Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Forster adds wordplay to symbol in “The Celestial Omnibus.” Mr. Bons, for example, represents apparent good (bon) only; he is actually pure snob, as his name spelled backward indicates. His poetry is an ornament to be worn, something to be quoted, corrected, or criticized rather than a faith to be held or a trust to be kept. He demands that Dante return him to the world because he has “honoured . . . quoted . . . and bound” him, but Dante replies that he (his works) are the means, not the end. Mr. Bons’s death is mere poetic justice.

Though Marxist critics have savaged this story as an escapist response to bourgeois oppression, Forster intended no political implications at the time he wrote it. The socially conscious Forster would emerge in A Passage to India (1924) and in the prewar political essays, but “The Celestial Omnibus” is an intelligently written fantasy, filled with the scholarly enthusiasms of a bright young man who has recently come down from Cambridge.

The Celestial Omnibus

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

The story opens in a stuffy middle-class neighborhood in suburban London, where a small boy is puzzled by a sign pointing up a blank alley and carrying the inscription “To Heaven.” A patronizing, name-dropping neighbor, Mr. Bons (“snob” spelled backward) reveals that the sign was the joke of a person named Shelley. Asked if he knows who Shelley was, the boy admits that he does not and hangs his head in shame because he considers Mr. Bons “probably the wisest person alive.”

That evening, the boy returns to the alley and discovers a mysterious notice announcing the daily operation of an omnibus service, which he resolves to explore the next day. At first he is skeptical and embarrassed to have been taken in by an obvious joke. Then, as if out of nowhere, the omnibus appears in the alley with steaming horses and great white lamps.

The driver, Sir Thomas Browne, ushers the boy aboard. They ascend for two hours through the fog, during which time the boy discovers that Sir Thomas Browne had been a doctor but gave it up to be a “healer of the spirit.” He worries privately that his parents will miss him for lunch, but when Browne asks whether he is afraid, the boy answers that he is not.

The omnibus descends through thunder and lightning on a rainbow and arrives at last at a fantastic landscape situated between a precipice and a river, from which maidens surface, singing and playing with a golden ring. In his exuberance,...

(The entire section is 510 words.)