Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 769

Forster is best remembered as a master of the English novel. He published five novels between 1905 and 1924, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), Howard’s End (1910), A Passage to India (1924), the last two being his undisputed masterpieces. He was to publish no more novels in his lifetime, although Maurice, originally written in 1914, was published posthumously in 1971. Norman Page, in E. M. Forster (1987), observing that Forster produced only six novels in his lifetime, notes, ‘‘Forster’s impact on the twentieth century has gone far beyond what his modest output might lead one to expect.’’ Of Forster’s lifelong literary career, Claude J. Summers, in E. M. Forster (1983), notes that, at least since the 1950s, ‘‘he was regularly . . . described as England’s greatest living novelist.’’ By the time of his death, ‘‘he had earned an international reputation as an incisive interpreter of the human heart and a champion of the liberal imagination.’’

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Forster spent the last forty-five years of his life writing various forms of nonfiction, as well as a few short stories. While most agree that Forster cannot be considered a great literary critic, critics vary in their overall assessment of Aspects of the Novel. Lionel Trilling, in E. M. Forster (1943), an early and influential essay, claims that Forster is ‘‘not a great critic, not a great ‘thinker.’’’ Trilling qualifies this statement, conceding that Aspects of the Novel ‘‘is full of the finest perceptions.’’ He nonetheless observes, ‘‘Even if we grant Forster every possible virtue of his method—and it has virtues—he is never wholly satisfactory in criticism and frequently he is frustrating.’’ However, Trilling suggests that ‘‘the laxness of the critical manner in which Forster sets forth his literary insights’’ is in fact a conscious protest against the Western over-valuation of rational thinking. Harry T. Moore, on the other hand, in E. M. Forster (1965), asserts that Aspects of the Novel ‘‘is valuable not only for what it tells of Forster’s ways and means of writing, but it is also an important study of the art of fiction.’’ Wilfred Stone, in The Cave and the Mountain (1966), claims that Aspects of the Novel is ‘‘Forster’s most ambitious aesthetic statement.’’ Moore, in E. M. Forster (1967), observes of both Aspects of the Novel and Forster’s other works of literary criticism: ‘‘surprise and delight with unexpected insights, practical and impractical, casting light on Forster and his own fiction, obscuring both in order to illuminate some corner hitherto deprived of adequate light.’’ Page assesses the significance and impact of Aspects on the Novel on literary criticism, as well as on Forster’s career, in observing, ‘‘though informal in tone, [these lectures] were to have a wide influence in a period when the theory and criticism of fiction was relatively unsophisticated, and they increased Forster’s reputation as a man of letters.’’ Summers observes of Aspects of the Novel that it is ‘‘Forster’s most sustained critical statement,’’ in which the casual, conversational style of the writing masks an ambitious ‘‘ideological work’’ of criticism. Summers concludes, ‘‘Aspects of the Novel is extraordinarily well-written, amusing and lively as well as rueful in tone. Throughout, the book is enlivened by sharp judgments and original insights on particular works and individual authors.’’ Finally, Summers asserts that ‘‘Forster’s essays, criticism, and biogra One of the individual authors Forster examines is Thomas Hardy, whom he views as a writer ‘‘who conceives of his novels from an enormous height.’’ phies are a significant fraction of an important literary career.’’

Philip Gardner, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, points to Forster’s humanism as the overriding theme throughout his essays:

Through all his essays . . . one registers Forster as a man with an alert eye for the telling detail, who responds to what he sees, reads, and hears with emotions ranging from delight to indignation, but always with intelligence and personal concern. His voice is never that of a detached academic observer, but that of a human being reaching out to other human beings, on the one hand his readers, on the other the individuals, dead as well as living, about whom he writes.

Summers likewise assesses the corpus of Forster’s eight books of nonfiction, Aspects of the Novel being among the ‘‘most completely successful’’ of these, in essentially glowing terms. He claims that these works ‘‘collectively chart a career remarkable for its breadth of interest and depth of commitment.’’ He goes on to note, ‘‘In these books, Forster emerges as a sensitive and thoughtful critic, a charming yet unsentimental popular historian, a skillful biographer, and an essayist of rare power.’’

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Essays and Criticism