E. M. Forster

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E. M. Forster Long Fiction Analysis

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

E. M. Forster’s most systematicexposition of the novelist’s art, Aspects of the Novel, is no key to his own practice. Written three years after the publication of A Passage to India, the work surveys neither his achievement nor his intentions. While full of the insights, charm, and homely but colorful metaphors that also distinguish Virginia Woolf’s Common Reader volumes (1925, 1932), the book is an enthusiast’s, rather than a working writer’s, view of the novel, as if Forster were already distancing himself from the form that earned him his fame as a writer.

A lecture given twenty years later by Lionel Trilling, who had already published his book on Forster, gives a better sense of Forster’s achievement. In “Manners, Morals, and the Novel,” later published in The Liberal Imagination (1950), Trilling explains the novel as the writer’s response to the modern world’s besetting sin of snobbery, which he defines as “pride in status without pride in function.” Europeans, and perhaps especially the English, familiar with snobbery as a manifestation of class structure, require less explanation than do Americans of the novel’s relation to snobbery. The central tradition of the English novel from Henry Fielding through Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, andGeorge Meredith—and indeed English comedy as far back as Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400)—stands as evidence.

In Forster’s time, however, that tradition was being modified. For one thing, the greatest English novelists at work during Forster’s formative years were a wealthy American expatriate and a retired Polish mariner. No one as sensitive as Forster could escape the influence of Henry James and Joseph Conrad, but these men made curious heirs to Dickens and Thackeray and George Eliot. James, while intensely interested in the textures of society, focused his attention on the relations between the English (and Continental) leisure class and those American travelers whom Mark Twain had christened “innocents abroad,” thus limiting his social scrutiny, in Forster’s opinion, to the narrow perceptions of a few wealthy idlers. Conrad diverged even more sharply from the path of previous English novelists, for he neither understood nor cared to understand any level of English society. A man of his temperament and interest might be imagined as a literary force in the midcentury United States of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), but not in the England of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-1848, serial; 1848, book) and Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book). Nevertheless, Conrad was more in tune with his own literary milieu than was Meredith, who at the end of the century reigned as the grand old man of English letters, and Conrad’s work, like that of James, diverted the creative energy of many of the new century’s novelists into new channels.

Of native English novelists...

(The entire section is 6,817 words.)