All of Forster’s best-known and most anthologized stories appeared first in two collections, The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment. The words “celestial” and “eternal” are especially significant because a typical E. M. Forster story features a protagonist who is allowed a vision of a better life, sometimes momentarily only. Qualifications for experiencing this epiphany include a questioning mind, an active imagination, and a dissatisfaction with conventional attitudes. The transformation resulting from the experience comes about through some kind of magic that transports him through time—backward or forward—or through space—to Mt. Olympus or to heaven. Whether or not his life is permanently changed, the transformed character can never be the same again after a glimpse of the Elysian Fields, and he is henceforth suspect to contemporary mortals.
Forster termed his short stories “fantasies,” and when the discerning reader can determine the point at which the real and the fantastic intersect, he will locate the epiphany, at the same time flexing his own underused imaginative muscles. Perhaps “The Machine Stops,” a science-fiction tale about a world managed by a computer-like Machine that warns men to “beware of first-hand ideas,” was at the time of its writing (1909) the most fantastic of Forster’s short fiction, but its portrayal of radio, television, and telephones with simultaneous vision seems to have been simply farsighted.
Forster frequently uses a narrator who is so insensitive that he ironically enhances the perception of the reader. In “Other Kingdom,” for example, when Mr. Inskip finds it “right” to repeat Miss Beaumont’s conversation about a “great dream” to his employer, the reader correctly places the tutor on the side of unimaginative human, rather than in the lineup of Dryads to which the young lady will repair. When the narrator of “The Story of a Panic” boasts that he “can tell a story without exaggerating” and then unfolds a tale about a boy who obviously is visited by Pan and who finally bounds away to join the goat-god, the reader knows that he must himself inform the gaps of information. When the same narrator attributes the death of the waiter Gennaro to the fact that “the miserable Italians have no stamina. Something had gone wrong inside him,” the reader observes the disparity between the two statements and rightly concludes that Gennaro’s death has a supernatural cause—that he had been subjected to the same “panic” as had Eustace, and that only the latter had passed the test.
In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster suggests that fiction will play a part in the ultimate success of civilization through promotion of human sympathy, reconciliation, and understanding. In each of the short stories the protagonist gets a finger-hold on the universal secret, but he sometimes loses his grip, usually through the action of someone too blind, materialistic, or enslaved by time to comprehend the significance of the moment.
If, as Forster himself declares, the emphasis of plot lies in causality, he allows the reader an important participation, because the causes of transformation are never explicit, and the more mundane characters are so little changed by the miraculous events taking place around them that they are not puzzled or even aware that they occur.
“The Eternal Moment”
In “The Eternal Moment,” the stiffly insensitive Colonel Leyland, Miss Raby’s friend and traveling companion, is just such a character. While Miss Raby is determined to accept the responsibility for the commercialization of the mountain resort Vorta engendered by her novel, Colonel Leyland can understand her feelings no more readily than can Feo, the uneducated waiter who is the immediate object of Miss Raby’s search. While Miss Raby ostensibly has returned to the village to see how it has been affected by tourism since she made it famous, she also is drawn to the spot because it was the scene of the one romantic, although brief, interlude of her life. For twenty years she has recalled a declaration of passionate love for her by a young Italian guide whose advances she had rejected. This memory has sustained her because of its reality and beauty. She finds the once rustic village overgrown with luxury hotels, in one of which Feo, her dream-lover, is the stout, greasy, middle-aged, hypocritical concierge. Miss Raby, whose instincts have warned her that the progress...
(The entire section is 1849 words.)