Aspects of the Novel Themes
by E. M. Forster

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Aspects of the Novel Themes

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Literary Critic
Throughout his lecture series, Forster includes commentary on the role he plays as a literary critic in relation to literature. He makes observations about his methodology as a critic, occasionally refers to the assertions of other critics, and sometimes questions the validity of the critic in the world of literature. In his introduction, Forster dismisses, for the purposes of his discussion, standard methods in literary criticism based in the tracing of historical development and the influence of earlier writers on those who come after them. Likewise, Forster mentions the notion of tradition put forth by T. S. Eliot, who asserted that it is the task of the critic to preserve the best of literary tradition. Forster immediately dismisses this as an impossible task. He does, however, agree with Eliot that the critic is required to see literature in its entirety and not as it may be determined by the constraints of a historical timeline. Throughout the book, Forster occasionally cites other literary critics, often in order to present a counterargument. He also continues to question the relationship of the critic to literature when he observes that perhaps his lectures have moved away from literature itself, in the pursuit of abstract theorizing about literature. Ultimately, however, Forster asserts that the most important measure by which literature ought to be judged is that of the ‘‘human heart,’’ concluding that the most important ‘‘test’’ of a novel is ‘‘our affection for it.’’

Forster’s series of lectures on the novel are concerned not just with analysis of the novel itself but with what he deems the requirements the novel demands of the reader. He asserts that the appreciation of plot requires of the reader both intelligence and memory. He explains that, while curiosity may be what leads the reader to take an interest in the story, it is, in itself, a rather basic and uninteresting trait in a reader. In order to grasp the plot, however, the reader must first possess intelligence. He observes that, though curiosity is the quality that allows the reader to take an interest in individual pieces of information, intelligence makes it possible for the reader to appreciate the aura of mystery embedded in plot, allowing her or him to contemplate the relationships between pieces of information. He further notes that the reader requires memory in order to recall the relationship of information provided earlier in a novel to that which comes later; it is therefore the responsibility of the writer to satisfy the reader’s memory by making sure each piece of information contributes to the whole. Forster further claims that the element of prophecy requires both humility and the ‘‘suspension of a sense of humor.’’ He explains that humility is required of the reader in order to hear the voice of the prophetic in the novel and that ‘‘suspension of a sense of humor’’ is required in order to avoid the temptation to ridicule the universal, or spiritual, element that makes it great. In describing his requirements for the great novel, Forster thus makes clear his definition of the appropriate reader of great literature.

(The entire section is 811 words.)