Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Celestial Omnibus” is one of Forster’s earliest works. Though fantasy, it is also one of his most personal. His Cambridge years (1897-1901), which coincided with the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, were his period of intellectual awakening. The dons and fellows included Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, Roger Fry, G. E. Moore, Bertrand Russell, and Alfred North Whitehead. His fellow undergraduates were John Maynard Keynes, Sir Desmond MacCarthy, Lytton Strachey, and Leonard Woolf. For Dickinson and for his student Forster, Shelley became a “Daedalus,” providing the most suitable literary “wings” to escape convention yet never to forget humanity. This credo would ultimately draw Forster to the Bloomsbury group.

Shelley’s skylark becomes an omnibus in Forster’s story, the vehicle that introduces the boy to a veritable pantheon of great authors, both classical and popular. Significantly, this pantheon is available “to everyone,” though only those with an unaffected appreciation of art survive the journey to this literary Valhalla. Finally, the story’s theme of self-discovery is as clear as that of Sir James Barrie’s play Peter Pan (1904) or Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories.