Use of Figurative Language
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2318
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 not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground.
Forster extends this metaphor in suggesting that the literary critic, pursuing the route of theory, may find himself taking flights of thought into regions of ideas far removed from the works of literature with which he began.
In his discussion of story in the novel, Forster utilizes a curious set of metaphors drawn from biology. He interchangeably describes the function of the story in a novel as either a ‘‘backbone’’ or a ‘‘tape worm.’’ He uses the image of a backbone to explain the role of the story as the internal structure that supports all other elements of the novel. However, he suggests the alternative image of a tapeworm in order to express the idea that the beginning and ending of the story in a novel is arbitrary, just as a tapeworm has no specified length and no discernible head or tail. Yet, despite the arbitrary nature of the beginning and end of a story, Forster asserts that it must nonetheless be narrated over a span of time; thus, he states that the author must always ‘‘touch the interminable tapeworm.’’ In other words, the novelist must, regardless of where he begins or ends, touch upon a series of events that unfold over a span of time. Forster continues to use metaphors drawn from biology in stating that the story ‘‘is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms, yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels.’’ He goes on to imagine the element of story as a ‘‘worm,’’ held up for examination on the ‘‘forceps’’ of the literary critic. Through the image of the story and the novel as organisms, Forster puts forth the opinion that the element of story, fundamental to all novels, is, in itself, not especially interesting in comparison to the ‘‘very complicated’’ novel as a whole. He later notes that the plot is, however, a ‘‘higher’’ organism than the story, meaning that it is a more complex and interesting aspect of the novel. Forster observes that the story is a ‘‘lower,’’ ‘‘simpler’’ organism also in the sense that it is primitive, a timeless human activity that originated in our primitive cultures.
Later in the introduction, Forster employs metaphors drawn from architecture in order to describe the magnitude of specific novels. He asserts that a number of English novels are ‘‘little mansions,’’ meaning they are certainly impressive literary accomplishments but that they are by no means ‘‘mighty edifices,’’ of grander significance. Forster compares these English novels to the ‘‘colonnades’’ and ‘‘vaults’’ of the great works of Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, thus implying that these authors have created majestic, imposing works of immense magnitude and enduring importance, well beyond that of many ‘‘great’’ English novels. Forster later employs a metaphor drawn from architecture when he describes Thomas Hardy’s novels as stories in which the plot is the ‘‘ground plan,’’ meaning that all other elements of the story are built upon the foundation of a highly structured plot.
In a discussion of the relationship between plot and character, Forster uses the metaphor of war. Critical of the overly schematic plot that deadens the life of the characters in a novel, he describes this tension as a ‘‘losing battle’’ at the end of which the novel is ‘‘feeble,’’ due to the ‘‘cowardly revenge’’ of the plot upon the characters, as carried out by the inadequacy of most endings. He later uses the metaphor of war and battle in describing the attempts of some modernist writers to abolish the plot from their novels as a ‘‘violent onslaught.’’ Compared to the more benign metaphors drawn from nature and science, Forster employs imagery drawn from war in order to express the potentially destructive force of an overly structured plot on the very life of a novel’s characters.
Another curious metaphor employed by Forster is that of the circus sideshow to describe the place of the ‘‘fantastic’’ in the novel. He explains that readers who enjoy the element of the fantastic are like the spectators who do not mind paying both the general price of admission to the circus and the additional ‘‘sixpence’’ to see the side show. Readers who do not care for the element of the fantastic in literature—and Forster does not fault these people—are not willing or able to pay the additional fee for the sideshow. Via this analogy, Forster suggests that some readers, while willing to use their imaginations in order to enter the story of a novel, do not possess the imaginative faculty for appreciating the element of the fantastic. Others, however, having entered into the relatively realistic world of the novel (the circus), are eager to make the extra imaginative leap (pay the extra fee) in order to enjoy the elements of the fantastic, which may stretch the boundaries of credibility.
In a very different type of metaphor, Forster describes the elements of fantasy and prophesy in the novel as a ‘‘bar of light’’ that ‘‘illumines’’ other aspects of the novel. In contrast to the more concrete analogies drawn from nature, architecture, and war, the analogy of a bar of light is appropriate to Forster’s concern with fantasy and prophesy as more abstract, conceptual, universal, or spiritual elements of the novel. However, light is not in fact an abstract substance, and Forster later suggests that, as there are only a limited number of devices by which the novelist may express the fantastic, this ‘‘beam of light can only be manipulated in certain ways.’’ Forster thus implies that these literary devices, like light, have properties and laws of their own, according to which the author is limited in his ability to manipulate them to his will.
In his discussion of prophecy and rhythm in the novel, perhaps the elements that he most values in a great work, Forster makes use of analogies drawn from music. The element of prophecy he describes as a quality of the author’s voice akin to that of a song—a song accompanied by ‘‘the flutes and saxophones of fantasy.’’ In contrast to the universal, or spiritual (in the broadly defined sense of the term), elements of the novel, as expressed through fantasy and prophecy, Forster describes the element of realism, which he deems as essential to the novel as the interior structure and furnishings are to a house. Forster suggests that there is a degree of conflict between the abstract ‘‘music’’ of fantasy and ‘‘song’’ of prophecy and the concrete realism of dust and furniture in the rooms and hallways of a house; he observes the following regarding the prophetic novelist:
[The prophetic novelist] proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? We shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer ‘‘not too well’’: the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children’s party.
Forster asserts, however, that the value of the chaotic and potentially disruptive nature of the prophetic voice in fiction is worth the risk of wrecking the furniture of realism. He then picks up the metaphor of the fantastic as a beam of light that cuts across the narrative, suggesting that the prophetic song of the novelist may also serve to light up a room, rather than, or in addition to, wrecking it a bit:
Perhaps he will smash or distort, but perhaps he will illumine. . . . He manipulates a beam of light which occasionally touches the objects so sedulously dusted by the hand of common sense, and renders them more vivid than they can ever be in domesticity.
Having utilized the metaphor of song to illustrate the effect of the prophetic voice, Forster continues to describe another key aspect of the novel in terms of music. His final chapter, ‘‘Pattern and Rhythm,’’ dismisses the value of structuring a novel in accordance with the visual metaphor of pattern, such as in a woven fabric. Rather, he argues for the value of an open-ended structure akin to the musical motif in a symphony, or, in a novelistic masterpiece, a symphony in its entirety. Forster states that music is the best analogy for the novel. He uses the example of Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, as a novel in which a recurring ‘‘musical phrase’’ provides internal unity throughout an otherwise structurally ‘‘messy’’ story. Unlike the pattern, which Forster deems ultimately too rigid and all encompassing to accommodate the best elements of the novel, the rhythm of a musical motif, which comes and goes throughout the story, can ‘‘fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.’’ Forster observes that the musical analogy of rhythm pro vides the novelist with a narrative form that is expansive and open-ended. Finally, Forster suggests that only one novel, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, has successfully achieved the musical brilliance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, in which ‘‘great chords of sound’’ can be heard to emerge from the narrative form.
Throughout his lectures, Forster makes use of a variety of analogies in order to illustrate his central concerns with the novel. He draws imagery from the natural landscape, the animal kingdom, biology, architecture, interior design, war, properties of light, circus entertainments, and music. His use of analogy not only serves the practical purpose of clarifying his meaning but imbues his discussion with a playful, whimsical quality that captures his sense of joy in the creative act of reading and discussing, as well as writing, great literature.
Source: Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Aspects of the Novel, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.
But We Argued about Novel-Writing: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and the Art of Fiction
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3867
In his ‘‘Introductory’’ to Aspects of the Novel, E. M. Forster invites his audience to imagine the glorious company of English novelists ‘‘seated together in a room, a circular room, a sort of British Museum reading-room—all writing their novels simultaneously.’’ And so I invite you to adopt a similar stratagem and picture the two novelists who are the subject of this study—Forster and Virginia Woolf— seated, as they often were in fact, on either side of a smaller table in a more intimate room, a room in Forster’s Cambridge lodgings, or at tea in a Bloomsbury townhouse or at Monk’s House, the Woolfs’ weekend residence in Sussex.
Woolf describes one such session in a letter to Vanessa Bell dated 19 May 1926: ‘‘Morgan came to tea yesterday,’’ she says, ‘‘but we argued about novel writing, which I will not fret your ears with.’’ This argument spills far beyond the edges of the 1926 tea table and permeates the novels and critical writings of both Woolf and Forster. One might say that chronologically the argument began in 1908— when, as a novice reviewer of books, Virginia Stephen applauded ‘‘the cleverness, the sheer fun, and the occasional beauty’’ of E. M. Forster’s latest novel, A Room with a View—and ended in 1941 with Forster’s Rede Lecture on Woolf at Cambridge just a few months before her death. In a larger sense, however, the dialogue continues today: not only does it mark off the fields of difference between the two most prominent literary figures in the Bloomsbury coterie and thus illuminate their novels as we read them, but it also isolates the aesthetic issues at stake in the first decades of the twentieth century. Many of the principles of modernism were forged, according to Michael H. Levenson, in the heat of active debate between certain of its fabricators— T. E. Hulme, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Ford Madox Ford, and T. S. Eliot. Woolf and Forster’s sparring was the same kind of formative dialogue: each forced the other to clarify his or her conception of the novel, to articulate the essential principles that, in their differing views, made fiction an art. In Forster’s responses to Woolf’s comments, we find a defence of the novel as a perpetuator of traditional values and a transmitter of belief; while Woolf, in her reactions to Forster’s criticism, becomes increasingly the champion of an objective, self-sufficient, endlessly experimental art form.
The verbal duelling increases in interest when we see it in the context of the two novelists’ longstanding but problematical friendship. Forster was one of the Cambridge graduates who gravitated to the Stephen siblings’ Bloomsbury flat, but his somewhat sporadic association with the ‘‘Bloomsberries’’ was due primarily to his profound admiration for Leonard Woolf. Of Virginia herself Forster was wary: ‘‘One waited for her to snap,’’ he said. He confided to Quentin Bell that ‘‘she was always very sweet to me, but I don’t think she was particularly fond of me, if that’s the word.’’ If she was ‘‘sweet’’ to the skittish Forster publicly, privately she was often scathing: the letter to Vanessa Bell quoted earlier, for example, describes Forster as ‘‘limp and damp and milder than the breath of a cow.’’ Nonetheless, throughout her twenty-five-year career as a novelist, Woolf’s desire for Forster’s critical approbation was ardent and undiminished. When he wrote in 1919 that he liked Night and Day far less than The Voyage Out, Woolf had to struggle to take the criticism philosophically: ‘‘This rubbed out all the pleasure of the rest,’’ she says in her diary. The next week, however, she was able to comment, ‘‘I see it is not a criticism to discourage. . . . Morgan has the artist’s mind; he says the simple things that clever people don’t say; I find him the best of critics for that reason.’’ And in 1940, when her fame as a novelist was undisputed, she all but held her breath as she waited for Forster’s reaction to the Roger Fry biography: ‘‘And I fear Morgan will say—just enough to show he doesn’t like, but is kind.’’ For his part Forster admired Woolf both as a novelist whose visionary quality corresponded to his wishes for his own fiction and as an authority on British literature. It was, in fact, in this latter capacity that he sought her advice at the contention-riddled tea table. Having been asked to deliver the Clark Lectures at Cambridge, the series subsequently published as Aspects of the Novel, Forster came to Woolf to find out how to lecture on novels and what novels he ought to include. She was to his mind the one member of an extraordinarily learned literary circle best equipped to give sound advice in both areas.
The teapot’s lid was blown, in effect, by Woolf’s two responses to Aspects of the Novel—a review, later entitled ‘‘The Art of Fiction,’’ in October 1927; and an essay in Atlantic Monthly, ‘‘The Novels of E. M. Forster,’’ the next month. These three works—plus Forster’s ‘‘The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf,’’ his Rede Lecture, and Woolf’s ‘‘Modern Fiction’’ and ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’’—comprise the ongoing debate. Taken together they abstract the two aspects of novel writing— character and artistic vision—which separate most emphatically the two teacups on the Bloomsbury table.
Having followed Forster’s lead and dispensed altogether with chronology, we are free to begin tracing the Woolf-Forster disagreement at its conclusion, the 1941 Rede Lecture, for this is the document that divides the debate most neatly into two spheres. After discussing at some length Woolf’s strengths as a novelist, Forster comes to what he calls ‘‘her problem’s center,’’ that is, ‘‘can she create character?’’ Woolf had, Forster recognizes, some skill in creating characters who were not ‘‘unreal . . . who lived well enough on the page’’; her great flaw as a novelist was her inability to imbue her characters with ‘‘life eternal’’:
She could seldom so portray a character that it was remembered afterward on its own account . . . Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay do remain with the reader afterwards and so perhaps do Rachel from The Voyage Out and Clarissa Dalloway. For the rest—it is impossible to maintain that here is an immortal portrait gallery . . .
Woolf’s difficulty with character absorbs Forster here as it had sixteen years before in his essay ‘‘The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf.’’ Her first four novels had convinced Forster that here was a writer whose technical virtuosity clearly forecast a new era in the history of the novel. ‘‘But,’’ he objects, ‘‘what of the subject that she regards as of the highest importance: human beings as a whole and as wholes?’’ He continues: ‘‘The problem that she has set herself and that certainly would inaugurate a new literature if solved—is to retain her own wonderful new method and form, and yet allow her readers to inhabit each character with Victorian thoroughness.’’ Forster invites his readers to consider how difficult ‘‘this problem’’ is (and here he is speaking specifically of Mrs. Dalloway):
If you work in a storm of atoms and seconds, if your highest joy is ‘‘life; London; this moment in June’’ and your deepest mystery ‘‘here is one room; there another,’’ then how can you construct your human beings so that each shall be not a movable monument but an abiding home, how can you build between them any permanent roads of love and hate?
The image of the novelist as architect or civil engineer is apposite when one considers the two chapters Forster devotes to character in Aspects of the Novel, for in this work he makes it clear that characters in a novel, whatever the depth and complexity of their inner lives, function to satisfy the demands of other aspects of the novel. ‘‘We are concerned,’’ he says, ‘‘with the characters in their relation . . . to a plot, a moral, their fellow characters, atmosphere, etc. They will have to adapt themselves to other requirements of their creator.’’ Again and again the utility of character is stressed. A novelist, Forster tells us, has two ‘‘devices’’ to help him cope with the trials which beset him: one device is point of view, and the other is the ‘‘use’’ of different kinds of characters.
Indeed, Forster’s characters failed to convince Woolf precisely because they are so tightly hitched to their creator’s intentions. Her review of A Room with a View expresses her disappointment with Forster’s treatment of his characters, their ‘‘belittlement,’’ his ‘‘cramping of their souls.’’ And while her discussion of Howards End in ‘‘The Novels of E. M. Forster’’ praises the reality with which the characters are presented, it also notes the distressing disjunction between the characters ‘‘as themselves’’ and the characters as they are forced to serve the ends of their maker. The reader, Woolf complains, must abandon ‘‘the enchanted world of imagination’’ where all the faculties operate in concert and enter ‘‘the twilight world of theory, where only our intellect functions dutifully.’’ Occasionally Forster forgets his obligation to deliver his ‘‘message’’ and allows certain comic characters— Tibby and Mrs. Munt, for example—to range freely in the imaginary world unshepherded by the author. Such characters are, however, the exception in Forster’s fiction; far more usual are characters pent by purpose. ‘‘Margaret, Helen, Leonard Bast, are closely tethered and vigilantly overlooked lest they may take matters into their own hands and upset the theory.’’
In her own treatise on character, ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’’ Woolf had already alluded to the damage done Forster’s fiction by his subordination of character to theory. Forster’s early work, like D. H. Lawrence’s, Woolf says here, is ‘‘spoilt’’ because, instead of throwing away the tools of the Edwardians and their ‘‘enormous stress upon the fabric of things,’’ he attempted to compromise with them. He ‘‘tried to combine [his] own direct sense of the oddity and significance of some character with Mr. Galsworthy’s knowledge of the Factory Act, and Mr. Bennett’s knowledge of the Five Towns.’’ And though Woolf suggests that Forster has engaged to some extent in the general Georgian smashing and breaking of convention, she nonetheless finds him cementing his characters too firmly to their surroundings and to his own morals, struggles, and protests.
Nothing could contrast more sharply with Woolf’s vision of character in the novel. Her comments on British and Continental novelists and her notes on her own novels attest to the fact that for her, character depends on no force outside the novel; rather it is the novel’s moment of genesis, the vital centre from which the novel and all its various aspects radiate. All novelists write, she says in ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’’ because ‘‘they are lured on to create some character which has . . . imposed itself upon them.’’ The realists fail to capture the will-o’-the-wisp of character because, in their fervour to express it in terms of surroundings or in terms of some doctrine, they are blind to ‘‘character in itself.’’ Laurence Sterne and Jane Austen, who alone among English writers receive unequivocal praise from Woolf, succeeded where her contemporaries fail because they ‘‘were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside.’’ Russian novelists, however, provided Woolf even sounder models of the proper relationship of character to the novel. Turgenev, for example, ‘‘did not see his books as a succession of events; he saw them as a succession of emotions radiating from some character at the centre.’’ And it is thus that many of her own novels were conceived. About To the Lighthouse she says, ‘‘The centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel.’’ Writing a novel then requires dedication to the task of rendering that vision of character as accurately and suggestively as possible: ‘‘to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible.’’
Thus the argument goes. Woolf’s characters fail to live, says Forster, because they are too far removed from the flux of daily life; Forster’s characters fail, says Woolf, because messages and material surroundings hamper their movement. Character, says Forster, is a device a novelist uses in the service of other aspects of the novel. Character, says Woolf, is the vital principle that calls the rest of the novel into being.
The second sphere of critical difference between Woolf and Forster is not so much an aspect of the novel as it is an aspect of the novelist—artistic vision, the faculty with which the writer selects and shapes the substance of his work. In describing Woolf in the opening paragraphs of the Rede Lecture, Forster mentions two qualities which apparently he feels were peculiarly hers: the first is her receptivity to sensual stimuli; the second is her singleness of vision. Most writers, he remarks,
write with half an eye on their royalties, half an eye on their critics, and a third half-eye on improving the world, which leaves them with only half an eye for the task on which [Woolf] concentrated her entire vision. She would not look elsewhere . . .
But Forster is at best a grudging admirer of this singleness of purpose, for this fixed vision of Woolf’s leads her toward that ‘‘dreadful hole’’ of aestheticism. ‘‘She has all the aesthete’s characteristics,’’ he complains: she ‘‘selects and manipulates her impressions . . . ; enforces patterns on her books; has no great cause at heart.’’ Indeed Forster trips repeatedly over the fact that Woolf had no great cause at heart, that she felt no responsibility for improving the world. Her art suffered, in his estimation, because her feminism and her detachment from the working classes made her attitude to society ‘‘aloof and angular.’’
To take lack of sympathy with humankind as a basis for a literary judgment appears to be mistaking ethics for aesthetics, but or Forster the two amounted to very nearly the same thing. In Aspects of the Novel he insists that
the intensely, stifling human quality of the novel is not to be avoided; the novel is sogged with humanity; there is no escaping the uplift or the downpour . . . We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised or purified the novel wilts; little is left but a bunch of words.
The most valuable fiction, Forster feels, is produced not by the writer whose eye is single, trained exclusively upon what Woolf calls ‘‘the work itself,’’ but by one whose eye is catholic, eclectic, capable of focusing at the same time upon the work and upon the human issues which surround it.
The conflict between the novel’s intensely human quality and its aesthetic exigencies is the subject of the chapter of Aspects of the Novel entitled ‘‘Pattern,’’ in which Forster recounts the debate between Henry James and H. G. Wells. The exchange figures importantly in our study because it mirrors the Woolf-Forster debate exactly and because Woolf responded to it so pointedly. Forster’s objection to James’s fiction is that ‘‘most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel.’’ ‘‘There is,’’ he protests,
no philosophy in the novels, no religion . . . no prophecy, no benefit for the superhuman at all. It is for the sake of a particular aesthetic effect which is certainly gained, but at this heavy price.
Here in part is Woolf’s rejoinder:
For Henry James brought into the novel something besides human beings. He created patterns which, though beautiful in themselves, are hostile to humanity. And for his neglect of life, says Mr. Forster, he will perish.
But at this point the pertinacious pupil may demand: ‘‘What is this ‘Life’ that keeps cropping up so mysteriously and so complacently in books about fiction? Why is it absent in a pattern and present in a tea party?’’
Forster, of course, finds in favour of Wells, who asserts that life ‘‘‘must hot be whittled or distended for a pattern’s sake.’’’ And this same finding—that a novel must be imbued with its creator’s eclectic double vision or it is finally ‘‘not worth doing’’—is at the heart of Forster’s criticism of Woolf.
Perhaps Forster denounced Woolf’s singleness of vision in the Rede Lecture because years before in ‘‘The Novels of E. M. Forster’’ she had rather harshly attacked his doubleness. There is, she insists in this essay, ‘‘one gift more essential to a novelist than [any other], the power of combination—the single vision.’’ But at the heart of Forster’s novels she finds ambiguity supplanting this essential gift: ‘‘instead of seeing . . . one single whole we see two separate parts.’’ She finds in Howards End all the elements necessary to a masterpiece but finds them in solution. ‘‘Elaboration, skill, wisdom, penetration, beauty—they are all there, but they lack fusion, they lack cohesion.’’ A Passage to India too fails to live up to its readers’ expectations, but it is at least beginning to approach ‘‘saturation’’: in this novel, Woolf says, ‘‘the double vision which troubled us in the earlier books was in process of becoming single.’’
The words ‘‘saturation,’’ ‘‘fusion,’’ ‘‘cohesion’’ are important critical terms for Woolf; a diary entry penned just a few months after her public responses to Aspects of the Novel explains them:
The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole . . . Why admit anything to literature that is not poetry— by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novelists? that they select nothing?
And her entire career was a series of daring attempts to reproduce luminous moments of human consciousness no matter what conventional paraphernalia she had to eliminate in the process. Forster, like other novelists, fell far short of Woolf’s exacting criteria because his double vision muddled his attempts to see and render the moment whole. Indeed the entire Woolf-Forster argument, about character as well as about the artist’s vision, is largely an argument about whether a novel is the sum of various quantifiable parts dictated by material circumstances outside the novel—certainly Forster saw it thus—or whether it is what Woolf, influenced as she was by Coleridge and by G. E. Moore, felt it to be: an organic unit whose parts evolve spontaneously from an original conception of the whole.
As sincerely as Forster admired Woolf’s technical achievement in the art of fiction, he nonethe less objected strongly to her apparent preference for the formal over the human elements of the novel. He was, as Mark Goldman points out, ‘‘too much the novelist of ideas; too involved, however skeptically, in the liberal tradition’’ to be completely receptive to Woolf’s ‘‘novel of sensibility.’’ Forster’s comments on Woolf sound, in fact, remarkably like the importunate speaker’s in Robert Frost’s poem:
O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud . . .
But to be wholly taciturn
In your reserve is not allowed.
Say something to us we can learn
By heart and when alone repeat.
Say something! And it says, ‘‘I burn.’’
To Forster, observing the cultural confusion about him, the situation demanded literary communication of something which resembled, at any rate, the old verities and values. If, as David Daiches was to insist in 1938, the ‘‘community of belief’’ had vanished, if human relationships were forever altered, then the writer was obligated, these two critics felt, to offer something to stand in the place of those beliefs and relationships. Forster most clearly articulates his frustration with Woolf’s refusal to ‘‘say something we can learn by heart’’ in his essay on her early novels:
one novel is ‘‘not explanatory of the universe’’; the style of another is so elusive that ‘‘it cannot say much or be sure of saying anything’’; and another has no ‘‘message’’ save ‘‘‘here is one room, there another.’’’ Woolf, he remarked after her death, had no great cause at heart; specifically, she declined to transport inherited beliefs and conventions through the post-World War I desert to whatever Promised Land lay on the other side.
But Woolf was no less sensitive to the seismic shocks of her time than Forster and Daiches. Observing in ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’’ that ‘‘on or about December, 1910, human nature changed,’’ she goes on to acknowledge that such changes are always accompanied by radical changes in ‘‘religion, conduct, politics, and literature.’’ She too, she says, cries out ‘‘for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book.’’ However, though she, like all novelists before and since, was preoccupied with the meaning of being human, she did not see that meaning threatened or obscured by the crashings going on about her. As a woman she had been at best a peripheral participant in the cultural and literary tradition which had preceded the war; thus she saw in the splintering of convention freedom to fashion from ‘‘orts, scraps, and fragments’’ a fuller, more luminous, and finally more accurate rendering of the human condition than had previously been possible. Though convinced that Forster was ‘‘the best of critics,’’ she nonetheless clung resolutely to her own evolving methods of reproducing vital experience. ‘‘We know,’’ she says in ‘‘Modern Fiction,’’ ‘‘that certain paths seem to lead to fertile land, others to the dust and the desert.’’
Forster was deeply stung by Woolf’s reactions to Aspects of the Novel; her objection, to his dismissal of the claims of art in favour of the claims of ‘‘life’’ annoyed him especially, as this vexed letter to Woolf makes clear:
Your article inspires me to the happiest repartee. This vague truth about life. Exactly. But what of the talk about art? Each sentence leads to an exquisitely fashioned casket of which the key has unfortunately been mislaid & until you can find your bunch I shall cease to hunt very anxiously for my own.
Woolf responded in an impersonal typewritten note that one ought to hunt more diligently than Forster had for the proper relationship of art to life before relegating art to an inferior realm. But then she added in her own hand a note apologizing for hurting or annoying him: ‘‘The article was cut down to fit The Nation, and the weight all fell in the same place. But I’m awfully sorry if I was annoying.’’
Thus ended the tempest in the 1927 teapot. However, despite admiration and conciliation, the debate between Woolf and Forster was inevitable. Because their verbal duel forced each to articulate critical theories and because it reflects two signifi- cant positions in the modernist dilemma, Woolf and Forster continue, in their essays as they once did across their tea tables, to argue about novel writing.
Source: Ann Henley, ‘‘‘But We Argued about Novel-Writing’: Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and the Art of Fiction,’’ in ARIEL, Vol. 20, No. 3, July 1989, pp. 73–83.
The Importance of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7528
E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927) remains a cornerstone of Anglo-American novel criticism. Forster’s study helped define the values and ques tions with which we have approached novels for the past several decades. Moreover, today it still addresses the crucial questions that concern us about form, point of view, and the relationship between art and life. While acknowledging the importance of Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction (1921) in extending the James aesthetic, the brilliance of Virginia Woolf’s insights in her essays in The Common Reader (1925) and elsewhere, and the usefulness of Edwin Muir’s The Structure of the Novel (1928), I believe that Forster’s book is the one of those 1920’s books on the novel to which we most frequently return to learn about how novels mean and why they matter to us. Aspects of the Novel is informed not merely by the living experience of Forster’s having written novels throughout his adult life but more importantly by judgment, perspicacity, and erudition. To be sure, he does not articulate what we now think of as a theory, and he lacks the dialectical and polemical edge of recent criticism. Thus he disarmingly explains that he has chosen the term ‘‘aspects,’’ ‘‘because it means both the different ways we can look at a novel and the different ways a novelist can look at his work.’’ In the early chapters, Forster begins with such traditional aspects as story, people, and plot before turning in the later ones to less conventional ones such as fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.
In the editor’s introduction to the Abinger edition of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, Oliver Stallybrass rather patronizingly writes that Aspects is ‘‘a set of observations, somewhat arbitrarily arranged . . . of a man who is a novelist first, a slightly uncommon reader second, a friend third, and an analytical or theorizing critic fourth.’’ Moreover, Stallybrass contends, ‘‘What most readers will cherish are the numerous particular judgments, instinctive rather than intellectual . . .’’ For Stallybrass, Aspects is merely ‘‘a useful adjunct to other, more sustained and consistent works of criticism’’— although we are not told where we are to find these. That the editor of Forster’s collected works makes such modest claims for such an historically signifi- cant study shows how far scholarship and theory have drifted apart. Because Forster defines aesthetic goals in terms of the values by which he wrote his own novels, it has been flippantly observed that Aspects of the Novel is Forster’s apologia. Thus, Stallybrass quotes the narrator in Somerset Maugham’s Cakes and Ales: ‘‘I read The Craft of Fiction by Mr. Percy Lubbock, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Henry James; after that I read Aspects of the Novel by E. M. Forster, from which I learned that the only way to write novels was like Mr. E. M. Forster.’’ Taking issue with this condescension, I shall argue that Aspects of the Novel is a seminal text in the criticism of fiction.
The key to understanding Forster is to realize that he writes in two traditions: the humanistic tradition, with its components of positivism, nominalism, and utilitarianism, and its admiration of realism; and the prophetic tradition, with Platonic and biblical origins, which sees art either as an alternative to, or an intensification of, this world. In this first tradition, we find Aristotle, Horace, Arnold, and usually James; in the second, we find Blake, Shelley, Pater, Wilde, Yeats, Lawrence, and Stevens. The first tradition strives to see life steadily and to see it whole. The second wants art to be superior in quality to life. Forster and, indeed, Woolf were drawn to both these traditions. In Aspects, we might imagine that Forster speaks in two voices, as he tries to do justice to the appeals of both these traditions. In the chapters ‘‘Story,’’ ‘‘People,’’ and ‘‘Plot,’’ the voice of the first tradition dominates. But in the later chapters, beginning with ‘‘Fantasy’’ and becoming more pronounced in ‘‘Prophecy’’ and ‘‘Pattern and Rhythm,’’ the voice of the second tradition becomes gradually more prominent. At times we feel, as in the chapter on fantasy, that he knows that he cannot resolve the contending claims of these two traditions.
Aspects of the Novel is not only a rough codifi- cation of the Bloomsbury aesthetic but also a specific response to Woolf’s ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.’’ Writing in 1924, Virginia Woolf insisted that the Georgian writers needed to abandon the ‘‘tools’’ and ‘‘conventions’’ of their Edwardian predecessors because the latter ‘‘have laid an enormous stress on the fabric of things’’:
At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship . . . Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated; . . . We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth, the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition.
In 1928, except for Conrad, the great modern British novelists—Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf—were at their peak even if their achievement and signifi- cance were far from clear. But while Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, and Conrad sought new forms and syntax, Forster had shown in his novels—Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905). The Longest Journey (1907), A Room With a View (1908), Howards End (1910), and A Passage to India (1924)—that the English language and the novel genre already had the resources to examine human life, including its instincts and passions; in Aspects of the Novel he sought to articulate that view.
Forster’s own career as a novelist helps us to understand Aspects. His iconoclasm in part derives from his homosexuality and in part from his sense that he is an anachronism who belongs to a social and moral era that has been all but overwhelmed by modernism, progress, and utilitarianism. Forster wrote in ‘‘The Challenge of Our Time’’:
I belong to the fag-end of Victorian liberalism, and can look back to an age whose challenges were moderate in their tone, and the cloud on whose horizons was no bigger than a man’s hand. In many ways, it was an admirable age. It practised benevolence and philanthropy, was humane and intellectually curious, upheld free speech, had little colourprejudice, believed that individuals are and should be different, and entertained a sincere faith in the progress of society.
In the guise of writing objective novels, he wrote personal, subjective ones. For Forster’s novels, like those of the other great modern British novelists—Conrad, Lawrence, Joyce, and Woolf— are the history of his soul. His novels dramatize not only his characters’ search for values but also his own—a quest that reflects his own doubt and uncertainty. As Wilfred Stones writes:
His novels are not only chapters in a new gospel, they are dramatic installments in the story of his own struggle for selfhood—and for a myth to support it. They tell of a man coming out in the world, painfully emerging from an encysted state of loneliness, fear, and insecurity. Forster’s evangelism springs as much from self-defense as from self-confidence, as much from weakness as from strength; but the style of his sermon always reflects those qualities about which there can be no compromise: tolerance and balance, sensitivity and common sense, and a loathing for everything dogmatic.
Put another way: what Stephen Dedalus says of Shakespeare in Ulysses—‘‘He found in the world without as actual what was in his world within as possible’’—is also true of Forster’s novels and, as we shall see, of Aspects.
Like Forster’s novels, particularly the later ones, Aspects of the Novel challenges the artistic and thematic conventions of the novel of manners. Indeed, the early chapters on story, people, and plot roughly correspond to the early period when he wrote Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, and A Room With a View, while the later sections discuss aspects that he tried to make more substantive use of in Howards End and, in particular, A Passage to India—the aspects of fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm. Not unlike his novels, Aspects enacts his quest for the inner life as well as his attempt to rescue himself from the curse of modernism. For Aspects of the Novel sometimes strikes an elegiac and nostalgic note when confronting contemporary avant-garde works, such as those of Gertrude Stein and James Joyce.
Forster’s book originated as the 1927 Clark lectures given at Cambridge University. His conversational approach and lightness of touch, rather than dating the lectures, recreate the spontaneity of clear-headed, sensible, unpretentious talk. Forster is speaking in a tradition of manners that eschewed sharp conflicts and hyperbole on those occasions when a lowered voice and a tactful gesture would do. Although Forster’s style is somewhat more informal in Aspects, it is marked by the same features as in his novels: leisurely pace, self-confi- dence, lucid diction, and poised syntax. As Lionel Trilling puts it, ‘‘The very relaxation of his style, its colloquial unpretentiousness, is a mark of his acceptance of the human fact as we know it now. . . . This, it seems to me, might well be called worldliness, this acceptance of man in the world without the sentimentality of cynicism and without the sentimentlaity of rationalism.’’ As in his novels, Forster’s style becomes his argument for the proportion, balance, and spontaneity that are essential to Forster’s humanism.
Aspects enacts Forster’s values. Like his novels, its tone and style are objective correlatives for the keen sensibility, the personal relationships, and the delicate discriminations of feeling that he sought. With its elegant phrasing, tact, balance, and sensibility, it is a protest against what he calls ‘‘the language of hurry on the mouths of London’s inhabitants— clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust.’’ Forster never forgets what he calls ‘‘the inner life’’ and the ‘‘unseen’’—those aspects of life which resist language. By the ‘‘inner life,’’ he means the passions and feelings that enable man to experience poetry and romance. For Forster, the ‘‘unseen’’ means not the traditional Christian God but a world beyond things that can be reached by passion, imagination, intelligence, and affection.
Aspects enacts Forster’s values. Like his novels, its tone and style are objective correlatives for the keen sensibility, the personal relationships, including relatively abstract terms like ‘‘beauty,’’ ‘‘curiosity,’’ and ‘‘intelligence,’’ refers to a shared cultural heritage and therefore conveys meaning. Thus he can write: ‘‘Our easiest approach to a definition of any aspect of fiction is always by considering the sort of demand it makes on the reader. Curiosity for the story, human feelings and a sense of value for the characters, intelligence and memory for the plot.’’ These are the ‘‘demands’’ that motivated Forster to write novels and the values that he felt must be central to a criticism of the novel. He is never afraid of being naive and expresses the full range of emotions from wonder and awe to impatience, chagrin, and dismay. He is, above all, a humanist. As Stone writes, ‘‘His art, and his belief in it, are his religion. . . . The religion is a coming together, of the seen and the unseen, public affairs and private decencies. Another name for this religion is humanism.’’ With its carefully constructed patterns and symbolic scenes, the artificial order of the novel was for Forster an alternative to disbelief.
Forster’s aesthetic values cannot be separated from his moral values. In an important 1925 essay, ‘‘Anonymity: An Enquiry,’’ he wrote that ‘‘[a work of literature, such as The Ancient Mariner] only answers to its own laws, supports itself, internally coheres, and has a new standard of truth. Information is true if it is accurate. A poem is true if it hangs together. . . . The world created by words exists neither in space nor time though it has semblances of both, it is eternal and indestructible.’’ For Forster, as for his Bloomsbury colleagues Roger Fry, Clive Bell, G. E. Moore, and, often, Virginia Woolf, art is a surrogate for religion. For those who, like himself, do not believe in the harmony of a divine plan or that a God directs human destiny, it provides ‘‘order’’ and ‘‘harmony’’ that the world lacks. At its best, art enables us to see life steadily and see it whole. Aesthetic order can provide a substitute for and an alternative to the frustrations and anxieties of life. in ‘‘Art for Art’s Sake’’ (1949), he argued that what distinguished art from life is form, and that view, articulated by Bell and Fry well before Aspects, is implicit in much of Forster’s book: ‘‘A work of art . . . is unique not because it is clever or noble or useful or beautiful or enlightened or original or sincere or idealistic or educational—it may embody any of those qualities—but because it is the only material object in the universe which may possess internal harmony.’’ While life in action is fundamentally disorganized (‘‘the past is really a series of dis orders’’), creating and responding to art are ways of putting that disorder behind.
‘‘Form’’ (which he does not discuss in its own chapter) is another name for the internal harmony achieved by the creative synthesis of other aspects: ‘‘[The artist] legislates through creating. And he creates through his sensitiveness and his power to impose form. . . . Form of some kind is imperative. It is the surface crust of the internal harmony, it is the outward evidence of order.’’ But form is not merely the significant form of Bell and Fry; it includes—much more than for such a pure art as music—awareness of the complexity of life. Unlike music, the novel inevitably addresses how and for what human beings live. Responding to Lubbock, Forster eschews ‘‘principles and systems’’ as inappropriate to the novel. He insists on ‘‘the intensely, stifling human quality’’ as a critical focus, because the novel’s subject is humanity: ‘‘Since the novelist is himself a human being, there is an affinity between him and his subject-matter which is absent in many other forms of art.’’ By beginning with the chapters ‘‘Story’’ and ‘‘People,’’ Aspects of the Novel shows that novels first and foremost depend on human life. Moreover, Forster does not use the formal term ‘‘character’’ in the title of the ‘‘People’’ chapters. And the centrality of people derives in part from Bloomsbury’s stress on emotional and moral ties. Virginia Woolf asserted in ‘‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’’: ‘‘I believe that all novels . . . deal with character, and that it is to express character . . . that the form of the novels, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.’’
Underlying Aspects of the Novel is a stress on the quality and intensity of novels’ moral visions. Forster implies that a novel’s ability to show us something we don’t know about the people and the universe is important. Not only does penetrating the secret lives of characters help us as readers to become more perspicacious in life, but our aesthetic experience will enable us for a time to achieve internal harmony. As Forster wrote in ‘‘Anonymity: An Enquiry’’: ‘‘What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse. Lost in the beauty where he was lost, we find more than we ever threw away, we reach what seems to be our spiritual home, and remember that it was not the speaker who was in the beginning but the Word.’’ On the one hand, Forster is speaking urgently in his prophetic voice, urging the religion of art that enables us to see beyond the real world, and we feel his kinship with Blake and Lawrence. On the other hand, despite his epiphanic language, Forster stresses the use of art in terms of the effects of art, and this stress is typical of Anglo-American criticism, which is influenced by a blend of Horatian utile and English utilitarianism.
Despite Forster’s lack of theoretical sophistication, his lucid, unpretentious discussion as the aesthetics of the novel challenges us to consider the necessary dialogue within fiction between art and life, between the imagined world created by the author and the real one in which we, like the author, live. Forster defines the novel in terms of a dialectical relationship between fiction and reality: ‘‘there are in the novel two forces: human beings and a bundle of various things not human beings, and . . . it is the novelist’s business to adjust these two forces and conciliate their claims.’’ Forster taught us that interest in the novel as an art form is not incongruous with attention to content and that, paradoxically, the novels with the highest artistic values are the richest in insights about life. But Forster knew that ‘‘homo fictus’’ is not the same as ‘‘homo sapiens.’’ What differentiates art from life is not only that the novel is a work of art, but that ‘‘the novelist knows everything about [a character in a book] . . . [I]n the novel we can know people perfectly, and, apart from the general pleasure of reading, we can find here a compensation for their dimness in life.’’ Forster’s assertion that we know the characters in a novel completely and that they contain, unlike characters in life, ‘‘no secrets’’ is belied by our experience that characters have secrets that even their creator or his own omniscient narrator does not recognize. (This is the point not only of Kermode’s The Genesis of Secrecy , but one implication of his own chapters on prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.
Forster’s introductory chapter insists on a nonchronological approach which conceives of English novelists ‘‘writing their novels simultaneously’’ and turns away from questions of influence: ‘‘Literary tradition is the borderland between literature and history.’’ Imagining a reader who encounters the total experience of the English novel enables him to take a quite different perspective from those who speak of influences and origins. His ahistorical approach—what we now call synchronic—appealed to the formalists of the next generation and probably, along with James and Lubbock, deterred thinking about the novel in terms of traditional literary history.
Forster’s book was a response to James’s critical legacy and Lubbock’s codification and simplifi- cation of that legacy in The Craft of Fiction, which argued, following James, for the importance of point of view. Forster believes that critics have overstressed point of view. By speaking in compelling terms of the elements that he thinks are crucial, he rescued the novel from the dogmatism of James and Lubbock. Point of view is not the most important ‘‘aspect’’ but merely one of many secondary ones that do not deserve a separate chapter. The absence of a chapter on ‘‘point of view’’ probably affected the direction of novel criticism. With Lubbock (whom he has mentioned a few lines previously) in mind, he remarks that critics feel that the novel ‘‘ought to have its own technical troubles before it can be accepted as an independent art.’’ For Forster, a novelist’s ‘‘method’’ resolves ‘‘into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says.’’ By discussing point of view in a few pages in the second chapter entitled ‘‘people,’’ he is emphasizing that point of view, whether in the form of a persona or omniscient narrator, is significant only insofar as it expresses a human voice. Parting company with James and Lubbock, he writes, ‘‘the creator and narrator are one.’’
Forster’s warning about self-conscious art is a deliberate attempt to separate himself from the James aesthetic: ‘‘The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyse his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.’’ Unlike Lubbock, who questions Tolstoy’s shifting point of view, he feels, ‘‘this power to expand and contract perception, . . . this right to intermittent knowledge’’ is not only ‘‘one of the great advantages of novel-form,’’ but also ‘‘has a parallel in our perception of life.’’ Finally, he holds, what is important is not the technique but the result. Unlike Lubbock, Forster never loses sight of the role of the reader and, like James on occasion, thinks of himself as the reader’s surrogate. Stressing that novels must be convincing to readers, he writes: ‘‘All that matters to the reader is whether the shifting of attitude and the secret life are convincing . . .’’ Yet despite his avowed catholicity, he has his preferences and prejudices. While he believes that it is fine for an author ‘‘to draw back from his characters, as Hardy and Conrad do, and to generalize about the conditions under which he thinks life is carried on,’’ he does not like the intimacy of Fielding and Thackeray, who take readers into confi- dence about their characters. Perhaps influenced by James on this point, he implies that the artist should use his artistry to shape the reader’s response rather than simply tell him what to think. Aspects of the Novel shows that Forster had a complicated oedipal love-hate attitude—an anxiety of influence—towards James, whose novels and criticism influenced him more than he acknowledged.
Forster’s most important contribution to the aesthetic of the novel is the distinction between flat and round characters. While flat characters can be summarized in a single phrase and hence are often caricatures, round characters are as complex and multifaceted as real people: ‘‘The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way . . . It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.’’ Forster demonstrates that characterization includes different kinds of mimesis in fiction, each with its own function, and that flat and round characters can coexist in the same novel. Although ‘‘It is only round people who are fit to perform tragically for any length of time and can move us to any feelings except humour and appropriateness,’’ the ‘‘proper mixture of [flat and round] characters is crucial.’’ The advantage of flat characters is that they are convenient for authors and easily recognized: moreover, they are easily controlled, ‘‘provide their own atmosphere,’’ and ‘‘are easily remembered by the reader afterwards.’’ Although they exaggerate one major factor at the expense of all others, they have a place in fiction.
The 1910–1912 Post-impressionist exhibits in London taught Forster and his contemporaries that different kinds of mimesis were possible in the same works; Forster is extending that principle to fiction and showing that the equation of ‘‘lifelike’’ and good is simplistic. Post-impressionists intentionally neglect some details, while they distort and exaggerate others. Their abrupt cutting of figures, elimination of traditional perspective, and foreshortening of figures and images influenced the quest of Lawrence, Joyce, Woolf, and Forster to move beyond realism. The concept of volume to describe character may derive from Charles Mauron, to whom Aspects of the Novel is dedicated. But it is also likely that Forster himself had learned from modern painting that objects occupying different places in space could be resolved on the same pictorial plane. It may even be that he has in mind the threedimensionality of sculpture, particularly modern sculpture, which defines objects in relation to the space the work occupies in comparison to the inevitable two-dimensionality of painting.
With its focus on character in the novel in contrast to form, Muir’s The Structure of the Novel was probably the most important of Forster’s immediate offspring. Very much influenced by Forster, Muir has criticized him for depreciating and oversimplifying flat characters. Muir prefers to differentiate between ‘‘pure’’ characters, whom he generally equates with ‘‘flat’’ characters, and ‘‘dramatic developing’’ characters, whom he equates with ‘‘round’’ ones. His case for flat characters depends upon extending the concept to include all characters who remain relatively static: ‘‘All pure characters, formally, are in a sense artificial. They continue to repeat things as if they were true. . . . It is this accumulation of habits, dictated by their natures or imposed by convention, that makes every human being the potential object of humour.’’ Thus, he concludes, ‘‘The co-existensive truth and congruity of its attributes, indeed, makes the flat character no less remarkable as an imaginative creation than the round; it is not less true, it is only different. It shows us the real just underneath the habitual.’’ But Forster had in mind the differing function of characters, not simply their status within the imagined world. His distinction between flat and round characters is still influential because it showed us that the formal world of art functioned on different principles than the world of life. Subsequent critics, including Wayne Booth, Sheldon Sacks, and Northrop Frye, have focused on the rhetorical function of characterization.
Like the other major British modernists, Forster understood that human character is a continually changing flux of experience rather than, as depicted in the traditional realistic novel of manners, relatively fixed and static; consequently, in his novels he sought to dramatize states of mind at crucial moments. His emphasis on character helped to establish the respectability of the view that character (people) in fiction takes precedence over plot. By stressing the primacy of character over plot while rejecting their emphasis on point of view, Forster continued the movement of James and Lubbock away from the traditional stress on plot. The nineteenth century increasingly became more interested in character than plot; climaxing this trend was the interest in obsessions, compulsions, and dimly acknowledged needs and motives in the works of Browning and Hardy, and, indeed, in A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy (1904).
Forster emphasized that novels depend on a complicated and, at times, messy dialogue between ‘‘life in time’’ and ‘‘life by values.’’ It may appear that life by values is part of content or story, but it is clear that its presence in the novel depends upon what Forster calls the author’s ‘‘devices’’ and what subsequent critics call his artistry or technique or discourse. While subsequent critics use different terms, Forster demonstrates that discussion of fiction must deal with the two variables—whether we call them life in time and life by values, life and pattern, content, and form, or story and discourse. (In his Introduction to the English Novel, Arnold Kettle borrows Forster’s term ‘‘pattern’’ to define ‘‘the quality in a book which gives it wholeness and meaning,’’ but his definition is much closer to what Forster means by ‘‘life by values’’ than to what he means by ‘‘pattern’’.)
Forster’s distinction between story and plot is similar to the distinction in recent studies of narrative between story and discourse: ‘‘[Story] is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence . . . [I]t can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.’’ By contrast plot is an aesthetic matter, the basic unit of form. Plot organizes story; it is ‘‘a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. . . . The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.’’ Unlike drama, Forster contends, plots in novels rarely comply with Aristotle’s ‘‘triple process of complication, crises, and solution.’’ He sees plot as a series of circumstances, often arbitrarily selected and arranged, which enables the author to explore the major characters’ personal lives and values: ‘‘In the novel, all human happiness and misery does not take the form of action, it seeks means of expression other than through plot, it must not be rigidly canalized.’’ While Forster accepted the classical notion of an efficient plot, we should note that the terms ‘‘economical’’ and ‘‘organic’’ derive from the James influence: ‘‘[In the plot] every action or word ought to count; it ought to be economical and spare; even when complicated it should be organic and free from dead matter.’’ But the meaning of plot depends on the active participation of a responsive reader: ‘‘[Over the plot] will hover the memory of the reader (that dull glow of the mind of which intelligence is the bright advancing edge) and will constantly rearrange and reconsider, seeing new clues, new chains of cause and effect, and the final sense (if the plot has been a fine one) will not be of clues or chains, but of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful.’’ This is the very kind of active reader that R. S. Crane had in mind in his famous 1952 essay ‘‘The Concept of Plot and the Plot of Tom Jones’’ and upon whom recent theorists depend. Forster conceived of the structure of the novel as a continuous process by which values are presented, tested, preserved, or discarded, rather than the conclusion of a series which clarifies and reorders everything that precedes. He understood that the importance of a linear pattern within the imagined world relates to the temporal experience of reading the novel. He knew that, even if the greatest novels expand infi- nitely as if they were atemporal, ‘‘It is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel.’’ For when one ‘‘emancipate[s] fiction from the tyranny of time . . . it cannot express anything at all’’ because ‘‘the sequence between the sentences’’ is abolished, and then ‘‘the order of the words,’’ until there is no sense. Thus he pointed novel criticism away from James’s spatial conception of form, a concept derived more from James’s understanding of painting, sculpture, and architecture than from Coleridge’s organic form. Forster helped keep alive temporality as a critical concept in the years when discussion of novel form in spatial terms predominated because of the influence of James and later Joseph Frank.
Forster’s insights about endings influenced the work of Alan Friedman’s The Turn of the Novel (1966) and anticipated Kermode’s The Sense of an Ending (1967). Endings, Forster avows in the chapter on plot, are inherently defective: ‘‘Nearly all novels are feeble at the end. This is because the plot requires to be wound up.’’ According to Forster, death and love are ordering principles that end novels neatly but not in accordance with our own experience of life. The ending should be a part of a process, the last section chronologically in the narrative, but not a completion or a summary because, until death, life is a continuing process. We let authors urge us into thinking love is permanent, even though in reality we know the future would disconfirm this. Because, in his view, life is always open, problematic, and unresolved, Forster’s own novels end on a deliberately inconclusive and ambiguous note. Characteristically, his ending does not resolve the social and moral problems dramatized by the plot. Rather it is another in a series of episodes in which man’s limitations are exposed, rather than an apocalyptic climactic episode which resolves prior problems. As we shall see, in the following section on ‘‘rhythm,’’ he speaks of the possibility of novels, like symphony music, expanding and opening out for their audience; but he is speaking of the resonance of a work upon its audience after its reading is completed.
As Aspects progresses, Forster moves further away from the doctrine of nineteenth-century realism that novels must be imitations of life and begins to introduce categories that his classically trained lecture audience would have found innovative and exciting, if at times provocatively idiosyncratic, whimsical, and even bizarre. By introducing these categories and by refusing to restrict himself to what can be seen and analyzed within a novel, Forster reintroduced an imaginative and creative strain to criticism that Lubbock’s more positivistic approach had denied. Such a strain was a dominant force in Pater, Wilde, and, at times, James.
Following the chapter on plot, Forster turns to fantasy. Forster’s ‘‘fantasy’’ includes the kinds of extraordinary events that James called ‘‘romance,’’ but it also includes very different kinds of speculative, tonal, and stylistic departures from realism. Fantasy asks the reader to ‘‘accept certain things’’ that are unnatural. Fantasy ‘‘implies the supernatural, but need not express it;’’ like prophecy, it has a ‘‘sense of mythology.’’ According to Forster, the devices of a writer of fantasy include ‘‘the introduction of a god, ghost, angel, monkey, monster, midget, witch into ordinary life; or the introduction of ordinary men into no man’s land, the future, the past, the interior of the earth, the fourth dimension; or divings into and dividings of personality; or finally the device of parody or adaptation.’’ As a parody of Pamela, Fielding’s Joseph Andrews is an example of the last kind. Inspired by both ‘‘an already existing book’’ and a ‘‘literary tradition.’’ Ulysses is also a fantasy that depends on parody and adaptation.
If fantasy takes us to a linear world of diversity, difference, and idiosyncrasy, prophecy takes us to a vertical dimension where this world is a shadow of a more intense world. The truth of prophecy is the truth of vision. Thus in the subsequent chapter entitled ‘‘Prophecy,’’ Forster asks us to put aside our logic and reason and look elsewhere for insight and knowledge of the human plight. He wants the novel to move beyond local nominalistic insights toward unity and toward truth beyond itself. Stone aptly describes Forster’s concept of prophecy as ‘‘the seeing of the visible world as the living garment of God, the miracle of natural supernatural ism.’’ When novels expand temporally and spatially, they displace the reader’s awareness of the world in which he lives and give him a spiritual experience. Such experience is cognate to the moment when all will be one, except here the signified is not Christ but a sense of wholeness that derives from awareness of man’s common plight and common psychological past.
Thus the theme of the chapter ‘‘Prophecy’’ is ‘‘the universe, or something universal.’’ Prophecy ‘‘is a tone of voice’’; ‘‘What matters is the accent of [the prophet’s] voice, his song.’’ Forster’s examples are Lawrence, Dostoevsky, Melville, and Emily Brontë. The prophetic impulse demands from the reader ‘‘humility and the suspension of the sense of humour.’’ While George Eliot is a preacher, Dostoevsky is a prophet:
[Mitya] is the prophetic vision, and the novelist’s creation also. . . . The extension, the melting, the unity though love and pity occur in a region which can only be implied and to which fiction is perhaps the wrong approach. . . . Mitya is a round character, but he is capable of extension. He does not conceal anything (mysticism), he does not mean anything (symbolism), he is merely Dmitri Karamazov, but to be merely a person in Dostoevsky is to join up with all the other people far back.
The prophetic dimension cannot be pinned down in particular sentences or patterns of language: ‘‘The essential in Moby Dick, its prophetic song, flows athwart the action and the surface morality like an undercurrent. It lies outside words.’’ But how, one might ask, can we agree on the presence of prophecy? Forster might respond that it is the truth that passes understanding, our epiphanic realization that transcends any single moment of narrative.
Chapter 8 is entitled ‘‘Pattern and Rhythm,’’ terms which are borrowed respectively from painting and from music. First, Forster discusses pattern: ‘‘Whereas the story appeals to our curiosity and the plot to our intelligence, the pattern appeals to our aesthetic sense. It causes us to see the book as a whole.’’ He dismisses as jargon the notion that we see a book as a physical shape: ‘‘Pattern is an aesthetic aspect of the novel, and . . . though it may be nourished by anything in the novel—any character, scene, word—it draws most of its nourishment from the plot.’’ Although Stallybrass thinks Forster is merely paying homage to a friend when he mentions Lubbock’s novels, Forster is making a critical point by using a novel by Lubbock to illustrate pattern and by praising it for qualities quite remote from point of view. Pattern is whatever in plot is beautiful: ‘‘Beauty is sometimes the shape of the book, the book as a whole, the unity.’’ Not only is James discussed in the section on pattern rather than in the brief section on point of view within the second ‘‘People’’ chapter, but Strether’s role as an observer, as ‘‘a rather too first-rate oculist’’ is facetiously noted. Forster indicts James for giving preference to pattern over life: ‘‘[Rigid pattern] may externalize the atmosphere, spring naturally from the plot, but it shuts the doors on life and leaves the novelist doing exercises, generally in the drawingroom. . . . To most readers of fiction the sensation from a pattern is not intense enough to justify the sacrifices that made it.’’ Writing of Forster’s concern with pattern and rhythm, Edwin Muir, his contemporary and admirer, made a trenchant remark that accurately establishes Forster’s link to the James tradition, notwithstanding Forster’s effort to separate himself from James’s aesthetic: ‘‘We do not really believe that a novel has a pattern like a carpet or a rhythm like a tune. . . . James is the father of most of those question-begging terms; he was an incurable impressionist; and he has infected criticism with his vocabulary of hints and nods.’’
Rhythm is the relation between ‘‘movements.’’ Rhythm is a linear version of organic form, for it provides the concept of internal harmony for the temporal process of reading, whereas pattern seems to define internal harmony in more traditional formal and somewhat spatial terms borrowed from painting and sculpture. According to Forster, the function of rhythm in fiction is ‘‘not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope. . . . It has to depend on a local impulse when the right interval is reached. But the effect can be exquisite, it can be obtained without mutilating the characters, and it lessens our need of an external form. Of course, rhythm forms a pattern too, but a temporal one, not a spatial one. Perhaps Forster should have differentiated between ‘‘spatial pattern’’ and ‘‘rhythmic pattern’’—recurrence within a temporal framework which is both ineffable and everchanging; the latter is a dynamic concept that adjusts continually to the experience of reading and probably owes something to the substantial influence in the 1920s of Gestalt psychology, which sees human events as dynamic patterns that constantly move and shift into new fields of perception. He finds rhythm in ‘‘the easy sense’’ in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past: ‘‘The book is chaotic, ill-constructed, it has and will have no external shape; and yet it hangs together because it is stitched internally, because it contains rhythms.’’ E. K. Brown’s influential Rhythm in the Novel (1950) derives directly from this discussion, but it also anticipates the kind of order that Hillis Miller discusses in his recent Fiction and Repetition and that Gerard Genette speaks of in Narrative Discourse (1980), a book whose focus is Remembrance of Things Past and which cites Forster with approval.
He then turns to a more sophisticated and elusive kind of rhythm, which he finds only in War and Peace:
Music, though it does not employ human beings, though it is governed by intricate laws, nevertheless does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way. Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. . . . As we read [War and Peace] do not great chords begin to sound behind us, and when we have finished does not every item—even the catalogue of strategies— lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?
In his novels and in Aspects of the Novel, Forster is trying to create this ‘‘expansion’’ for his audience, in part by trying to reach back to the sources of man’s humanity. But isn’t this passage extremely impressionistic? Do we know from this why War and Peace achieves its greatness? Aren’t we being simply asked to endorse Forster’s responses? Indeed as Aspects progresses, the argument becomes weaker and weaker and depends, beginning with the chapter ‘‘Fantasy,’’ more on assertion and apt turns of phrase. It is as if he wishes the book to conclude with a prolonged lyric about the novel’s potential to move its readers. Yet in the passage, does he not seek to join with those—Pater, Wilde, and usually Woolf—who see art as greater and more important than life and to participate in Yeats’s urgent wish in ‘‘Sailing to Byzantium,’’ to be a golden bird ‘‘to sing / To lords and ladies of Byzantium / Of what is past, or passing, or to come?’’
The discussion of prophecy and rhythm (and, to a lesser extent, fantasy and pattern) is part of an effort to define something inexplicable, something spiritual and unseen, which might be an antidote to his own discovery and dramatization of evil in the Marabar caves in A Passage to India. Forster yearned for something beyond the pedestrian, disorganized, and sometimes banal stuff of novels. When he speaks of reaching back and ‘‘expansion,’’ we must not forget the influence of Freud, Frazer, and Jung. The Golden Bough (1890) had extended the range of the past beyond biblical time and even beyond historical time; later, Jung’s emphasis on archetypes stressed that all cultures share common anthropological experience and psychological traits. And Forster believed that, despite differences in breeding, customs, and values, a common heritage united mankind. Aspects, like A passage to India, written only a few years before, is a quest for something beyond the diurnal life. But his tragedy was finally that he could not believe, with Stevens in ‘‘An Ordinary Evening in New Haven,’’ that ‘‘the words of the world are the life of the world.’’ At times Forster regretfully concedes that creating and perceiving art cannot compensate for the frustrations and anxieties of daily life, and that concession may be why he stopped writing novels.
Before closing we should acknowledge what now seem as shortcomings of Aspects of the Novel. The book does not discuss precisely the means by which life is transformed into art and would benefit from separate chapters on form and narrative technique and more detailed discussion of style, the reader’s role, and setting. Sometimes Forster provides us with little more than an impressionistic, gustatory statement of like and dislike. But lyricism is not the same as argument, and his credo that ‘‘the final test of a novel will be our affection for it’’ is a bit tautological. At times, his generalizations need more precise evidence and tauter supporting argument. Clearly, he is ambivalent about the critical enterprise and worried that it is too scientific, even mechanistic. For this reason, he speaks of holding up ‘‘story’’ with a ‘‘forceps’’ (as if it were a part of Tristram Shandy’s anatomy.) Even if we attribute the lack of sustained analyses to the limitations of length imposed by the original lecture format, we have to admit that his own ratings of prior English novelists are at times quirky and reductive. For example, Scott, who has ‘‘a trivial mind and a heavy style,’’ is a writer for a time when our brains ‘‘decay’’; but ‘‘he could tell a story. He had the primitive power of keeping the reader in suspense and playing on his curiosity.’’
In the face of the bold and experimental, Forster’s fastidious and conservative temper, which prefers order, proportion, clarity, and precision, sometimes leads him astray. Although he praises Lawrence for his ‘‘rapt bardic quality,’’ he completely misunderstands Ulysses, of which he writes, ‘‘the aim . . . is to degrade all things and more particularly civilization and art, by turning them inside out and upside down.’’ At times, he suppresses his prophetic strain and sees himself as a custodian of humanistic (some might facetiously say bourgeoise) principles in the face of challenges from the avant-garde.
Yet, while a contemporary reader, accustomed to either the critical nominalism of the New Criticism of the theorizing of recent European criticism, might find it at times lacking in rigor, Aspects of the Novel remains one of our seminal texts of novel criticism. We value it because Forster speaks to us not only as a major novelist and an incisive critic, but also as a reader who is concerned with how aspects of the novel relate to aspects of our lives.
Source: Daniel R. Schwarz, ‘‘The Importance of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel,’’ in South Atlantic Quarterly, Vol. 82, No. 2, Spring 1983, pp. 189–205.
Life and Times
Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4079
The invitation to give the Clark Lectures at Cambridge in 1927 was a tribute to Forster’s distinction as a novelist and his perception as a critic; moreover, it re-established his connection with Cambridge that was to remain close until his death in 1970. After he lost his house on his mother’s death in 1945, King’s College elected him an Honorary Fellow and later provided him with rooms in College. For the Clark Lectures in 1927, he chose as his topic the Novel; and when the lectures were published he gave them the title, Aspects of the Novel, a modest title totally in keeping with the personality of the lecturer and his general tone and approach. In view of Forster’s frequent disclaimers to scholarship (he ‘was not a scholar and refused to be a pseudo-scholar’, said Virginia Woolf), it is worth considering what qualifications he did actually possess. He had knowledge of the novel from the inside, having written five novels, the last—A Passage to India—recognized as a masterpiece as soon as it appeared in 1924. He had an extensive knowledge of English, American, and European fiction. As a frequent book-reviewer, he had learnt to seize on essentials in any work, to be sensitive to nuances of meaning and style, to summarize imaginatively, to select quotations aptly, and to develop an attractive and flexible prose style for communicating his acute insights to a wide public. Moreover, he was already an accomplished lecturer and reader of scholarly papers, although not a professional academic. He had lectured on a variety of literary topics to the Weybridge Literary Society, including ‘Literature and the War’; he had addressed the Working Men’s College ‘On Pessimism in Modern Literature’ and other subjects; he had given talks on literary topics to students in India. As the result of this very mixed experience, he had developed his own informal method of speaking about literature and saw no particular reason to change it for his Cambridge audience. This included A. E. Housman, who, much to Forster’s disappointment, came to only two lectures, put off perhaps by the lecturer’s informality and self-confessedly ‘ramshackly course’ of lectures. ‘Housman came to two & I called on him on the strength of this, but he took no notice.’
Forster’s approach to the novel was deliberately anti-historical, in marked contrast to his essay on the ‘Novelists of the Eighteenth Century and their Influence on Those of the Nineteenth’, submitted for an undergraduate prize in October 1899. When he came to give the Clark Lectures he knew that he lacked the range of knowledge and the ‘rare gifts’ necessary for ‘genuine scholarship’. Despising the cataloguing and classifying absurdities of ‘pseudo-scholarship’, he therefore decided to abandon the historical approach altogether and to imagine all the great novelists of the world writing their masterpieces under the dome of the central reading room of the British Museum. A charming and whimsical fancy that does enable Forster to ‘exorcise’ the ‘demon of chronology’ and to concentrate on the novelist’s common task of finding in art a mirror for reality—a common task because, unlike History which develops, ‘Art stands still.’
Forster begins by presenting his audience with two passages of introspection, two funeral scenes, and two passages of fantasy about the muddle of life: the first pair are by Richardson and James; the second pair by Wells and Dickens; and the third by Virginia Woolf and Sterne. Forster deliberately withholds the names of the authors to bring out the idea that similarity of vision transcends chronology, yet any well-trained undergraduate today would have little difficulty in showing how deeply the language and sensibility of each passage is rooted in its historic period, and could indeed have been written at no other time. Any connection that the use of unseen passages, the withholding of authorship and the anti-historicism, suggests with the new Cambridge school of ‘practical criticism’ of the 1920s is utterly misleading. Indeed, Forster’s neglect of close linguistic texture (‘almost nothing is said about words’, complained Virginia Woolf) and his neglect of social context, seriously limit his critical perspire. Of this, Forster was partly aware, regretting that his chosen method ruled out the discussion of literary tradition, especially as this affects a novelist’s technique. Reference to tradition, he believed, could show that Virginia Woolf ‘belonged to the same tradition’ as Sterne, ‘but to a later phase of it’. This is indeed a rather special conception of literary tradition. What Forster does not sufficiently appreciate is that the actual material of fiction and the consciousness of the artist are at least in part historically conditioned. It is illuminating to compare his remarks on Richardson with those of Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel or with those of any other modern critic sensitive to the fact that the moral and social values embodied in a novel reflect the unique interaction of individual sensibility and the temper of an age.
Having—as it were—set his scene in the British Museum and having adopted a French critic’s convenient definition of a novel as ‘a fiction in prose of a certain extent’, Forster focuses on seven formal properties of the novel. These he calls ‘Aspects’. They are: ‘The Story’, ‘People’, ‘The Plot’, ‘Fantasy’, ‘Prophecy’, ‘Pattern’, and ‘hythm’. This chatty updated Aristotelian approach gives the discussion an air of completeness while allowing Forster to speak about what happens to interest him most. The chosen framework might suggest an exclusive concern with form and technique, a concern shared by such novelists as James, Conrad, and Ford Madox Ford, exemplified also in Percy Lubbock’s The Craft of Fiction. But, in fact, Forster avoids a strictly formalist approach; he maintains a pleasant balance between questions relating to technique and questions relating to truth and reality. At the beginning of the lecture on ‘Fantasy’, he indicates the principle that determines this balance; in the novel itself and in his own approach.
The idea running through these lectures is by now plain enough: that there are in the novel two forces: human beings and a bundle of various things not human beings, and that it is the novelist’s business to adjust these two forces and conciliate their claims.
Ultimately, however, Forster’s supreme test is truth to life, an old-fashioned test certainly, but one that is susceptible of considerable refinement in application. But it did not satisfy Virginia Woolf, a close friend and admirer, who asked ‘What is this ‘‘Life’’ that keeps on cropping up so mysteriously and so complacently in books about fiction?’. Here she was not only continuing the battle against the Edwardian realists, begun in Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, and originally provoked by Bennett’s claim that she had failed to create character or reality in Jacob’s Room, but also remembering Forster’s remarks about characters and life in his 1925 essay on her early fiction. ‘Why’, she asks pertinently of Forster, is reality ‘absent in a pattern and present in a tea party?’ From this it may be seen that, in spite of the chapter headings drawing attention to the formal properties of the novel, Virginia Woolf regarded Aspects of the Novel as typical of the ‘unaesthetical’ attitude that prevailed in English fiction and which would ‘be thought strange in any of the other arts’. To understand her responses here we need to remember her admiration for the contribution made by Henry James and Turgenev to the ‘art of the novel’ and also her inordinate pride in Bloomsbury aesthetics. Bloomsbury, she believed, was a society ‘alive as Cambridge had never been to the importance of the arts’. By contrast, Forster was altogether more sceptical towards Bloomsbury aesthetics and the art of the novel. ‘This vague truth about life. Exactly. But what of the talk about art?’, he asked Virginia Woolf in a letter. ‘Each section leads to an exquisitely fashioned casket of which the key has unfortunately been mislaid and until you can find your bunch I shall cease to hunt very anxiously for my own’. Many years later he summed up his own sceptical pragmatic approach:
The novel, in my view, has not any rules, and there is no such thing as the art of fiction. There is only the particular art that each novelist employs in the execution of his particular book.
The chief interest of the first chapter of Aspects is that it brings out Forster’s comparative lack of interest in narrative: ‘Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story.’ And yet, of course, Forster is himself a brilliant story-teller. But depreciation of this element leads him to reduce Scott’s stature to that of a mere entertainer. ‘He could tell a story. He had the primitive power of keeping the reader in suspense and playing on his curiosity.’ If that summed up the whole of Scott he would certainly not enjoy the acclaim he enjoys today. That Forster allots two chapters to ‘People’ is an accurate indication of the importance he attributes to character in fiction. In the first chapter on People he breaks new ground by drawing attention to how little of our lives actually gets into fiction. The five main facts of life (birth, food, sleep, love, and death) appear selectively or hardly at all. The brief impressionistic notes on this topic prove that Forster’s view of life was not the simple one ascribed to him by Virginia Woolf; they are products of a mind that has brooded long over the contrast between ‘Art’ and ‘Life’, that has seen that the novelist’s function is ‘to reveal the hidden life at its source’. Indeed Forster had recognized as clearly as Virginia Woolf or James Joyce that, by modifications of convention and technique, much more might be achieved to render our experience vivid as we ‘move between two darknesses’, birth and death. Forster returns to the same ‘unavoidable termini’, at the end of the essay, ‘What I Believe’: ‘The memory of birth and the expectation of death always lurk within the human being, making him separate from his fellows and consequently capable of intercourse with them.’
In the second of the chapters on ‘People’, Forster draws a distinction between ‘flat’ and ‘round’ characters. By the first he means Jonsonian, ‘humours’ characters, ‘constructed round a single idea or quality’, like Mrs Micawber, for example, with her repeated ‘I never will desert Mr Micawber.’ These have the advantages that they are easily recognized and easily remembered. By the second, ‘round’ characters, he means characters that are so fully developed that we can imagine how they would behave in circumstances not actually presented in the novel (this is not quite the Bradley, ‘How Many Children had Lady Macbeth?’ approach applied to the novel). ‘Round’ characters also have the ‘capacity of surprising us in a convincing way’. This distinction has caught on and become part of the language of twentieth-century criticism. But it lacks precision, is less illuminating than the distinction between ‘life on the page’ and ‘life eternal’ made in the Rede lecture on Virginia Woolf, and can at best be regarded as a convenient piece of critical shorthand. In Aspects, ‘flat’ and ‘round’ are sometimes used as neutral terms to describe differences in technique and sometimes as evaluative terms to award praise or blame. In the first case it is Forster the fellow-novelist speaking, in the second it is Forster the critic. Here is one place where the two do not quite coincide.
It is true that in literary criticism, as opposed to science, definitions can never be more than a rough and ready convenience to facilitate communication. Most readers of Aspects probably respond gratefully to the simplicity of Forster’s definition of ‘Plot’ as distinct from ‘Story’. ‘The king died and then the queen died’ is a story; but ‘The king died, and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time sequence is preserved, Forster remarks, but ‘the sense of causality overshadows it.’ Beautifully simple. Yet the distinction leads ultimately to curious results. It leads, for example, to a further definition of the plot as ‘the novel in its logical intellectual aspect’. But what about the aesthetic patterning function of plot? Forster has little to say about this under the heading of ‘Plot’. The reason is that he wants later to make a clear distinction between ‘Pattern’ (something mechanical and external that determines the shape of Anatole France’s Thaïs and James’s The Ambassadors), and ‘Rhythm’ (something organic and internal, as in Proust, a process of ‘repetition plus variation’, and ‘internal stitching’). Again, the definition of ‘Fantasy’ as a form of fiction that ‘asks us to pay something extra’, is too fanciful itself to take us very far, and the choice of Norman Matson’s Flecker’s Magic as a major exhibit marks a disastrous victory of fashion over sound judgment. It is in the sections on ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Rhythm’ that Forster rises to the height of his powers as a critic, combining lucid definitions with beautifully chosen examples. Here his sympathies were fully engaged and he was writing with half an eye on his own work, especially in developing his ideas on ‘Rhythm’. The result is criticism of the very highest order. Three examples must suffice. The first comes from his account of Proust’s use of rhythm
. . . what we must admire is his use of rhythm in literature, and his use of something which is akin by nature to the effect it has to produce—namely a musical phrase. Heard by various people—first by Swann, then by the hero—the phrase of Vinteuil is not tethered: it is not a banner suck as we find George Meredith using—a double-blossomed cherry tree to accompany Clara Middleton, a yacht in smooth waters for Cecilia Halkett. A banner can only reappear, rhythm can develop, and the little phrase has a life of its own, unconnected with the lives of its auditors, as with the life of the man who composed it. It is almost an actor, but not quite, and that ‘not quite’ means that its power has gone towards stitching Proust’s book together from the inside, and towards the establishment of beauty and the ravishing of the reader’s memory. There are times when the little phrase-from its gloomy inception, through the sonata, into the sextet-means everything to the reader. There are times when it means nothing and is forgotten, and this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction; not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope.
The second comes from his discussion of the ‘prophetic’ in Dostoevsky.
Dostoevsky’s characters ask us to share something deeper than their experiences. They convey to us a sensation that is partly physical—the sensation of sinking into a translucent globe and seeing our experience floating far above us on its surface, tiny, remote, yet ours. We have not ceased to be people, we have given nothing up, but ‘the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea.’
The third example comes from his discussion of Melville. Here he points out the importance of evil in Melville’s moral vision and its relative absence in English fiction, a theme brilliantly developed by Angus Wilson many years later in a series of unscripted radio talks.
It is to his conception of evil that Melville’s work owes much of its strength. As a rule evil has been feebly envisaged in fiction, which seldom soars above misconduct or avoids the clouds of mysteriousness. Evil to most novelists is either sexual and social, or something very vague for which a special style with implications of poetry is thought suitable.
Aspects of the Novel has survived remarkably well and continues to be read when more scholarly discourses on the novel gather dust on the shelves. The reasons are not difficult to discover. It is alive on every page; it communicates the author’s own enthusiasms; it whets the reader’s appetite through apt quotations and skilful commentary, while never doing the reader’s work for him, the usual fault of popular literary handbooks. It is genuinely popular without being vulgar. In the simplest possible manner it throws new light on old problems, and it contains original insights into the art of many major novelists, especially Emily Brontë, Melville, Dostoevsky, and D. H. Lawrence. His discriminating praise of two novelists as unlike each other as Jane Austen and Herman Melville illustrates the range of his imaginative sympathies; it also reminds us of his own extraordinary feat in assimilating characteristic features of both into his own art. The pages on Melville repay the closest attention. Here was a writer, Forster realized, who had ‘not got that tiresome little receptacle, a conscience’, who was therefore able—unlike Hawthorne, or say, Mark Rutherford—to reach ‘straight back into the universal, to a blackness and sadness so transcending our own that they are indistinguishable from glory’. Is this not what Forster achieves in A Passage to India and in flashes in The Longest Journey? His continued admiration for Melville appears in his adaptation with Eric Crozier of Melville’s short story Billy Budd, ‘a remote unearthly episode’, as a libretto for an opera by his friend and admirer Benjamin Britten. All three lived in the same house for a month; Forster and Crozier worked from a ‘kind of skeleton synopsis’, trying all the time to make the words flower into lyricism. ‘I felt quite differently to what I have felt while writing other things,’ remarked Forster, ‘completely different. I was on a kind of voyage.’ The idea of ‘song’ and a voyage into the unknown are the essential features of Forster’s conception of Prophecy.
Aspects of the Novel is not without its faults. Forster brought to his task a mixed bag of likes and dislikes, of discriminating preferences and odd blind spots. His judgment of some major writers is consequently somewhat erratic. He is unfair to Scott, sees only the preacher in George Eliot, finds it difficult to be just to Meredith, his youthful idol, and he uses Henry James almost exclusively as an example of the sacrifice of ‘Life’ to ‘Art’, quoting Wells’s brilliant but malicious account of the high altar of James’s art (‘and on the altar, very reverently placed, intensely there, is a dead kitten, an egg shell, a piece of string’), declaring that ‘most of human life has to disappear’ before James can do us a novel. Yet, notes for the lecture series in his Commonplace Book reveal a sympathetic insight into James’s difficulties as a novelist—were they not his own? In these rough notes he considers evil in the English novel and claimants to ‘Satanic intimacy’, glances briefly at the ‘Pan School’, petering out in Hichens and E. F. Benson, and remarks perceptively that in The Turn of the Screw, Henry James ‘is merely declining to think about homosex, and the knowledge that he is declining throws him into the necessary fluster.’ It was a pity Forster’s personal censor intervened before he actually gave the lectures, since this insight into James’s creative psychology was startlingly original at the time.
There are two further weaknesses in Aspects of the Novel. Few of the definitions or distinctions, although they have passed into the language of criticism, will stand up to rigorous scrutiny. And ultimately the whole book throws as much light on Forster’s own fiction as it does on the Art of the Novel, a point amply demonstrated by James McConkey in his application of the seven different ‘Aspects’ to Forster’s own novels. Yet, with all its obvious limitations and weaknesses, it is a book one finds oneself returning to again and again and always with a sense of new discovery and fresh insight into some major novelist. This capacity to surprise and delight is the combined product of individual taste, personal integrity, and the inveterate habit of looking at life and art from unexpected angles. It is also the product of the crisp sensitive prose style. At a time when extravagant claims were being made in Cambridge for systematic and scientific criticism, Aspects of the Novel struck a minor blow for the more personal, informal approach.
Forster’s earliest writings reveal his gift for recreating the lives of neglected characters from the past. He is obviously attracted to minor figures caught up in major events, to genuine seekers after truth however muddled, to interesting failures rather than to dull successes, to those who have left behind them at least one work that still lives or can be brought to life again. The two essays, ‘Gemistus Pletho’ and ‘Cardan’, both published in the Independent Review in 1905, illustrate Forster’s youthful skill in combining history and biography in a highly entertaining fashion; they also foreshadow his later success in raising the biography of the obscure into a fine art, as in Marianne Thornton (1956), and, to a lesser extent, in Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson (1934), although perhaps Dickinson could not be labelled ‘obscure’ in 1934, since, by then, he had become well known through his work for the League of Nations and through broadcasting.
The essay on Georgius Gemistus recounts the story of this little-known philosopher who was born at Constantinople in 1355 and who spent his life in Greece, but for one important visit to Italy when he helped to found the Neo-Platonic Academy in Florence. What attracts Forster to Gemistus and Cardan, an obscure scientist, is the strange but very human gap between their dreams of truth and the absurd form these dreams often take. Thus, writing of Gemistus’ ideal of reviving the religion of Greece by invoking the names of the Greek gods, Forster writes:
These names had for him a mysterious virtue: he attached them like labels to his uninspiring scheme, while he rejected all that makes the gods immortal— their radiant visible beauty, their wonderful adventures, their capacity for happiness and laughter. That was as much as his dim, troubled surrounding allowed to him. If he is absurd, it is in a very touching way; his dream of antiquity is grotesque and incongruous, but it has a dream’s intensity, and something of a dream’s imperishable value.
This was written when Forster himself was seeking to recapture the ‘radiant visible beauty’ of classical mythology, in his short stories and early novels. Throughout these two biographical vignettes, ‘Gemistus Pletho’ and ‘Cardan’, there is a delicate balance between sympathy and ironic detachment; a compassionate recognition, too, of the extent to which human beings are limited by their historical environment, by their ‘troubled surroundings’. It is the quality of Forster’s imaginative sympathy for human weakness and oddity and his refusal to extract easy laughter from the absurdities of the past that chiefly distinguish his biographical essays from those of Strachey. In this he is at one with Virginia Woolf in her biographical essays in The Common Reader. The ending of his account of the eccentric sixteenth-century Italian scientist, Cardan, brings out the essential difference between Forster’s and Strachey’s approach to biography.
To raise up a skeleton, and make it dance, brings indeed little credit either to the skeleton or to us. But those ghosts who are still clothed with passion or thought are profitable companions. If we are to remember Cardan today let us not remember him as an oddity.
It is as an oddity that Dr Arnold appears, with his too short legs, in Strachey’s brief biography, it is as an obsequious oddity that the poet Clough appears in his life of Florence Nightingale. What Forster looked for in biography and the study of the past were ‘profitable companions’ and not objects of ridicule or ironic contempt. In later years he certainly recognized that Strachey was ‘much more than a debunker’, that he did ‘what no biographer had done before him: he managed to get inside his subject’. By comparison Forster’s is a smaller achievement. He was not strongly drawn to biography as a literary form, and he made no startling innovations in technique; but he did write two fine biographies that reveal as much of their author as of their subject.
Source: John Colmer, ‘‘Life and Times,’’ in E. M. Forster: The Personal Voice, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1975, pp. 174–83.