Last Updated on June 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7428
Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970
An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, Forster is considered a major twentieth-century author. Caught in a continual inner struggle with his homosexuality, Forster used this struggle as a source for his art. Best known for his critically acclaimed novel, A Passage to India ...
(The entire section contains 7428 words.)
See This Study Guide Now
Start your subscription to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.
Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970
An English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic, Forster is considered a major twentieth-century author. Caught in a continual inner struggle with his homosexuality, Forster used this struggle as a source for his art. Best known for his critically acclaimed novel, A Passage to India, Forster wrote prophetically and sensitively of the major dilemmas of our time. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)
Mr Forster's place in the canon is an unusual one. He enjoys, securely, a reputation of the most insecure kind—that of a major figure—definitely that—who falls just short—but clearly short—of true greatness. A reputation which might be expected to stimulate objections from all quarters stimulates them from virtually none. No one, apparently, wants to see him promoted into the ranks of the acknowledged masters and hardly anyone wants to see him pushed out of the canon altogether. He is the occasion of no very serious or very interesting debate. When he is praised, he is praised extravagantly but harmlessly…. Mr Forster's peculiar reputation rests, it might be guessed, not so much on what he's done as on what he's been taken to represent; and it would be a mean spirit indeed who, given what he has been taken to represent, would look with an unfriendly eye upon what he's done.
Looked upon so, Mr Forster has done little more than generate in himself and others an enthusiasm for platitudes. Let us consider two documents, 'What I Believe', Mr Forster's personal manifesto, and Howards End, the novel in which he tries most directly to embody the values of the manifesto.
In the essay he says he's in favour of private decencies, personal relationships, people who are sensitive and creative—the lovers, artists and homemakers—good temper, good will, tolerance, loyalty, sympathy, friendship and Love the Beloved Republic and against public affairs, Great Men, force and violence and people who see life in terms of power…. We have to take Mr Forster's word for it that he knows not only the words for love and sympathy, but the things themselves. It's only by turning to the novel that we have any chance of bringing the essav's claims into question; it's there we are forced to turn for the knowledge that will make good these claims. And, turning and looking, what we find is not quite a vacancy but yet more fine sentiments and, dominating the palpables of tone, characterisation and plot, an assortment of snobberies and a pervasive self-satisfaction.
The intentions of Howards End are explicit and impeccable. It urges its readers to 'only connect …' to build within themselves 'the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion' for then 'love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the grey, sober against the fire' and, like the essay, the novel insists 'it is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision'. Its heroes and heroines are those who 'attempt personal relations', its villains 'the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little'; its triumphs occur when 'truer relationships gleam'.
But fine sentiments and would-be noble phrases don't even make good feelings let alone good novels. And if, in an essay, a writer can't get away with just naming the things he believes in, how much less so can he in a novel, when his 'beliefs' must be acted out as particular, concrete instances? Talk, for the novelist even more obviously than for the essayist, won't suffice. He must deliver the goods. And if he can't, if he doesn't really own the feelings he lays claim to, his novel will betray him…. Howards End betrays Forster. He preaches in it love and sympathy and is caught furtively practising the everyday, casual snobberies of any other upper-class Cambridge don of the turn of the century.
The part of the novel that offers the most direct (but by no means the only) challenge to his sympathies is the story of his near working-class figure Leonard Bast. From an essay, 'The Challenge of our Time', one might think him well-equipped to present class relations in England. He says of his own education, for instance, that though it was humane 'it was imperfect, inasmuch as we none of us realised our economic position. In came the nice fat dividends, up rose the lofty thoughts, and we did not realise that all the time we were exploiting the poor of our own country and the backward races abroad, and getting bigger profits from our investments than we should'. But, again as Lawrence said, trust the tale not the teller. It is one thing to describe a case of social injustice in an essay, and in terms which were, after all, even in 1910, fairly common property, another thing entirely to write a novel in which the characters are seen, have to be seen, not just as illustrations of a thesis but as creatures who, whatever their circumstances, have the same human identity and physiognomy as their author. But Forster, for all his good intentions, can't see that the Basts and he do share a common condition. They are objects to him, objects to feel things for and to have attitudes towards—it makes no difference whether he sympathises with them, feels sorry for them, condescends to them or sneers at them. These apparently divergent feelings belong to a single paradigm, one governed by the powerful unconscious assumptions of an upper-class world-view which divides the world into 'us' and 'them'. Whatever Forster 'feels for' the Basts he feels securely as one of 'us' regarding 'them'. The Basts are nothing, have nothing, represent nothing that could bring into question for Forster himself and his world. And having no authority over their author they are dead as characters.
Forster's good intentions are, on their own terms, genuine enough. (pp. 222-25)
But the good intentions only work as a leavening upon the snobbery. The 'facts' of Leonard Bast's 'case' are obviously meant as social criticism but, as presented, they draw our attention, not without creating a certain risibility, to Mr Forster as commentator rather than to society as commented-on. Leonard, Mr Forster tells us, was 'inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable' and his wife Jacky is 'brutally stupid'. Not only is Leonard deprived of his livelihood by an unjust and all-powerful social machine and not only is he without the cultivation of the Schlegels but, additionally, he has none of the rude vigour, physical or psychological, of the middle-class barbarians like Charles Wilcox, without whose spirit 'life might never have moved out of protoplasm'. (p. 225)
The other boundary of [Bast's] social world, the proletarian 'abyss' where his origins are among the 'submerged', is only a threat and a teror to him…. Somehow, he has entirely escaped being influenced by his family background. We are told certain things about it—that a grandfather was a Lincolnshire farm-labourer, his father a Cockney tradesman, a brother a lay-reader and that two sisters married commercial travellers—but none of this information is active within Forster's characterisation of him. It is only supplied at all because Forster thinks he ought to give him a genealogy. Once he has given it he promptly forgets it because he doesn't know how to use it. Leonard isn't seen as a son or brother at all let alone one born into a particular class. The point isn't that Leonard is presented as one thing when he ought to have been presented as another, that his presentation is 'unrealistic', but that what is missing from him as a person isn't presented by Forster as missing. Properly speaking, it isn't missing from the character but from the book. Howards End nowhere contains any sense of what the alternative to Leonard might be. Leonard doesn't have merely an incomplete relation to his family and class presented as such but no relation at all.
He is without any moral or emotional history because Forster, although he would like to be writing about 'a real man', can't help running off another version of that comic Cockney stereotype which is (perhaps 'was') so indelibly printed on the middle-class imagination…. Forster wants to be generous towards Leonard, wants to present a young man with a sense of honour and of self, but the materials available to him are woefully inadequate. Leonard's would-be Cockney is stilted and inanely self-preoccupied, the sense units short and repetitive and the vocabulary picked up from the 'Music Hall' or a dictionary of Cockney English, picked up and thrown down in a heap without any sense of how, when or where the words are used. It's a fair measure of Forster's linguistic insensitivity that it's not clear whether 'in trouble' does or does not mean 'pregnant'.
Forster's tone, characteristically, is condescending, and at its worst when he is paying Leonard compliments: 'the naive and sweet-tempered boy for whom Nature intended him', 'no one felt uneasy as he titupped along the pavements, the heart of a man ticking fast in his chest', 'within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies' books—the spirit that led Jefferies to write them'. The trouble with these remarks is not, perhaps, so much their snobbery as their simple fatuity:
it is an adventure for a clerk to walk for a few hours in darkness. You may laugh at him, you who have slept nights out on the veldt, with your rifle beside you and all the atmosphere of adventure pat. And you also may laugh who think adventures silly. But do not be surprised if Leonard is shy whenever he meets you, and if the Schlegels rather than Jacky hear about the dawn.
This from someone who is supposed to be a major modern English novelist, preceded in importance only by Conrad, James, Lawrence and Joyce, someone often compared to Lawrence and Jane Austen. It's difficult to say what is most ridiculous about the passage, its sloppiness about the darkness and dawn, its willingness to take adventures on the veldt seriously, its arch pretence that we might meet Leonard Bast or, what we are presently concerned with, its condescension for clerks. (pp. 226-28)
[Forster's] dominant attitude to the Basts is made up of a distaste for the unattractive surfaces of working-class life and an amused superiority at its bad taste….
The presence in the tone of the condescension and the contempt is, of course, bound up with the absence from the characterisation of any 'solidity of specification'…. Forster condescends towards the Basts because they are stock figures for whom condescension is the stock response. His compassion and concern for people such as they is nothing more than feeling sorry for them for not being like himself. He both pities and admires Leonard but he pities him for lacking his own spiritual and moral advantages and admires him for wanting them. It is not Jane Austen whom he resembles but Emma Woodhouse: she too, thinks 'a very narrow income has a tendency to contract the mind, and sour the temper. Those who can barely live, and who live perforce in a very small, and generally very inferior, society, may well be illiberal and cross'. At bottom, Forster's response to the Basts is the same as hers to the poor cottagers of Highbury: 'These are the sights, Harriet, to do one good'…. (p. 229)
That Forster's concern for the victims of social injustice is make-believe is evidenced not only by his presentation of the Basts but also by the relationship their story bears to the rest of the novel. What really matters to Forster is not the fate of the Basts but that of the Wilcoxes and Schlegels. The Basts are just a side-show. The imaginative centre of Howards End is the division between and reconciliation of its two middle-class families. Whether the reconciliation between Wilcox and Schlegel, 'prose' and 'passion', that Margaret Schlegel works for and the novel welcomes is seen as one between social groups, the entrepreneurs and the intelligentsia, or psychological types, or whether it is read as a command to the individual to lead a whole life, it is equally irrelevant to the problems of the Basts, which are caused by an unfair division of wealth and labour and which cannot be solved without upsetting the life led by the Schlegels and, one might add, the public of Howards End. (p. 229-30)
Far from wishing the removal of the injustices the Basts suffer from, Howards End wants to see preserved a world that permits the kind of 'personal' life enjoyed by Margaret Schlegel—even if the price is being reconciled to the necessity of the Wilcoxes and the injustices attendant upon the circumstances in which they flourish. Margaret in an argument with her sister Helen says,
If Wilcoxes hadn't worked and died for thousands of years, you and I couldn't sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No—perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm. More and more do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it.
In these remarks, as in so many others, it's hard to sort out the bad faith from what is merely inept. Margaret avoids (and Forster avoids) having to comment on the morality of the social relationships that subsist under capitalism by appealing in a very general way to the desirability of 'progress'; she gives the credit for 'progress' to the entrepreneur class and measures 'progress' by the security of existence enjoyed by 'us literary people'. Her last sentence could be anybody's recognition of what side his bread was buttered on but it's presented to us as the mark of her moral lucidity. Forster puts no distance between himself and this would-be clear-headedness; on the contrary, he shows it triumphing over Helen's muddy-minded liberalism. Helen not only gets worsted in the argument but by the end of the book has come round to 'appreciating' Henry Wilcox just as Margaret does.
Forster is critical of the Wilcoxes (that is to say, he often sneers at them) but he is critical not so much of their social role as of their personal inadequacies. Yet were Henry and Charles Wilcox the most loving-hearted and cultivated of men, their economic relationship with the Basts would still be a suspect one. Denying the Wilcoxes any likeable personal qualities isn't a social criticism; it's merely an intellectual's snobbery. It obscures the social significance of business, is an evasion of those very issues which, pursued, might have led Forster to see the role of the Schlegels, his rentier figures, as a parasitic one. As it is, he has it both ways. He sneers at the Wilcoxes for lacking the cultivation he's got and admires them for having a certain kind of confidence and power which he's without but which makes his kind of life possible—and admires them for this, moreover, in the language of Room at the Top: Charles is 'dark, clean-shaven and seemed accustomed to command', Henry is 'one of those men who know the principal hotel by instinct' and whose 'management' of practical things is always 'excellent'. As people, the Wilcoxes may be unattractive but as representatives of the capitalist spirit they are, as Lawrence said in a letter to Forster, 'glorified'.
Forster's failure with the Basts and the social issues their story raises is hardly attributable merely to a lack of first-hand experience. Nor is it necessary to explain it in Marxist terms as a 'necessary' consequence of his 'objective' class position. It seems to me a failure of intelligence and imagination, a failure to be a good enough novelist. Forster's presentation of his middle-class characters is just as coarse as that of his lower-class ones. (pp. 230-31)
Forster's authorial comments regularly show only a perverse pleasure in scoring off his characters. It is one thing to dramatise a character who is 'rubbishy', say Mrs Elton in Emma, which requires both that one be a novelist and have a grasp of the possible other case, quite another to invent characters only in order to call them names. (p. 232)
In Forster's account of the Basts his lack of curiosity in the lower classes creates a moral vacuum which is filled by the stock snobberies of a rich man; in his account of the Wilcoxes his lack of curiosity in businessmen creates a vacuum which is filled by the stock snobberies of an intellectual and aesthete. The Basts and the Wilcoxes are unreal. And Forster's sympathy and respect for them are unreal. But the moral failure isn't additional to the artistic one. The possession of sufficient moral imagination to put oneself in the place of the unfamiliar and to deal with it generously … is the very condition of being able to give it an air of reality.
Forster's failure with his middle-class characters isn't limited, though, to the morally unfamiliar, to the Wilcoxes. He fails just as badly with the Schlegels too. The Schlegel sisters and Mrs Wilcox are just as unreal as the Basts and the other Wilcoxes. Forster can no more give the air of reality to upper-class decency and cultivation than he can to upper-class business or lower-class aspiration. And in this instance the failure to cope with the supposedly familiar, the supposedly humane and sensitive Schlegels, is identical with the failure to cope with the unfamiliar, with the Basts and Wilcoxes. Not himself having a sufficiently sensitive and generous imagination to render the Basts and Wilcoxes decently, how could Forster ever have successfully embodied sensitivity, decency and imagination in the Schlegels? His failure with the Schlegels is not so much a failure to recognise the place of private decencies and personal relations in the larger social context (his is not the case of Jane Austen) but a failure to represent them at all, a failure to know what they really are. Forster's grasp of the private life as embodied in the Schlegels and Mrs Wilcox (the very heart of his book) is every bit as unsure as his grasp of business life and the life of the lower classes. There is no more knowledge of love, sympathy, affection, etc. in the portrait of the Schlegels than in 'What I Believe'. There are merely gestures on a larger scale, gestures whose import has equally to be taken on trust, gestures that are hopelessly inadequate for the job they are asked to do. (pp. 232-33)
Put to the test of embodying his 'beliefs' in a novel Forster is too much the creature of his upbringing, and not enough of a novelist, to do more than display, side by side, the aimless good intentions and the incurable snobberies of a no-doubt kindly but fundamentally self-regarding, upper-class English intellectual of the turn of the century. Howards End has the interest of a social document but none, that I can see, of the interests of a novel. The most interesting question about it is how it got its reputation, and particularly its reputation as a novel which embodies a spirit concerned with what is 'decent, human, and enlarging in daily conduct'. A large part of the answer must be, presumably, that its American readers are typically innocent of English life, particularly our class system, and are often infatuated with our upper classes, and that its English readers, being exclusively middle-class, find their own world-view mirrored in it. One enjoys reading a fairy-story, the other enjoys looking at a flattering portrait of himself. Both, no doubt, find agreeable the mildness of its social criticism and the generous vagueness of its solutions—only connect, let truer relationships gleam, build that rainbow bridge, and all may be well.
A Passage to India seems to me equally unreal, equally as factitious and unnecessary a novel. Its characters are equally stereotyped and its incidents just as merely illustrative of the stereotyped. Reading it, I have the impression, as new characters and incidents are introduced, of watching a series of exempla pass by, of listening to a succession of 'points' being made in illustration of the double thesis that the principled Anglo-Indians are coarse and the unprincipled Indians sensitive. Neither side seems to me to be dealt with with any greater understanding than the Wilcoxes and Basts. Aziz seems to me just as insensitive and prejudiced a portrait of a member of a subject race as Leonard Bast is of a member of a lower class. He even shares Leonard's taste in paintings: 'Aziz in an occidental moment would have hung Maud Goodmans on the walls'. Robust, self-sufficient Indians have as little place in Forster's world as robust, self-sufficient Cockneys. Forster's Indians 'are deprived of their adulthood, live in a perpetual childhood'. The phraseology of his 'positives' in A Passage to India is just as empty and unfulfilled as of those in Howards End: 'the sanctity of personal relations', 'the fire of good fellowship in their eyes', 'the divine lips of beauty', 'centuries of carnal embracement', 'a sense of unity, of kinship with the heavenly bodies', etc. A Passage to India seems to me as comprehensively not a novel as Howards End, fully as much a thing of unrealised intentions. (pp. 234-35)
Duke Maskell, "Mr Forster's Fine Feelings," in The Cambridge Quarterly (copyright © 1971 by the Editors), Spring, 1971, pp. 222-35.
The publication in late 1971 of E. M. Forster's long-withheld novel of homosexuality together with the writer's death in 1970 means that a revaluation of both man and author is in order. The 1960's provided several substantial works of scholarship and criticism and a good range of shorter pieces—testimony to Forster's reputation and continuing impact as a literary, and perhaps spiritual, presence. The emergence of Maurice from its Edwardian dormancy puts these works to the test and suggests once more that a figure of such artistic subtlety and comprehensiveness as Forster is not readily delimited by even the best efforts of scholarship. The fine elusive quality in the better novels now more than ever seems to hover about Forster himself; one can only believe the man delightedly foresaw this as not the least part of his legacy. The "Terminal Note" provided by Forster and published with Maurice is itself a minor gem. For devotees of Forster's life and career the adventure has only begun. (p. 157)
The revelations in Maurice should result in more sensitive and acute readings of the short fiction (for example, "The Story of a Panic"; "Other Kingdom"; "The Story of the Siren") and novels other than those now before us. It should be possible to come somewhat closer to the center of Forster's writings, to locate more nearly the point of balance among societal pressure against homosexual disclosures, Forster's own valuing of restraint and artistic indirection, and the Freudian dimensions operative beyond the novelist's awareness. Where individual fictions, or passages within them, appear to violate or embody inadequately Forster's esthetic, it may well now be possible to come to the reasons. In short, there is much to be hoped for from Forster's posthumous gift. (p. 158)
To see Maurice as an undisciplined apologia for its creator's homosexuality or as a work compromised by its "happy ending" into sentimentality is to misunderstand its subject and structure…. Maurice is in fact more nearly a novel about the barriers to love in a largely sterile and class-ridden society than it is a description of achieved communion and consummation; if love is to have a chance, it must elude the societal negations which reach out to destroy it. At novel's end Maurice and Alec Scudder are only at the threshold of their relationship; whether or not their love can sustain itself through the years is left to the reader's imagination. This last is perhaps the true subject matter of the homosexual novel, and Forster makes no pretense to it.
The removal into the greenwood as a way of preserving psychic health and the promise of love—and Forster's norm of the personal relationship—is a theme we believe we know a great deal about today; more agonizingly than Forster likely could have sixty years ago, we know both the absolute need for a renewal and the unlikelihood of securing it…. Forster's novel may well be more illuminating for its insight into a declining culture than for its probings of homosexuality…. What we as readers must do is to attempt to make the imaginative leap into the very texture of the late-Edwardian world as Forster gives it and then to respond to the moral and spiritual modulations within this texture. We cannot validly wish ourselves into a Maurice somehow disassociated from its temporal birthing, cannot insist upon a voice uncommitted to the givens of syntax and diction.
A major difference between Maurice and the other novels is the former's lack of a richly conceived interplay of characters both central and peripheral, both "round" and "flat." It is precisely this omission of a dialectic at once subtle and expansive, "realistic" and spiritually resonant, which constitutes the chief disappointment in Maurice…. At their best Forster's characters achieve a largeness which outgrows their allegorical functions, important as these often are, and introduce elements of the vital and the unexpected. We find little enough of this in Maurice. The novel centers upon its main character to a degree not found in Forster's other fictions; and although Maurice's two lovers, Clive Durham and Alec Scudder, are crucial to the action, they do not typically come to us, or engage one another, from within the kind of webbed richness developed in the other novels. With the evolution of Maurice from varying degrees of sexual "normalcy" to the gradual recognition of his own nature, to the final full-bodied commitment to Alec as the driving impetus of the novel, the work advances with a straightforwardness foreign to Forster's previously published fictions. The use of the enriching episode or complicating action is at a minimum. Unlike the evocations of Italy in the Italian novels, the treatment of Greece in Maurice is subordinated almost entirely to plot convenience. As well, Forster's superb capacity to evoke a sense of place and mood, notably in Howards End, remains in abeyance; neither Cambridge nor the estate at Penge are captured concretely and convincingly in Maurice. One may say that the artistry of Maurice is marked more by directness and economy than by richness and involution…. Maurice is a line drawing and not a painting, so to speak, and must be adjudged on its own terms. Or, venturing elsewhere for a metaphor, one may say that the novel proceeds more nearly by means of rhythm and melody than by harmony and counterpoint—the way of Indian rather than Western music.
Given the conventions and restrictions Forster employs in Maurice, I would suggest that the novel possesses the artistic vigor and integrity sufficient to place it a shade above Where Angels Fear to Tread and perhaps A Room with a View and somewhere below The Longest Journey. Maurice appears to possess a greater artistic finish than The Longest Journey but lacks the largeness and vision of the latter. That Maurice will ever be found to challenge either Howards End or A Passage to India seems unlikely indeed. What Forster says about the true test of method (point of view) is applicable to evaluation of the work of fiction as a whole: it resolves itself "into the power of the writer to bounce the reader into accepting what he says." And though authorial intrusion is at times present, I find that Maurice wins through to suspension of disbelief. We know from Forster's disclosures in the "Terminal Note" and from other sources that the choice of subject matter in the novel went to the very center of the man's being, was the most sensitive he could have considered. In the fictions given to the public in his lifetime, Forster's felt need for concealing his homosexuality provided in all likelihood a disciplining force which facilitated the gaining of the distancing and detachment essential to the artist. From the evidence of the novels we know how successfully Forster the man subordinated himself to the obligations of the artist. Not always of course; one thinks for example of problems with characterization of Mr. Emerson in A Room with a View, Gino of Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Rickie Elliot in The Longest Journey. (pp. 158-61)
Forster's strategy for securing distancing in Maurice is revealed in the "Terminal Note": "In Maurice I tried to create a character who was completely unlike myself or what I supposed myself to be: someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad business man and rather a snob." This statement shows acutely just how far Forster believed he had to go in order to gain necessary detachment. Being deeply in love, how best to write perceptively about love; being a homosexual, how best to hold one's self in abeyance in order to image forth the truth of homosexuality and not violate the high ends of art. The answer is this: the writer holds his protagonist at bay by drawing into him some of the very elements which negate his attractiveness. Thus we find a Maurice who is a good bit of a philistine and something of a Wilcox, who reminds us of Sawston and all that that implies, and who leads us to Forster's words as to the "slowness" of the "typical Englishman," for example. In short, a homosexual protagonist more nearly a John Bull than an apostle of Bloomsbury! And the strategy is effective; for the most part the tonalities and ironies surrounding Maurice prevent any sentimental collapse of character into author, any special pleading for homosexuality. Similarly, a careful distancing between Maurice and reader is sustained. The reader is not permitted any easy empathy with the main character; indeed he is not encouraged to like young Hall very much until the action is well under way. It is a mark of the finesse and control in this novel that the reader's identification with the protagonist is so tightly bound up with imagistic and thematic unfolding; there is relatively little "unearned" emotion within the pages of Maurice…. One should add that a price is paid in Maurice for its tightly controlled and thinned-down esthetic posture: the novel does not achieve the "difficult rhythm" admired by Forster. Few novels ever do achieve this, one may well argue. Forster demonstrated that he was capable of it in A Passage to India and possibly in Howards End. Maurice suggests something of an over-reaction in the direction of the scrupulous, perhaps; it strikes one as being so consciously written a novel that elements of grandeur and elusiveness have difficulty abiding therein…. The beauty offered by Maurice is rather obviously a circumscribed one but it is real.
In Maurice as in the other novels Forster's imperative of the personal relationship, the need for a mutuality of feeling and understanding which transcends the formidable and dehumanizing barriers of modern society, lies at the thematic center. But Forster well perceived that the introduction of a homosexual protagonist made severe demands on the general reader; were the latter made to accept the main character's special bent too quickly or insistently, he almost certainly would recoil in suspicion and doubt before completing a reading of the book. Thus the protagonist must not appear to be favored by the author; the reader must be won over slowly if he is to accept Maurice long enough to realize that his homosexuality is a valid instancing of the human and the personal. The reader is introduced to Maurice in a low-keyed, almost off-hand manner; Maurice is at first simply "Hall, one of the older boys" soon to be dispatched to public school at Sunnington. Maurice's school chums believe him to be brave, but this is a "great mistake—he wasn't brave: he was afraid of the dark. But no one knew this."… One should note that the last quotation serves not only to deflate Maurice but to introduce imagery of darkness, a major motif of the novel. (pp. 161-62)
Ironies operate through much of the novel to facilitate Maurice's distancing. The depth which comes gradually to the young man's personality is carefully counterbalanced by descriptions of his shallowness and foolishness….
We know that Forster's other novels cannot be adequately described in terms of a narrowly conceived realism; in them we find symbolic infusion, stylistic and mimetic heightening, and the authentic elusiveness of spirit. It should not be surprising, therefore, that Maurice also flies above the literal and the earth bound. (p. 163)
An excellent way of gaining insight into the style and tonality of Maurice is to turn to a novel written within several years of it, Max Beerbohm's Zuleika Dobson. With qualifications, what Beerbohm did with Oxford Forster did with the Cambridge portions of his own novel. The presiding point of view toward the action, the stylizing of the characters, the verbal rhythms, show interesting similarities. And one remembers that Forster, in discussing Zuleika as an example of "fantasy," expressed considerable admiration for Beerbohm's novel as "a highly accomplished and superbly written book whose spirit is farcical." The theme of Zuleika "is treated with a mixture of realism, wittiness, charm and mythology" by Beerbohm, Forster argues (Aspects of the Novel …). The element of wit in Maurice is subdued (but effective), and the mythological dimension is largely transmuted into a natural piety; but the similarities otherwise are many, and they help us into the ambience of Edwardian England.
Forster's artistry is further evidenced in Maurice by skillful use of tonal variety. For example, Chapter Thirteen has something of the idyll about it as Maurice and Clive abandon Cambridge for the day and lose themselves in the countryside; the young men are able for the time to put aside the rigidities of societal forms and converse naturally and with a degree of spontaneity. Chapter Sixteen shows the two friends together at Penge and effectively contrasts the restraints and decorum of the household with the intimacies exchanged by Clive and Maurice in the delicious privacy of the study…. Chapter Twenty-Five brings together elements of farce and melodrama and balances them astutely against the intensities of Maurice's passion. Chapter Thirty-Seven leads the reader more directly into Maurice's growing desperation and need for a responsive personal relationship while maintaining careful distancing through its style. Chapter Forty-Three, one of the best executed sections in the novel, blends imagistic and thematic energies with the near-farcical in a manner which leaves little doubt of Forster's artistry and control. The Forty-Sixth and final chapter ties motifs and ideas together in an economical and persuasive manner; crucially, the protagonist of the concluding pages is a figure who has earned his worth and interest for the reader.
Much of the validity of Maurice derives from the fact that the homosexual interest at the novel's center are not made into self-justifying ends but rather are tied closely into three major concerns of Forster's thought. These are the belief in the vital importance of personal relationships; the critique of the spiritual inadequacies of modern society; and the belief in the regenerative powers of nature. Forster's great themes are not explored in Maurice with the incisiveness or richness found in his best fictions, but they nevertheless are effectively and suggestively presented. The major patterns of imagery in the novel (those of the heart, darkness, and sleep) operate so as to give concrete force both to thematic statement and resonance. Additionally they complement the distancing techniques discussed above and effectively mediate Forster's deep personal involvement with his subject matter and protagonist and the disciplined evocations of the successful work of art. Forster's command of himself and his art is superbly demonstrated in his containment of his protagonist within the imagistic dialectic. From an initial fear of the "darkness" within both himself and world, Maurice evolves toward increased understanding and then to a final profound commitment to his "dark" lover Alec. Forster shows us that the normative relationship must be based upon a mutual awareness of the depths and fullness of the principals; "sleep" and "darkness" are vital to the health and growth of the "heart." Both Clive and the major institutions of the society have sought to withdraw into the sterile "light" of the class structure, the narrowly rational, the ego-driven. Forster's words about birth and death as the "two darknesses" within which man moves are not without relevance here (Aspects of the Novel …). At the novel's end Clive remains cut off from both his authentic selfhood and reality (nature's rhythms); in the "stupidity of his heart," Clive fears the evening darkness—even as he perceives that Maurice has become "essential night."… Forster provides further articulation of the immense gulf separating the former lovers in the minor motif of the night-blooming primrose.
Maurice's imagistic ties not only with the "heart" and passion but also with the vitalities of nature validate his role as symbol of life's energies. Maurice will not marry or produce children, but he likely will achieve a fecund spiritual relationship with Alec; in contrast there is little to hope for from Clive. Dante notwithstanding, Alec and Maurice will come far closer to mutuality and happiness in the greenwood than to the retribution of endless circularity; and the rain that falls on the pair will be wet enough. As if in defiance of the Inferno, Maurice and Alec earlier leave "the enormous and overheated" British Museum and pass "the library, supposed catholic," seeking out the rain and darkness…. The socially conditioned shame and alienation from self which have worked upon Maurice for so long a time begin to give way. Yet—in the most perceptive moment of the novel—all is not as it should be: ideally the life of society and the "life of the earth" … would be one; there would be no necessity to flee to the greenwood, to become an "outlaw" as Maurice and Alec must. To win through to spiritual wholeness, to the "heart," at the price of repudiating societal existence is to pay a heavy price indeed. Forster leaves no doubt that the bifurcations of head and heart, convention and passion, are spiritually debilitating; and, again, not simply because they militate against homosexual expression but more importantly because they threaten all personal relationships. In Clive, Anne Woods (the surname suggests an ironic refraction of the greenwood), and the vacuous Mr. Ducie, Forster sketches in the distorted humanity emanating from a decadent society. Ducie's echo of the Pippa Passes refrain—"It all hangs together—all—and God's in his heaven, All's right with the world" … reinforces the point. Not by chance one of Clive's sisters carries the name of Browning's young innocent. Through these allusions Forster suggests that the society encountered by Maurice is no less brutal and false than that surrounding the poet's Pippa.
Maurice offers yet further evidence of Forster's high commitment to artistic discipline and excellence; the homosexual themes and concerns put both man and artist to a severe test and Forster met the challenge well indeed. Maurice is not without flaws, but these are minor and do not threaten the overall success of the novel. In the final analysis, I would argue, we need make no more concessions to this novel than to many others conceived and written in a period so remote from our own; I believe that Maurice will hold its own in the critical battles which are certain to swirl about it. For there are moments when even the rhythms and vision of A Passage to India seem to rise from the page and one knows that the essential Forster is not far away. (pp. 164-67)
Douglass Bolling, "The Distanced Heart: Artistry in E. M. Forster's 'Maurice'," in Modern Fiction Studies (copyright © 1974, by Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, Indiana, U.S.A.), Summer, 1974, pp. 157-67.
'Here was a protest and a feeble one, and the more congenial for being feeble', said Forster of Prufrock, and his novel of 1924, A Passage to India, suggests more fully how feebleness can seem to Forster like an unexorbitant bit of honesty. For in this novel the experience and dismaying surprise that Forster has stored up for the reader is to approach the India of the English Raj through Mrs Moore and Miss Quested with a set of good, tolerant, liberal feelings whose inadequacy is then shown up. Humanity, it seems—Christianized or Moslem—has not quite enough stuff of good will to patch over multiplicities, egotism, or chaos, but whether that shows us something about the great universe or, more likely, Forster's easily-wearied, preconceived sense of sympathies between people, is not clearly displayed till after the events that follow the Marabar Caves incident. Earlier, through Fielding's eyes, at the tea-party fiasco, we have seen the break-down of liberal good feeling, with Aziz 'shoddy and odious', Mrs Moore and Adela Quested 'both silly, and he himself and Heaslop both decorous on the surface, but detestable really, and detesting each other'. But it is not until Adela and Fielding meet again, in reconciliation after being on opposite sides during the trial of Aziz, that we have such an explicit statement from the author to make it plain that it is the inadequacy not just of 'good will' but of human 'personality' that the failure of feeling, the break-up, has revealed.
A friendliness, as of dwarfs shaking hands, was in the air…. [Their] words were followed by a curious backwash, as though the universe had displaced itself to fill up a tiny void, or as though they had seen their own gestures from an immense height—dwarfs talking, shaking hands and assuring each other that they stood on the same footing of insight.
We would be wrong to think that Forster offers a view of his characters similar to the perspective from which Eliot's wit presents Prufrock ('Do I dare/Disturb the universe?'). Dwarfs they may be, and impoverished is the meaning of human kinship and sympathies, but what this represents, as Forster's novel later shows, is not an adverse judgement on the paltry or enfeebled state of relationships but the reconstituting, in an emotionally minor form, of the outmoded liberality whose failure is signalized by the decline and death of Mrs Moore…. [What] the movement of Forster's novel really suggests, however, as the nonchalance of Hamidullah and Fielding over Mrs Moore is succeeded by holy unfastidiousness of Professor Godbole in the 'Temple' section, is that the minor form of inadequate response is the smaller enactment of the diffuser, more disillusionable failure to feel on a larger scale. A disappointed compassion for general mankind, all the thin-spread humanism in shreds, comes to look in this novel very much like its smaller version, the sterile lack of feeling for the particular human being…. Godbole represents Forster's dubious sense of humanistic inadequacy as it re-emerges to gain for itself all the loose religiose credit attaching easily to one whose failure or meagreness can be made to look like an almost universality of embrace. The dead Mrs Moore becomes part of Godbole's embracing vision, not as a remembered 'personality', but an object among many in his call to God to come. 'This was all he could do. How inadequate! But each according to his own capacities, and he knew that his own were small.' Paltriness and universality are deviously interchangeable, and by the same hidden aversions in Forster that cause him to invent Godbole to embody the duality, so it is his humanistic-religiose joke to see Mrs Moore mistakenly (yet rightly) transformed by popular legend into a goddess and to settle carefully for a view of the ceremonies and reconciliation-in-collision by Indians and English on the lake which is emotionally not defined at all: … 'Looking back at the great blur of the last twenty-four hours, no man could say where was the emotional centre of it, any more than he could locate the heart of a cloud.' At the 'emotional centre', blurred over, one suspects, is an unexamined aversion towards the involving demand in human relations…. (pp. 6-7)
Richard Swigg, in PN Review (© PN Review 1977), 1977.