies.  The novel is a romance, and in it, all ends well, but, it takes time for fate to run its course.  Perhaps if Falder would have even taken that position, he would have done better.  But Galsworthy is showing us that this prison scene is not horrendous.  It is society and the decisions we make.

In the end, we see the overarching portrayal of Cokeson and how he represents the average working man, who faced with vice and crime is almost swept away by the emotions that it entails.  Falder is a man ruled by his passion and his trial is one that could only have resulted in guilty.  The prison, no terrible place, but an ideal situation.  Who can ask for a better prison than one that has a governor, chaplain and doctor that cares so much for the welfare of its inmates.  A time of isolation, for a man to confront what he has done and who he is, and then let him return and participate in group activities.  I wonder what Galsworthy would think of my interpretation, I wonder what he thought of his contemporaries’ views.  Perhaps  I will run across a article or book someday that will enlighten me.