Men of Property

It is a sad thing when love is not reciprocated.

This is the fate of the husbands in Anna Karenina and The Forsyte Saga. Each book is similar but reaches different conclusions about marriage, adultery, and society’s evils based on the worldview of their authors. In each story, a man marries a woman out of convenience and love, but she has no spark of attraction to him and engages in an extramarital affair with devastating consequences. The husbands, Alexei Karenin and Soames Forsyte, react with indignation and rage. Each are emotionally distant but confounded as to what drives their wife to be unfaithful; they have provided everything she could ever need, other than the passion she seeks.

Neither Count Vronsky nor Phil Bossiny have any moral scruples about seducing another man’s wife, demolishing her husband’s reputation, or taking advantage of their position of authority. Vronsky is single minded in his pursuit of Anna but Bossiny is even more abusive, having established trust with Soames and then extracting his hatred of him out on Soames’ financial state. Alexei is more forgiving of Vronsky than Soames is of Bossany—Alexei merely ignores him and then offers him forgiveness at the request of his wife, while Soames seeks to ruin him with a lawsuit.

Irene cares nothing for Soames’ reputation and flaunts her affection for Bossany in public, like Anna does with Count Vronsky. Both deny their husbands’ marital rights and move into separate rooms, drawing the attention of the servants. Each are bored with their practical, hard-working husbands because there is no romantic spark… yet chose to marry them in the first place—neither was forced into it and had other options. For financial gain, they married men they did not love and are miserable as a result. Neither Alexei nor Soames are bad husbands at first, but their wives chose not to put any effort into the marriage and have no morals they live by.

One has to wonder how much John Galsworthy was influenced by Leo Tolstoy in his characters, but while the novels are similar in the plight of these women, their lovers, and their unhappy husbands, the underlining messages are far different. Anna Karenina is about how a marriage cannot succeed without fidelity, family, and faith. Anna abandons and destroys her family and suffers because of it; her destructive choices are contrasted with by Kitty and Levin, whose moral choices, acceptance, and devotion to one another enables them to begin a family and brings them closer to God. In Alexei we find a man who at first is cruel but through forgiveness becomes an honorable man.

The message of The Forsyte Saga is individual happiness; emotional attachment overrules all restrictions and barriers and nothing should stand in its way. It advocates the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of other people. We see this in Jocelain abandoning his wife and daughter to live with a governess; he is depicted as the sincere, generous and charming member of the family, making us emphasize with his plight and distracting us from the wife he has left behind. His daughter June loses her fiancée to Irene, breaking her heart and destroying Soames at the same time, but Irene later goes on to marry Jocelain in spite of how it might make June feel. Irene is an ambiguous character, at times cruel and at others empathetic, but her actions are all vindicated in the name of love. Her indiscretions are all ultimately forgiven, while Soames is vilified (in some cases, accordingly, as a “man of property” who takes what he wants).

In my opinion, love is fleeting unless it is built on a substantial foundation. Emotions that govern the head can lead to terrible consequences and everyone involved pays a price. Whatever the authors intended, it is safe to say that pursuing passion should never be undertaken at the direct suffering of others.

5 Replies to “Men of Property”

  1. Hi Charity, thank you for writing back. I appreciate it. I’m sorry it’s taken me weeks to get back to this post. I’ve been thinking about what you’ve written here. It’s nice to hear I’m not the only one who hasn’t felt the presence of God.

    You know a lot of times I think people go to church, conferences, and it seems like they think they’re experiencing God but I kind of wonder how they separate God from their own euphoric emotions? I know how they feel because I used to get the “feel good” feeling from church when I used to go but I could never separate the fact if it was supernatural or not.

    I guess I didn’t want my own feelings to substitute for the supernatural. Not sure if that makes any sense. Thanks for your reply. I appreciate it. You’ve given me some things to think about.

  2. I kind agree with Mina. Both my bf and I were raised in Christian households but neither one of us are Christian or religious anymore. I don’t think ethics come from religion. I’ve had a lot of Christians in my life hurt me and excuse it and then go to church and continue to talk about what good people they were. That was a huge turn off.

    I was about 19 when I realized, I’m really alone in the world. I just didn’t think there really was a god whom cared. Frankly I thought that if there was a god then why had so many horrible things happened to me? Why were the people in church terrible? Why did I always feel utterly alone and never felt the presence of god that many people have talked about? I also didn’t like the bible. When I read it growing up I didn’t agree with anything it said.

    Yes I have family and friends but inside I’m really alone. It was also hard for me to believe in god and the birth of jesus growing up. When I was a kid we would go to church and I would try to believe. But I just couldn’t. Then I would feel bad that I couldn’t believe. It was a constant battle and I felt bad that believing was hard for me. The thing is I wanted to believe.

    Christianity teaches that its a relationship with god, well that’s what I wanted and I tried having a relationship with God. I wanted it so badly. I started reading Christian apologetic books but I disagreed again, their logic seemed circular. I felt like a mess and I just decided to quit going to church and to simply walk away because I really did think and still do that there’s no one out there.

    I don’t believe in hurting people. I don’t think that has anything to do with religion. Personally I don’t pay attention anymore to what a person calls themselves. Whether they call themselves a Buddhist, christian, atheist, etc.

    At the end of the day I’ve learned its all words and so I pay attention to how a person behaves rather than the words they speak. Actions say more about a person than their words ever will. And that’s how I choose my friends, these days I don’t care what a person calls themselves, what’s really important to me is whether they’re a decent person and if we could have a friendship. And that’s why I don’t mind reading your blog.

    🙂

    P.S. I believe that people can do whatever they like so as long they don’t hurt others. What kind of person would I be if my happiness came at the expense and hurt of someone else? How could I feel good about myself and my life if I went around hurting people? I just can’t.

    I’m sorry about my long post but a lot of religious people believe that there’s this black and white worldview of why someone is an atheist/agnostic and the answer is much more complicated than most people realize. Its not like I woke up and said “Wow I really want to be an atheist.”

    Personally I think the idea of god and a relationship with god is more attractive, at least at first, but after examining it. It just didn’t seem right to me. There was a lot of reading and research and self-exploration on my part. I also talked to older Christians about a lot of this stuff. It was very difficult too because I had to tell my family and they didn’t really take it well although they all love me very much.

    1. G.K. Chesterson once said, “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” I’m sorry to hear that you have met so many “fake” Christians and so few “genuine” ones. Sadly, a lot of people do assume that just because they go to church, it makes them a Christian. It doesn’t. They aren’t a Christian unless the work of Christ is evident in their life and behavior.

      Many people believe religion isn’t logical. That simply is not true. C.S. Lewis began as an atheist and through his atheism, came to believe in God. I’m the same personality type as Lewis was. Things have to be logical for me to believe in them. I have never “felt” the presence of God. It used to bother me, until I realized I was expecting too much of this one relationship, things I never felt in any other relationship. I’m not a highly emotional person. I don’t have “moving experiences.” Over the years, I have broken up with people and never even cried about it. I don’t “feel” things like emotional people do so why was I expecting to have some deep emotional connection to God?

      For me, it would require much more faith not to believe in God than it is to believe in Him. If I didn’t believe in Him, how would I explain away the many implications of His existence, now and throughout history? How do I explain the existence of evil, if there is no God and no Satan? Is it more rational to believe in creative design or that nothing somehow exploded and became something? How could I explain tangible things that have happened in history? How could I explain how Daniel foretold the rise and fall of the Persian, Greek, and Roman empires — hundreds of years before it happened?

      We are playing an eternal game of chance. If I’m wrong, I have lost nothing. I have lived a life that was difficult but that gave me hope and peace in its darkest hours. It forced me to own up to my mistakes and strive to become a better person. If there is no God, I will die and that will be the end. But if an atheist is wrong, they have lost everything. Their entire existence has gone up in flames without any insurance. Their good deeds on earth will be meaningless, and for the great sin of rejecting God, they will spend an eternity in separation from Him. That’s not a gamble I’m willing to take.

      I agree with you that “Christians” do bad things. Under their own philosophy, they are still sinners and … evil. There are also non-Christians who do “good” things. And yes, the best way to tell the truth about any person is not by their words, but in their actions. But where do our ideas of what is good and evil come from if there is no ultimate moral authority? Even as atheistic as it is, modern society derives its notions of morality out of religion.

  3. I have never commented before but I felt compelled to comment after reading this line, “The distinction is between a religious, moral worldview and atheistic relativism, which encourages the pursuit of self-happiness.” I feel like this is a common theme in many of your blog posts. “Secular” and “Atheist” have become bywords for “immorality” and I feel like this is a very unfair and narrow-minded view. Not everyone who has a “religious, moral worldview” has the best morals, and having a religious world view does not make someone morally superior to someone who doesn’t. Atheists and religious people differ widely in their beliefs, values, and morals, and just because you don’t have a religious world view doesn’t mean you can’t have morals. I feel like this is something many people don’t understand. Having a secular world view doesn’t mean that you don’t have a sense of right or wrong or personal responsibility.

    1. You do make an excellent point. Not everyone who claims to have a religious worldview is moral (if you need evidence, just look at half the former monarchs of Europe) and not every atheist is immoral.

      My question would be — where does an atheist get their moral worldview? Our modern, widely-accepted views on morality stem through Judeo-Christianity. It was the first religion to say: protect the innocent, don’t kill your children, don’t steal from one another, don’t kill one another, etc. So even if an atheist does not believe in God, their very worldview — if it is moral — is following Christian principles. A true atheist would not believe in morality in general, because if you had no belief in good or evil, there would be no right or wrong, and all things would be relative.

      That is sort of the point of this post — in the world of “The Forsyte Saga,” all things are relative, and based on self. Right and wrong is relative on what each individual wants, and it doesn’t matter who gets hurt along the way — because there are no absolutes. “The Forsyte Saga” embodies the true spirit of atheism, whereas “Anna Karenina” reflects a Christian worldview, in which there are consequences for selfish actions.

      Bottom line? No, I don’t think every atheist is an awful, immoral person, and that every self-professed Christian is moral.

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