Falling Paintings, Infallible Instincts, and Atoning Sacrifices in The Forsyte Saga

As we’re finding out, sometimes late in the game, fiction can shed light on the […]

Mockingbird / 8.29.12

As we’re finding out, sometimes late in the game, fiction can shed light on the Gospel in fresh ways, sometimes ways so fresh they almost seem more persuasive than straight theology.

An example of this is the denouement of John Galsworthy’s famous series of novels that is entitled The Forsyte Saga, the last section of which was completed in 1928.

Galsworthy, who had grown up and been schooled in the Church of England, had rejected orthodox Christianity, partly because of the Church’s policy concerning divorce and remarriage. But he was interested in religion, and even mellowed in his treatment of it in his later writing. There are, for example, several Church of England ministers (almost all called ‘Mr.”) in his novels and plays. One or two of them are held to be good men.

Being a writer of intense observation, and in my opinion, perceptiveness, Galsworthy, because he understood people, got instructive glimpses into the “analogy of faith”, in other words, what we can learn about Ultimate Reality from a study of the reality of persons and events.

An almost perfect example of this writer’s seeing into persons and events, an example that bears point-to-point parallels with the way Christians understand the “Saving Grace” (Bob Dylan) of the atonement, occurs at the end of “Swan Song”, which constitutes the last part of A Modern Comedy, which is itself the narrative conclusion of The Forsyte Saga.

Soames Forsyte, the 71-year old “getting better all the time” father of beautiful, confused, vivacious and “acting out” Fleur, saves his daughter’s life at the cost of his own. Soames pushes Fleur out of the way of a falling painting, taking the killing blow himself. Fleur is saved, however, in a deeper sense than “just” her physical life. Here is the quote:

“It was as if, with his infallible instinct where she was concerned, Soames had taken the one step that could rid her of the fire which had been consuming her.”

Fleur is cured of her “concupiscence”, in the Thirty-Nine-Articles meaning of the word, by the death of her father, whose concupiscence 40 years before had destroyed his life, and the lives of others. They are both cured, in fact, by the death of one, the father, and the life of the other, his daughter.

Now let’s pull a Mockingbird! Translate, or better, paraphrase Galsworthy’s sentence in the direct terms of Christian theology:

“It was as if God, with His infallible instinct where sinful men and women are concerned, had taken the one step that could rid them of the concupiscence (i.e., grasping, possessive, futile ego-possessiveness) which had been consuming them.”

The Power in the Blood, or the virtue of the Cross, consists in its being the “one step that could rid us of” the deception of acquisition, a deception that ends up defeated, if only by physical death but often before physical death, in all cases of individuals. The death of Christ is a death of us in the death of Him. “Something has died inside” (Carole King).

In Galsworthy’s great novel — and the whole substance of it was faithfully portrayed in a 1967 26-part BBC production of it, starring Kenneth More, Eric Porter, and the (wonderfully named) Nyree Dawn Porter — Fleur is saved by the death of her father. His death for her actually kills something within her, a compulsive element in her nature that has brought her to a complete impasse before she has even turned 30. Only a death can do this.

What a wonder! A secular writer, albeit one who was engaged with his Christian background throughout his work, is able to show his readers how atonement works. When you read “A Modern Comedy”, you’re right therewith a man who understands about original sin, about recidivistic compulsions that travel physically across the generations, and about the concrete trappedness of everyday human beings. — who, as it turns out, even the “worst” of them, are looking for love and to be loved. (That is a repeated line in the Saga.) Only a death is sufficient to break the spell.

If you wish to talk about atonement in terms that everyday (trapped though aspiring) sufferers can understand, in life, you could do worse than “read, mark, learn and inwardly digest” The Forsyte Saga by John Galsworthy.

Or, just watch Eric Porter and Susan Hampshire work it out for themselves, in the peerless old BBC production.

BONUS TRACK: A sermon which draws out the predicament described above with stunning force (and humor)…