About the Author
John Glasworthy (1867 – 1933) came of a rich, well-established family of Devonshire. He was born in Surrey and was educated at Harrow Public School and at Oxford University, where he studied law. He had no interest in practising law because he had developed a taste for literature. His legal training helped him in the judicious impartiality and exactness of words in his writings. His characters in his plays and stories belong to the upper middle class to which he himself belonged.
He is one of those great artists of the twentieth century who took up various problems of modern life in almost all their works. He was a multi-faceted artist like T.S. Eliot and was a great novelist, a short story writer, a dramatist and a critic of great repute. His notable works include The Forsyte Saga (1906-1921) and its sequels, A Modern Comedy and End of the Chapter. His works are the pieces of criticism of contemporary life. All his plays focus attention on some problem or the other afflicting the society of his time. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1932.
About the Story
The story ‘Quality’ brings home the idea that in our world where quick-fix approach and mass production rule the roost people do not relish and value high ideals of quality and excellence. It tells the story of the Gessler brothers who prefer to starve but do not compromise with the quality of their work.
The story revolves around the younger Gessler, who like his elder brother, practised qualities of dedication, honesty, hard work and sincerity. He valued his customers high and spared no pains to satisfy them with his work of quality and durable material of the boots he made on their order. Inhabiting a humble dwelling – two little shops let into one – with his elder brother, Mr Gessler lived from hand to mouth for he never compromised with the quality of leather for the boots he made for the customers. An experienced and skilled shoemaker, he attached great importance to the quality of shoes, using the best leather that lasted longer and provided comfort to the wearer. The story focuses on the bitter struggle for existence of the Gessler Brothers in the days of competition and advertisement from which they entirely remained away for lack of resources and their old-fashioned ideals. Such workers, however skilled they may be, have to suffer starvation and yield to those more resourceful and enterprising, however unskilled they may be. They cannot prosper because they do not compromise with quality and principles.
The Gessler Brothers : It is the narrator who tell us how he had quite often met the Gessler Brothers since his childhood because his father used to send him to get his shoes made by Gesslers who had a roadside shop in the West End, London. It was a shop run by two brothers, the younger of whom is the main characters of this story. It was two shops combined into one, with a board ‘Gessler Brothers’ outside the window and a few pairs of exotic leather shoes at the window.
True artists : Gessler was very different from other shoemakers. He never made a shoe with inferior leather nor did he keep a shoe that was not made by him or his brother . Besides, the two brothers made shoes only on order. So their quality of shoes was out of common. Gessler never compromised with quality. Each pair fitted perfectly . Slim and elegant, their shape was arresting and captivating. Gessler considered his work an art which he cultivated with utmost sincerity. So shopping at the Gessler Brothers was different. One could not expect to be served at Gessler’s shop. It was a like a place of worship – a place where the shopkeeper worshipped the shoes he made. If once Gessler received an order for shoes, he would observe the model for long and take precise measurement by drawing and redrawing.
Mr Gessler’s sincerity and devotion : Once the narrator made a complaint about a shoe that Gessler had made for him sometime ago. It was more than what Gessler could take. He argued that the narrator must have been careless with the shoes or got them wet in the water. He also suggested bringing those shoes back to him. He was even ready to pay the money back.
The plight of the Gesslers : The narrator remained abroad for about a year and paid a visit to Gessler Brothers on his return. He wished to order a new pair of shoes. Mr Gessler told him that his elder brother was dead, so he lived alone there. Now his shop was much smaller and his business was quite low. As the narrator visited him in a week’s time, he was surprised to learn that Mr Gessler’s name was gone. His shop had been taken over by an Englishman.
Narrator’s last visit : The narrator saw that an Englishman was occupying the shop once owned by Gesslers. He was greeted by the Englishman who offered to serve him as he served the very good people. From him the narrator learnt that Mr Gessler was too orthodox and traditional to face the stiff competition of his times. His remark about Gessler is noteworthy:
‘He regularly let his fire go out. HE was a character.
But he made good boots.’
Sincere Work : The story ‘Quality’ focuses on the idea that sincere and hard work done for some high ideal is a reward in itself. It provides lasting satisfaction, if not comforts or happiness. Those who work for excellence are really rare in our competitive world because people do not value quality or excellence. Here is this story Mr Gessler along with his brother pursues the profession of boot making taking utmost care in providing full value to the customers for the boots he makes for them on order. He is a skilled maker of boots using the best kind and quality of leather according to the specifications of his customers. He knows precisely where the boot pinches the wearer. Though he starves himself to death, he never makes any compromise with the quality of the material for the shoes or his principle of honesty and integrity. Such a class of workers is fast disappearing from the world.
Struggle for survival : Another theme of the story is the struggle for survival in the world of changing values. Those who practise modern ways of publicity and indulge in profiteering eclipse those who lack resources and practise honesty. Mr Gessler in the story does not even care to put up a sign board for his shop. He simply believes in quality of his work and satisfaction of his limited customers. His elder brother dies in poverty, so does he. This is all on account of his simple ways. But his shop is taken over soon after by an enterprising businessman of resources who has no value for the goal pursued by the Gesslers. His words are, however, full of praise for Mr Gessler:
‘You see I used to watch him. Never gave ‘imself time to eat; never had a penny in the house. All went in rent and leather. How he lived so long I don’t know. He regular let his fire go out. He was a character. But he made good boots.’
The story seems to convey that we should value ideals of excellence and quality. We should see to it that those, like the Gessler brothers, are fully devoted to their work and do full justice to the work in hand do not starve and fade away in oblivion. There are, sadly, thousands of excellent craftsmen who lose out to competition in face of stiff competition from big firms who thrive on mass production and advertisement. In the story, the Gessler brothers make excellent boots. They never compromise with their quality. They use the best leather. They do not seek outside help. They work themselves on each pair. They work hard but their customers continue to dwindle in number. The big firms are there to come out with more fashionable shoes, though of dubious quality, attracting more and more customers. The Gessler brothers die in poverty and their shop is overtaken by an Englishman.
The title of the story ‘Quality’ is apt and suggestive . It is the high ideal of quality or excellence which is in focus throughout the story. The Gesslers are excellent boot makers. They aim only at quality. They use leather of quality in making their boots. They ensure that their boots fit to the entire satisfaction of the customer. They seek no assistance from any quarter. Each of them work on the pairs of shoes meticulously as if an artist were at his masterpiece. Consequently, they are slow. They make little money. The elder brother dies of poverty. The younger brother, too, does not go on for long. He starves himself to death. Only a few customers, like the narrator, continue to come to the Gesslers for getting their shoes made, but to no avail. The plight of the Gesslers is indescribable.
Thus, the ideal of quality may be good but it is of no use in the present world of mass production and advertisement. The Gesslers who always keep in mind the durability of their product cannot survive in a world where production is overrunning consumption. In the words of Aldous Huxley:
“Organised waste among consumers is the first
condition of our industrial prosperity. The sooner a
consumer throws away the object he has bought and buys
another, the better for the producer.”
Mr Gessler is the central character in the story entitled ‘Quality’. He is a traditional shoemaker who has become now a piece of antiquity, a mere object of curiosity. He is a little thin old man, as if himself made of leather. He has yellow crinkly face and crinkly reddish hair and beard. Fold of wrinkles slating down his cheeks fall to the corners of his mouth. His voice is harsh and guttural. He is stiff and slow on purpose. His eyes are gray-blue and have in them the simple gravity of some ideal. His elder brother closely resembles him, though watery, pale in every way, with a great industry. The narrator is quite confused to tell one from the other.
Mr Gessler is a very passionate and hard-working man. Bootmaking has been his passion. He eats, drinks and sleeps it. He can go to any length to make boots for people. He never works for money, but for the love of making boots. Shoemaking is a sacred vocation and he is totally dedicated to it. He approaches it not as a mere craft but as a sublime art. When the narrator asks him, “Isn’t it awfully hard to do, Mr Gessler?” , at once comes Gessler’s reply, “Id is an Ardt.” (It is an Art). He shuts himself in his shop for hours on end and does not come out. He keeps on making boots for the satisfaction of his customers and the joy of his own.
Gessler is a perfectionist. He always makes sure that he makes the best boots for every client. That is why, he takes pretty long time in making boots according to the specifications of his customers. He feels hurt if anybody complains about the shoes not fitting or hurting him. He never allows any leather into his shop that is not made by himself. Also, his boots are the best quality and finish and fit everyone who wears them perfectly. His boots are so fine that they last for a long time. One can easily make out that these boots are clearly made by one who has seen the ‘Soul of Boot’ before him. When the narrator complains that the pair of townwalking boots made by him creaked, Gessler askes the narrator to send them back with the remark, “Zome boots are bad from birdt, if I can do noding wid dem, I dake dem off your bill”. Not only does this show dedication, but also integrity because he is honest about his work and wants to satisfy his customer to the utmost, even at his personal financial loss.
Gessler faces the hardships of the competitive world that believes in making maximum profit by employing tactics of wide publicity, inferior quality material, etc. As managing two shops proves too expensive, the Gesslers have to do away with one part of the shop. The elder of the Gesslers cannot get over the pain of losing a part of the shop and this eventually contributes to his sad demise. The artist in him feels the pangs of having been driven out of its sanctum sanctorum, and deprived of the sap of life, chokes to death.
Despite all the qualities of head and heart, Gessler is quite stubborn and is of old-fashioned ideals. He never allows any shoes into his shop that is not made by himself. He believes that boots have to always be hand-made and he never advertises. He shows disapproval of big firms that indulge in a lot of publicity, having little concern for the pocket of the customers. These aspects make him lose out in the high competition amongst boot making firms which in turn make him poor and eventually die as well. The Artist and his Art choke in a highly materialistic and commercialised world where success is determined not by excellence but by advertisement.
The narrator is a kind-hearted , sensitive and generous person. His long association with the Gessler reveals that he believes in high ideals of excellence and quality. He is loyal and humble by nature. He was first sent to the Gesslers for his boots by his father. As he grows up, he is introduced to them at the age of fourteen when he himself gets his shoes from them. It is from him that we learn that the Gesslers make high quality shoes but only on order. The narrator finds the Gesslers different from the other shoemakers. Visiting Gesslers, to him, looks like entering a church as bootmaking is pursued by them religiously, with honesty and integrity.
The narrator is somewhat suspicious. He begins to suspect whether the shoes made by him are actually his. So he visits him to verify the authenticity of the boots made by the Gessler Brothers. He thinks that the shoes made by them have the quality of being mysterious and wonderful. But he finds his doubts unfounded on realizing the concern shown by Gessler who declares that he makes boots himself and even does not use leather made by others.
The narrator, being an artist himself, is empathetic, considerate and affectionate towards Gessler. He is full of praise for the sincere hardwork put in by Gesslers in making boots using the best leather and keeping in mind the requirement and comforts of their customers. He feels concerned on the plight of the Gesslers who suffer slow starvation, being unable to keep pace with the changing times of publicity. He wishes the Gesslers were more advanced and survived the harsh times of competition to keep their art alive.
He is fond of the best quality of shoes. Once her orders Russian leather to be used for his boots. He is so generous that he orders more pairs of shoes made to help the Gessler brothers financially. He is sad to learn that the Gesslers died one after the other, soon after complying with his order. He learns only after he has despatched the bill. He laments that their shop has been occupied by a new person catering to the Royal Family and big persons.
Indeed, the narrator is a young man full of compassion and appreciation of the disappearing art of handicraft.
Modernity vs Tradition : The story ‘Quality’ by Glasworthy raises a pertinent question : does quality or excellence have no value in our fast-paced world of consumerism where mass production of cheap quality goods is a passe, and where advertisements are a means to befool the consumers and fuel industrial production?
Artists and craftsmen are not worldly-wise. They are traditional and orthodox in their approach. They are bound to face stiff and endless opposition from mediocre minds that run most of our industry.
However, artistic temperament is such that it gives in too easily to the pressures of life and destroys itself. For the Gesslers shoemaking is a sublime art. Their excellence in their profession makes the narrator wonder if they have seen the Soul of the Boot. Their dwindling business brings them to the brink of starvation. The elder Gessler is choked to death when he is driven out of the sanctum sanctorum of a portion of his shop. The younger brother labours on, but his commitment to excellence means that he dies of slow starvation. His death marks the death of true art as well. However, everything cannot last for ever. Art lives through true devotees of art like the narrator, whose eyes are clouded by tears at the death of the Gesslers.
Setting : The story is set against the backdrop of the industrial revolution in the twentieth century London where the two shoemakers struggle hard for their livelihood and survival. The times have changed and people are easily attracted by tempting advertisements publicising various goods. The Gessler Brothers face stiff competition from big shoemakers and from imported shoes. The story is a poignant picture of lives of traditional workers working against heavy odds in the background of industrial revolution. They fight a losing war in the changed world.
Narrative : The story is told by the narrator in the first person. The narrator is, in fact, a character in the story. He is a witness to the decadence of the cold art of shoemaking by the Gesslers. He tells the story from his own point of view. The writer’s aim is to evoke in us pity for workers like Mr Gessler. This aim is realized by the way the story is narrated.