Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

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Summary

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Introduction
In an introductory chapter, Forster establishes the ground rules for his discussion of the English novel. He defines the novel simply—according to M. Abel Chevalley in Le Roman Anglais de notre temps, as ‘‘a fiction in prose of a certain extent.’’ He goes on to define English literature as literature written in the English language, regardless of the geographic location or origin of the author. Most importantly, Forster makes clear that this discussion will not be concerned with historical matters, such as chronology, periodization, or development of the novel. He makes clear that ‘‘time, all the way through, is to be our enemy.’’ Rather, he wishes to imagine the world’s great novelists from throughout history sitting side by side in a circle, in ‘‘a sort of British Museum reading room—all writing their novels simultaneously.’’ Finally, he acknowledges the intended ambiguity of the phrase ‘‘aspects of the novel’’ to indicate an open-ended discussion in which he will cover seven of these ‘‘aspects’’: story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

The Story
In a chapter on ‘‘The Story,’’ Forster begins with the assertion that the novel, in its most basic definition, tells a story. He goes on to say that a story must be built around suspense—the question of ‘‘what happens next?’’ He thus defines the story as ‘‘a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence.’’ Forster adds that a good novel must include a sense of value in the story. He then discusses The Antiquary, by Sir Walter Scott, as an example of a novel that is built on a series of events that narrate ‘‘what happens next.’’ However, he criticizes The Antiquary as a novel that adheres to a sequence of events but has no sense of value in the story. Forster refers to Russian novelist Tolstoy’s War and Peace as an example that includes value in a narrative of events that unfold over time. He brings up the American writer Gertrude Stein as an example of a novelist who has attempted to abolish time from the novel, leaving only value. However, he declares this a failure that results in nonsense.

Characters
In two chapters entitled ‘‘People,’’ Forster discusses characterization in the novel. He describes five ‘‘main facts of human life,’’ which include ‘‘birth, food, sleep, love, and death,’’ and then compares these five activities as experienced by real people (homo sapiens) to these activities as enacted by characters in novels (homo fictus). He goes on to discuss the character of Moll Flanders, in the novel by Defoe of the same title. Forster focuses on Moll Flanders as a novel in which the form is derived from the development of the main character. In a second lecture on characters, Forster distinguishes between flat characters, whose characterization is relatively simple and straightforward, and round characters, whose characterization is more complex and developed. Forster finds advantages in the use of both flat and round characters in the novel. He points to Charles Dickens as an example of a novelist nearly all of whose characters are flat but who nonetheless creates ‘‘a vision of humanity that is not shallow.’’ He spends less time discussing round characters but provides the examples of Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevski, most of whose characters are round. Forster moves on to a brief mention of point of view, concluding that novels with a shifting or inconsistent point of view are not problematic if the author possesses the skill to integrate these shifts into the narrative whole.

Plot
In a chapter on plot, Forster defines plot as a narrative of events over time, with an emphasis on causality. He claims that the understanding of plot requires two traits in the reader: intelligence and memory. He discusses George Meredith who, he claims, though not a great novelist, is one of England’s greatest masters of the plot. He then...

(The entire section is 1,361 words.)