Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster

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Use of Figurative Language

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

As explained in the above entry, an analogy is a use of figurative language in which the writer draws a parallel between a concrete, familiar, or easily understandable object or concept and a more abstract, original, and complex idea for purposes of explanation and clarity. Both metaphor and simile are types of analogies. In a metaphor, the subject under discussion is described in terms of the characteristics it shares with a more concrete image. In a simile, the writer states that his subject is similar to another object or concept. Throughout his series of lectures on seven aspects of the novel, Forster employs the figurative language of analogy, using both metaphor and simile, drawn from such disparate sources as nature, architecture, science, and music.

He often utilizes analogies drawn from nature in order to express his ideas about literature. In the introduction, he describes literature, ‘‘a formidable mass,’’ as an ‘‘amorphous’’ body of water, ‘‘irrigated by a hundred rills and occasionally degenerating into a swamp,’’ which he contrasts with the sturdy, solid, imposing image of a mountain. Forster is here explaining that the study of literature is made complicated by the fact that its exact definition and boundary lines are unclear, sometimes so much so that it resembles the murky water of a swamp. Claiming that, to his mind, there is no absolute definition of what does or does not constitute literature, Forster ventures, ‘‘All we can say of it is that it is bounded by two chains of mountains . . . Poetry and History’’ and, on a third side, by the sea. In other words, although it may not be possible to accurately define what literature is, one can at least say that it is not history and that it is not poetry. The sea, of course, is an image that continues the description of literature in terms of water. Forster uses water imagery in a different sense when employing the commonly used metaphor ‘‘the stream of time’’ in order to explain that his discussion of the novel will not be concerned with chronological development and thus will avoid viewing authors or works of literature as objects floating through the ‘‘stream of time’’ but will instead imagine them to have been writing simultaneously. Thus, in his use of metaphors drawn from nature, Forster distinguishes between his vision of literature as an amorphous body of water, whether it be a swamp or the sea, and an image of a stream of water, which implies a clearlydefined direction and flow of events.

Forster additionally employs metaphors drawn from nature when he discusses the use of adaptation in the novel. He describes the relationship between the twentieth-century novel Ulysses, by James Joyce, to the ancient Greek mythology of the Odyssey as that of ‘‘a bat hanging to a cornice’’—the novel, like the bat, has a life of its own yet clings to the original mythological text as an essential means of support. In a further metaphor drawn from the animal world, Forster, speaking again of Ulysses, adds that it is overrun with references to a variety of mythologies, to the extent that ‘‘smaller mythologies swarm and pullulate, like vermin between the scales of a poisonous snake.’’ He further makes use of a simile drawn from images of nature in describing the relationship between the literary critic and the subject matter of criticism. Forster questions whether or not he may have gotten too far away from literature itself, in the course of his discussion of the novel, likening the flight of ideas generated by the critic to a bird in flight and the subject matter itself to the shadow of that bird:

Perhaps our subject, namely the books we have read, has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right— it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right—it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do...

(The entire section is 17,792 words.)