E. M. Forster Essay - Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 3)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 3)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1897–1970

An English novelist of rare sensibility, a short story writer, and essayist, Forster is considered one of the most important writers of our time. He is best known for his greatest novel, A Passage to India, and for the motto "only connect," around which Howards End is constructed. His Aspects of the Novel is basic to modern literary criticism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[Just] as there is a subtle contradiction within Forster's attitude to himself—he who clings to a view of life which he sees clearly is basically not satisfactory so there is a subtle contradiction in his attitude to his characters. They are what their world has made them, yes, and they have, like their creator, a resilience, a down-to-earth, practical, quite unsentimental optimism, an almost insolent power of recuperation from the buffets and cruelties of life; yet they never quite manage to master life, even their odd particular corner of it, so that there is always a certain sense in an E. M. Forster novel of life's being rather more casual than it is, not flat, not mechanical, certainly not dull, but arbitrary somewhere deep down.

Up to a point this sense of the arbitrariness of existence is one of the great virtues of A Passage to India. The sudden shafts of violence, of horrors, of death and of the indifference of the living to the dead, are extremely effective in the novel, both in conveying the actual unexpectedness of life's detail and in counteracting the urbane, high comedy tone of Forster's narrative manner….

The weakness of all Forster's novels lies in a failure to dramatize quite convincingly the positive values which he has to set against the destroyers of the morality of the heart. In Howards End he lapses into a rather half-hearted paean in praise of country life and the yeoman stock in whom lies Britain's hope. In A Passage to India the weakness lies in a certain vagueness surrounding the Mrs. Moore-Professor Godbole material….

And yet the tentativeness, the humility of Forster's attitude is not something to undervalue. The "perhapses" that lie at the core of his novels, constantly pricking the facile generalization, hinting at the unpredictable element in the most fully analysed relationship, cannot be brushed aside as mere liberal pusillanimity. He seems to me a writer of scrupulous intelligence, of tough and abiding insights, who has never been afraid of the big issues or the difficult ones and has scorned to hide his doubts and weaknesses behind a facade of wordiness and self-protective conformity. His very vulnerability is a kind of strength.

Arnold Kettle, "E. M. Forster: A Passage to India (1924)," in his An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume Two (copyright © 1960 by Arnold Kettle; reprinted by permission of Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Hutchinson, 1960, pp. 152-63.

The symbols, like the cultural generalizations, the sense of place, and the repetitious patterns and echoes throughout the [novels], are part of Forster's form, his novelistic control. He never pretends that the form represents "truth," that the symbols or the cultural generalizations encapsulate human experience. Rather, the elements of form are an introduction to the vastness of human experience, a partial statement of the ranges of human possibility. Beyond the limits of form, symbol, and generalization, in Forster's terms, is a mystery we can never fully explain, a sense of passion and power like Beethoven's that is not translatable into words.

Since, for Forster, the novel is, as he said in Aspects of the Novel, "one of the moister areas of literature," there is no reason why his forms should be complete, no necessity for his symbols or his patterns to express all of human experience. The form is part of the conscious search, the attempt. But this leads to a paradox at the very center of Forster's fiction. At the same time that his patterned forms are a search or an approach, the paraphernalia of pattern, symbol, and cultural generalization is so heavy that it severely restricts almost all human beings. Forster's use of form, in practice, is so contrived and predictable that it leaves his characters very little room, seems to mold them into puppets illustrating an idea, or into victims of historical and cultural forces….

Man's weakness and reduced size in Forster's fiction do not, as some critics have charged, make the fiction trivial. To call Forster's work trivial requires a point of view from which one sees the individual as necessarily great and important, able to impose himself significantly on both human history and the cosmos. Much of Forster's fiction implicitly denies this viewpoint, considers the particulars of history and shows how they reduce and enfeeble man, requiring him to operate within severe limitations. The charge of triviality is also insensitive to Forster's negative method, his practice of establishing a generalization only to see through it, constructing a pattern only to speculate and qualify. Forster refuses to let generalizations stand, to allow principles of organization to be thought of as truths, to believe in either a conventional God or a new God who will alter convention. Forster's fiction plays, contrives, qualifies, constructs a framework in order to examine it or explores an issue that cannot, in any terms he or we understand, be resolved. And Forster does this with intelligence and feeling, wit and compassion, which, although different from truth, are from his point of view, as close to insight or meaning as the human being can get.

James Gindin, "E. M. Forster," in his Harvest of a Quiet Eye: The Novel of Compassion, Indiana University Press, 1971, pp. 156-78.

The major fault, as far as western civilization is concerned, [Forster] believes to be the rapid development of technology with its attendant industrialization and commercialism. In this process man is removed more and more from his natural environment, and the unformulated knowledge which has developed through generations is, Forster fears, lost….

The threat of the technological revolution to things Forster values is best represented in his fiction by the approach of the "red rust" of suburbia toward Howards End….

Forster's psychology, if one may speak of broad classifications and generalize unprofessionally about a subject concerning which Forster himself is unprofessional, is Jungian rather than Freudian and owes something to Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson and to Samuel Butler. As Forster's essay "Anonymity" makes clear, he believes, as did Butler and Dickinson, in an unconscious mind closely akin to Jung's collective unconscious, and he holds that promptings from this source should be heeded…. Experiences that the mystic might ascribe to divine enlightenment, Forster attributes to the unconscious, a place where, for him, no monster lurks….

That Forster wrote no fiction after A Passage to India is perhaps not surprising, since that novel expresses his profoundest intuition and raises questions that have not yet been answered and may never be answered—since the twentieth century, though it believes in the possibility of a universal cataclysm, does not believe in a day of judgment when the truth shall be known. Of course, the British have withdrawn from India, but whether eastern and western modes of thought, feeling, and action can meet without disaster, or whether panic will prevail and civilization will be replaced by nothingness, is not yet known.

What makes Forster an especially valuable novelist is this ability to grasp major social, political, and psychological problems and, at his best, to grasp them not as a technologist who applies the ideas of others but, to use a term he has applied to other novelists, as a prophet, who has seen, before most men, some of the major dilemmas of our century and has expressed them, in spite of their multiplicity, in the complexity and order of art.

J. K. Johnstone, "E. M. Forster (1879–1970)," in The Politics of Twentieth-Century Novelists, edited by George A. Panichas (reprinted by permission of Hawthorn Books, Inc.; copyright © 1971 by The University of Maryland; all rights reserved), Hawthorn, 1971, pp. 15-29.

"The Life to Come" is the title of a short story that was written 70 years ago by E. M. Forster and is receiving its first publication today. The author himself valued it: it "came more from my heart than anything else I have been able to turn out," containing "a great deal of sorrow and passion that I have myself experienced." But because the sorrow and passion had a homosexual nature, the story has gone unpublished. Upon Forster's death, not quite three years ago, it was bequeathed to King's College, Cambridge, along with his other unpublished papers: two novels in "substantial fragments" (in addition to "Maurice"), and stories, plays, poems, essays, letters, notebooks, diaries. Of the total work of Forster, who lived to be 91, the reading public saw during his lifetime no more than perhaps cne-half. Now, "The Life to Come" is giving its title to one volume of what is being published in England as a new and "as nearly as possible" complete edition of E. M. Forster….

All the stories in "The Life to Come," like the familiar ones, are fantasies. The form suited Forster's temperament and was flexible to his needs. The title story, laid in a savage country, tells of the mistaking by "the wildest, strongest, most stubborn of all the inland chiefs" of an erotic passion that he feels for a British missionary for the love of Christ. "Dr. Woolacott" is the story of an ill young man, who suffers from daydreams "of the kind forbidden"; in spite of Dr. Woolacott, "who treats everybody," he is in love with death and longs for its coming. But when he has received a portentous visitor at last, "he was left with a human being who had somehow trespassed and been caught, and blundered over the furniture in the dark, bruising his defenceless body, and whispering 'Hide Me'."…

But one misses comedy (as distinct from glee), so familiar a part of his fiction—to see at once the reason for its absence: when the women went out of his stories, they took the comedy with them. (And they were also a cause of much of the beauty of his work; they afforded him a good deal of his irony; and he has not got a thoroughly good sounding board without them.) Those women allowed to remain can be got down in a phrase ("that vengeful onswishing of skirts …!" or by a tag ("She was one of those women who behave alternately well and badly."). Perpetua, in "The Torque," belongs to the familiar sisterhood of Forster old maids, though she is the only one he disposed of by reducing her to ashes with a bolt of lightning. (Her brother "duly mourned his distinguished sister and collected what could be found of her in an urn. But what a relief not to have her about!")…

There are flaws in these stories, and they show; but they are never flaws of feeling. Herein lies their relationship with Forster's other stories….

Forster, whose greatness surely had root in his capacity to treat all human relationships seriously and truthfully, has Clive in ["Maurice"] speak of homosexual love as "a passion we can direct, like any other, to good or bad." And of course, the best realized of the homosexual stories dovetail perfectly into the best of all his work. Even the earliest and most ephemeral of them will be recognized as the frailer embodiments of the same passionate convictions that made for the moral iron in his novels….

As for the light thrown by the present volume ["The Life to Come"], it has given us more knowledge about a writing life of immense fidelity—it was to be the truth or nothing—that from its beginning was difficult and sad, though lit with comic glints. It is much along the lines of a Forster novel, which continues to unwind itself after his death and is now heading for its ironic conclusion….

If Forster himself could have the last word on the destination of his books, that word might well be "Eternity." He spoke of Eternity often and in familiar terms, and it was in deed upon her that he placed his reliance for that final estimate. And will there be a reader who won't see, in each of these books being launched, the paper boat in "The Longest Journey"? It is being lighted and set into the stream at last, taking the current, going under the bridge—to be watched, from wherever we stand, "still afloat, far through the arch, burning as if it would burn forever."

Eudora Welty, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1973 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 13, 1973, pp. 27-30.

Forster knew that he was not a great novelist, and he knew why—because he was locked in himself. One of the personal sources of art is the artist's sexual nature and experience, and in Forster's case that was homosexual, though apparently both knowledge and experience came late. The "Terminal Note" to Maurice dates the turning point in his sexual awareness as September 1913, when he was 34, and had written all but one of the novels that he published during his lifetime. Immediately after that date he wrote Maurice, an explicitly homosexual novel that remained in manuscript until after his death, and following that, A Passage to India, where the homosexual themes are muted, but evident. Then, as he put it, he dried up. He felt no decline in his powers, and he still wanted to write, but he no longer wanted to write what he called "respectable novels."

Instead he wrote, and went on writing, what he called his indecent writings"—short stories about homosexual acts and desires. He kept these stories secret; to have published them would, he thought, have brought him scandal and notoriety. One can't help thinking that it might also have made him a hero, that publication would have been a brave gesture in defense of the freedom to love; but Forster was not made for heroism. Like the elderly character in one of his stories, faced with a similar choice, "he did not want greatness. He was not up to it." And so he went on writing his sexual fantasies, sharing some with sympathetic friends like T. E. Lawrence and Lytton Strachey, destroying others, but keeping the secret of his sexual nature from the world….

The "indecent writings" of a man like Forster are bound to be interesting. From them we can learn a good deal about social attitudes toward sexual deviance in his time. More important, perhaps, we can learn something about the relation between Forster's sexual nature and his creative imagination (and perhaps, by extension, something about this complex relationship in general). We can see, looking back from these stories [The Life to Come and Other Short Stories] to Forster's major novels, that the conflicts are the same: on the one hand Society, "the people who irritate me," the insensitive and cruel social demand for conformity, and on the other hand the individual, "the person I think I am," desiring freedom, but weak, confined and guilty. There is only one Forster theme, really: he simply told it over and over, in different terms.

Yet, having said that the stories are interesting, I must add that as stories they are not very good—and this applies not only to the overtly homosexual stories but to the half-dozen other pieces in the volume, the gathered cast-offs of Forster's early career. They are worth reading, because the inferior work of any major artist is worth attending to, but none has any great literary merit. Some notices of this book have obscured this simple truth, in the process of canonizing Forster as a sort of secular saint of Liberalism. I've never met a saint, and I never met Forster, but I see no reason to believe that he was more saintly than other men, and even if he was, what has that to do with his work? Surely what we owe him, by his own example, is honesty. What could be more un-Forsterian than to praise bad writing in the name of affection? And this is, by his standards, bad. But never mind, there is enough good Forster to feed our affections for a long while….

Samuel Hynes, "Hazards of an Honest Life," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), June 3, 1973, p. 3.

The brief excerpts from Forster's diary and letters, quoted in the Introduction [to The Life to Come], are more interesting than the fictional leavings….

As Forster himself recognized, these stories of inversion are a kind of literary masturbation…. They are all somewhat precious, freighted with coincidence, and filled with fantasy and sudden violence. The dominant theme is the "call to life," where the intuitive and impulsive momentarily triumphs over the rational and repressive mode of experience, and a quickening into love is achieved through a homosexual encounter…. Forster's repressed hero is always condescending and patronizing, and his liaison, no matter how successful, never has a future….

Forster's need to be "hurt" by his lovers, to punish his guilt, is reflected in all the serious stories….

[Neither] his homosexual novel Maurice nor these stories, none of which is as good as "Oedipus at Colonus" or "The Eternal Moment," adds to Forster's stature as an author…. These homosexual stories were better therapy than art, and they seem rather trivial when compared to The Immoralist and Death in Venice, where the homosexual theme is transfigured into a literary masterpiece.

Jeffrey Meyers, "Fizzling Sexual Time Bombs," in Commonweal (reprinted by permission of Commonweal Publishing Co., Inc.), September 21, 1973, pp. 506-08.

[Forster] exerted no influence on the mainstream of the English novel. Those who learned from him—I am thinking particularly of Isherwood and L. P. Hartley—have done distinguished work, but always in a determinedly minor key. Fastidiousness, quietness, measure, caution: these are the words that go well with the name Forster. Yet, somewhere there, behind the reticence and the liberalism, Forster and his handful of novels remain, a real presence in modern writing, and in certain respects a central figure in the life of the twentieth-century imagination.

Robert Nye, "Collected Forster," in Books and Bookmen, October, 1973, pp. 88.