Aspects of the Novel

by E. M. Forster

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 811

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 Universal
In his discussion of prophecy, Forster touches upon the element of the universal as the most profound aspect of the novel. The universal, as Forster uses it, could also be thought of as the spiritual, in the broadest sense of the term, although not necessarily in relation to a specific creed or religion. Forster explains that the universal in a novel may refer to specific religions or spiritual practices, or it may refer to profound human emotions such as love and hate. He notes that the element of the universal in a novel may be indicated directly, or it may be implied through subtle, indirect means. In order to illustrate what he means by the prophetic, Forster compares passages from George Eliot’s Adam Bede and Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov. He observes that, though both authors are from a Christian background and both wish to express the idea of salvation as inspired in the sinner by love and pity, Eliot’s direct reference to Christianity comes off as a heavy-handed sermon, whereas Dostoevsky’s subtle and indirect reference to Christian spirituality succeeds in being prophetic. Forster goes on to observe that, though Eliot is sincere in her invocation of the spiritual, her references to Christianity remain in the realm of realism and fail to inspire in the reader a sensation of the spiritual. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, though also a master of realism, imbues his characters with the spirit of the infinite, or universal, so that, ‘‘one can apply to them the saying of St. Catherine of Siena that God is in the soul and the soul is in God as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea.’’

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