Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879-1970
English short story writer, novelist, essayist, critic, travel writer, biographer, dramatist, librettist, and non-fiction writer.
Forster is best known as the author of Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924), novels of manners depicting British morality and Edwardian society, but he is also recognized as a short story writer of considerable distinction. In the two collections published during Forster's lifetime—The Celestial Omnibus (1911) and The Eternal Moment (1928)—and in the posthumous collections The Life to Come (1972) and Arctic Summer (1980), readers find the essential Forster themes that figure so prominently in the longer works: the deficiencies of the undeveloped heart, the repressiveness of modern civilization, the possibility of transcendence, and the saving power of love. These themes are underscored by Forster's explorations of various mythologies and are imbued with his comic genius and liberal humanism. Forster scholars praise his exquisite craftsmanship, his success in creating believable characters placed in extraordinary situations, and his skillful fusion of realism and fantasy, of the natural and the supernatural. Recent cinematic adaptations of several of his novels and the posthumous publication of his letters, the novel Maurice (1971), and the short story collections, containing previously suppressed works replete with homosexual themes, have prompted critical revaluation and enhanced Forster's reputation as a major twentieth-century author.
Forster led a quiet upper middle-class boyhood, an only child cosseted by his widowed mother and other female relations. Among these was his great-aunt Marianne Thornton, whose legacy later enabled Forster to write without worrying about earning a living. After an unhappy period of public schooling in a conformist atmosphere, he attended Cambridge University where he enjoyed close relationships with a number of legendary teachers, including historians Oscar Browning, Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, and philosopher G. E. Moore. Cambridge's influence on Forster was immense, for there he found intellectual stimulation, encouragement, and friendship. An important friendship was with classmate H. O. Meredith, whose homosexuality helped Forster to recognize his own sexual inclinations. With Meredith's aid, Forster became a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a society of intellectuals, which included Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes. This society later evolved into the Bloomsbury Group, informally led by Virginia Woolf at her London home. Forster shared with the Bloomsbury Group a belief in the importance of the individual, a disdain for conventional values, a commitment to friendship, and a passion for truth, but differed from them in his greater affinity with the visionary and transcendent. Upon graduation, Forster traveled throughout the Mediterranean region, acquiring materials he would use in his essays, novels, and short stories. In 1902 he wrote his first short story, "The Story of a Panic," in which he employs a Mediterranean setting and Greek mythology to contrast the inhibited and complacent English culture with the spontaneous Italian culture; his first published short story, "Albergo Empedocle" (1903) and his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) likewise use a Mediterranean setting to create a similar contrast. The years between 1903 and 1910 were tremendously productive for Forster, for he wrote four novels which are widely regarded as Edwardian masterpieces: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910). In 1911 Forster collected six stories under the title The Celestial Omnibus. A period of silence followed the publication of this collection, for with the exception of one short story published by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press, Forster did not publish any of his fiction until 1924 when A Passage to India, his most critically acclaimed novel, appeared before the public. Yet during this period and throughout his life, Forster privately continued to write fiction and to circulate his work among trusted friends. The homoerotic novel Maurice and several of the short stories of The Life to Come date from this period, although they remained unpublished until after Forster's death. Despite the public enthusiasm for Forster's work, occasioned in particular by A Passage to India, the publication of the short story collection The Eternal Moment marked the end of Forster's public fiction-writing. Henceforth, Forster devoted his artistry to literary criticism, travel writing, essays, and biographies. Following his death in 1970, Forster's editors published Maurice, The Life to Come, and Arctic Summer, a collection containing novel fragments and several short stories. The publishing of these works, in which homoeroticism figures heavily, and the disclosure of Forster's homosexuality by his biographers have illuminated Forster's personality and literary imagination.
Major Works of Short Fiction
The majority of Forster's short stories reveal a characteristic uniting of realism and fantasy. Enlarging upon the Victorian tradition of fantasy writing, Forster used the supernatural in his stories to break free from the restrictions of Edwardian society and to satirize its numerous failings. Of central importance to many of the early short stories is the mythological god of the woods, Pan, who in these stories symbolizes both man's primitive impulses and the formidable power of nature. In four of the stories from The Celestial Omnibus, Pan acts as a destructive but ultimately liberating force; those who encounter Pan are joyously transformed and their lives changed forever. Forster's short stories provide a sharp contrast between those who unite joyfully with Pan and those unfortunate individuals who lack vision or the possibility of transcendence. Thus, in "The Story of A Panic," Eustace, an unimaginative youth, is physically and spiritually vitalized after his vision of Pan, but his freedom entails the death of the sympathetic Italian serving boy who helps Eustace to escape from self-righteous relatives and hypocritical tourists. "The Road from Colonus" also relies on the opposition between vision and anti-vision, between nature and society, for it portrays an old man who momentarily achieves spiritual harmony with nature before his hypocritical daughter drags him from a sacred Greek shrine back to his joyless and noisy flat where he spends the remainder of his life in peevish misery. "The Celestial Omnibus" likewise reveals Forster's dissatisfaction with philistine middle-class values. In this story he satirizes those smug individuals who fail to recognize spiritual salvation when it presents itself, here in the form of the world's great literature.
Forster's concern with salvation is deepened in the stories of the second collection, The Eternal Moment, wherein he focuses on the need for people to recognize their bonds with each other. The principal theme of these stories may be summed up in the epigraph of his novel Howards End: "only connect." In this collection, critics have observed a change in the mood of his writing, for Forster's tone is less playful, less assured, and less hopeful. The somber work, "The Story of the Siren," demonstrates Forster's darkened view of man's fate. An Italian boatman tells a group of tourists of his brother's supernatural encounter with the Siren, a cosmic being who reveals the dire message of man's predicament, and of his subsequent marriage to a woman who had also seen the Siren. When his wife conceives a child, the corrupt townspeople fear she is carrying the Antichrist, and an evil priest pushes the pregnant woman from a cliff, thereby destroying their only connection to truth and possible salvation. In the apocalyptic science-fiction story, "The Machine Stops," Forster depicts an anti-Utopia where a giant machine dominates all aspects of life, and people have become dehumanized and isolated from each other. Kuno, the youthful hero who revolts against his barren existence, escapes from his underground cell and reunites with his mother briefly before he dies with the rest of his civilization. Although Forster suggests a new and more humane civilization may arise from the ashes of the destroyed machine-world, the story's horrific images of a sterile society prevail. "The Eternal Moment," a realistic narrative widely regarded as one of Forster's best short stories, similarly ends on an ambiguous note. Miss Raby, a middle-aged writer, returns to the place where she had experienced the most meaningful moment of her life, only to find that all has changed for the worse, including the handsome young guide who had confessed his passionate love for her. She is unable to reconnect with her former admirer or to recapture that lost moment of opportunity.
The short stories of the posthumous collection, The Life to Come, represent a new direction for Forster, in that many deal with explicitly homosexual issues. Yet typical Forster themes are present, particularly that of the undeveloped heart. In the most highly regarded stories, a character's denial of love reveals the constricting effects of conventional society and leads to his physical, emotional, or spiritual death. In "The Life to Come," a Christian missionary, who becomes a native's lover for one night, denies his feelings for his lover who later stabs him to death before killing himself. In "Dr Woolacott" a dying patient refuses the aid of his doctor and chooses instead the spirit-saving love of an unknown boy, even though his choice causes his physical death. "The Other Boat" tells of a homosexual liaison between two men of different cultures and ends with the death of both when the English officer kills his manipulative Indian lover and then jumps into the sea. "Ralph and Tony," from the Arctic Summer collection, similarly explores a relationship underscored by violence; the primitive Tony is unable to accept his homosexual feelings toward the effete Ralph and repeatedly acts with cruelty and aggression toward him, only to become completely powerless when his heart fails. In this, as in his other short stories, Forster exhibits fully his characteristic approach to the ambiguous aspects of human experience, namely that the efforts to reconcile truth and love are worthy and commendable, even if such a reconciliation is ultimately impossible.
Although Forster's short stories have never lacked appreciative readers, they have always been overshadowed by his novels. Lionel Trilling, whose pioneering study of Forster's liberal humanism established Forster as a leading author, set the tone for the discussion of the short stories when he described them as a useful index to the themes, symbols, and aesthetic techniques developed more successfully in the longer works. In general, critics have noted the special demands exacted by Forster's use of fantasy; they have either praised it as a marvelous vehicle of social satire or dismissed Forster's use of the supernatural as whimsical and irrelevant. For many critics, Forster's fantasies seemed particularly outdated after the horrible realities of World War I. Accordingly, the realistic story "The Eternal Moment" and the anti-Utopian story "The Machine Stops" have found greater favor with readers, not only for their darker vision, but also for their subtleties of characterization. Forster suppressed his homoerotic fiction during his lifetime because of the criminalization of homosexual acts and public attitudes toward homosexuality, but the posthumous publication of this fiction has reinvigorated Forster scholarship. Critics have found the stories of A Life to Come and Arctic Summer extraordinarily revealing, not only of Foster's personal life, but of his works as a whole. His admirers note that from beginning to end, Forster's artistic vision has revealed a keen understanding of life's complexities. Truth, beauty, desire, love, transcendence, connection, the impoverishment of the spirit—these are the themes that Forster handled deftly in a considerable number of his short stories. Critics agree that Forster's genius was better suited to the novel, but many observe that some of his short stories are powerful statements of Forster's ethos and rank among his best works of fiction. Remarkable achievements in their own right, Forster's most successful short stories incorporate social criticism with psychologically acute characterization, narrative complexity, and a luminous style. Forster's best stories make clear that although he was not a master of the short story, he was a distinguished practitioner of the art of short fiction writing, indeed, a short story writer of considerable imagination and merit.