E. M. Forster

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Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 1)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

A British novelist of unique sensibility, Forster also wrote short stories, plays, and criticism. He is remembered for A Passage to India, Howard's End, and the critical Aspects of the Novel. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

The generation which has gone by since [A Passage to India] was published has helped to put Forster's achievement in perspective. Lacking the complex and intricate artistry of a Proust or a Mann, he is nonetheless a novelist of unusual force. His plots, always simple, direct, and economical, excite the reader's interest and keep his attention. And though in the early years of this century, the ideas behind the plots must have been fresh and startling, so thoroughly have they been made part of the fabric of liberal thought since World War I that they impress today's reader as clichés, no matter how well expressed. As a picture of the intellectual and emotional environment of Forster's younger days, however, his novels remain unparalleled source material….

Forster's plan in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) is daringly uncomplicated. Take several characters whose mode of life has made them unsatisfactory as fully-functioning human beings. Place them suddenly in a richer, warmer, emotionally more primitive civilization. Record the results, if not with detachment, then with the sympathy that points a moral. The plan had been tried earlier, and with spectacular literary success, by Henry James. Forster gave it the stamp of his own peculiar social and cultural liberalism—and a directness of statement which his predecessor seldom possessed.

The motifs of the book, and of all Forster's fiction, may be seen as a series of antitheses: true communication versus mere suburban small talk; the fundamental love of which men are capable versus the convenient alliances of Sawston society; reality versus a jealously harbored illusion; the forms of civilization (machinery) versus the apparently formless currents that connect one human being to another; ancient myths versus their modern application; and the insistence that none of these antitheses is ever fully operative in a world of half tones….

Forster's most ambitious novel is an extension of his liberal philosophy to fiction. This is said not in extenuation of its expository propaganda for a reordering of life: Howards End hardly requires apologies. As a novel it attempts—almost successfully—to fix England momentarily under a powerful microscope and to isolate the disease that is sapping the strength of Forster's countrymen. The author's subsequent diagnosis and proposed therapy are no more a superfluous extrusion on the work of art than a physician's prescription would be redundant at the end of his examination.

Though Forster goes into minute details of the malady, it may be summed up briefly as lack of proportion. To put the proposition positively, health will return to England when proportion is...

(The entire section is 6,342 words.)