Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 1)
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 restored—proportion in human relations, in social, political, and economic relations, in the equilibrium between thought and action, in the balance of things (machinery) and people, in, finally, the union of the body and the spirit…. What is awry for all these people is their vision—the ability to see life steady and see it whole. So perceived by rightminded and righthearted human beings, says Forster, it must improve.
For Forster there are a few people who stand above the human struggle, people of whom it can hardly be said that they "see" or "perceive" the truth. The turth for them is felt, is known intuitively, and they exude an influence rather than engage actively in a program of reform….
As with Forster's earlier novels, he is primarily concerned [in A Passage to India] with matters of human conduct and especially with the dark places in the human heart which make for unhappiness and confusion not only between individuals but between races and nations…. In A Passage to India, Forster's intent is … to present not only western civilization in collision with eastern, imperial with colonial, the human heart in conflict with the machinery of government, class, and race, but also a mystical, highly symbolic view of life, death, and human relationship. That he does not succeed entirely is not surprising in view of the great expanse of his canvas…. Yet Forster's novels are mainly successful in spite of the defects which they sometimes contain. To balance the sense of frivolity and incompleteness which the author encourages by his startling elimination of major characters, there is the utter charm of Forster's narration. He has not surrendered to the vogue of impersonality and detachment. With conservative aplomb, therefore, he brings to bear on the actions of his characters the whimsical, totally honest, totally forthright reflections of an engaging mind. His cultivated sense of humor obtrudes itself to give point to the seriousness of his themes. His awareness of political and social currents is clear, and yet his fiction is free from the propagandizing tendencies which characterize much of the writing of his time. Matthew Arnold's "sweetness and light" emanate from Forster's novels with an intensity seldom matched among modern authors in English.
Frederick R. Karl and Marvin Magalaner, in their A Reader's Guide to Great Twentieth-Century English Novels, Farrar, Straus, 1959, pp. 102-24.
Technically, Forster is a very old-fashioned novelist; so far as he is concerned, neither the French Naturalists nor James might have written. His plots, that of A Passage to India excepted, are as improbable and as melodramatic as any in Victorian fiction; and in his own person of the omniscient narrator, he comments on his characters, interprets their motives and actions, moralizes on them, bids us admire or detest. As with Fielding and Thackeray, his novels are triumphs of a personal attitude expressed in a special tone of voice; and it is the tone of voice, the style, which gives his novels their unity and almost persuades us to ignore the improbable violence of the earlier ones and the discontinuities of his attitude.
But what is his attitude? It is more complex and ambiguous than may at first appear. Fundamental to his public attitude has been his faith in the holiness of the heart's affections and in personal relations, rational discourse and disinterestedness, qualities associated with the good life as conceived through his experiences of Cambridge University as a young man. When we turn to the novels, however, we see that things are not so simple. The rational surface is deceptive…. For Forster, then, beneath the surface of things there is a nullity, a void. Fundamentally, Forster is a tragic humanist for whom man justified himself by his self-awareness and by the fruits of his imagination, by the arts, especially, perhaps, music. Forster is the advocate of balance, of the whole man; but man is rarely balanced and few are whole.
Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 36-7.
The thin, dry atmosphere of Forster's books is bracing, yet too rarefied for the characters to live healthy and fully physical lives; they are sometimes so over-strung, emotionally and intellectually, that their crises seem to be rooted in hysteria…. E. M. Forster's style is luminous and sensitive, and his books have many beautiful passages; his satire is sharp and penetrating as he deals with conventions and incidentals; and there is profound (sometimes bitter) irony in the poising of massive effects upon tiny causes, like a monstrous inverted pyramid. Nevertheless, when admiration has been fully expressed, the feeling returns that the characters are caged in the author's mind, unable to escape into actuality. There is in the manner of his novels, too, a quality that falls just short of austerity by being a trifle over-close to frigidity. This chill is less apparent in his essays on a variety of subjects in Abinger Harvest (1936), a companionable and often a wise book, which is supplemented by the further collection in Two Cheers for Democracy (1952).
With his small output of five novels E. M. Forster obtained a unique repute with a select audience including a large number of fellow-novelists of both sexes. His key phrase, 'only connect', is indicative of his sense of the essential loneliness of the modern civilized human, a theme taken up more ponderously by other writers who surprisingly overlook its familiarity in general experience, and treat as a harrowing semi-tragedy what is in fact a universal commonplace. In Forster's novels, however, the theme is handled with austere grace and distinction of language by a humanist and liberal thinker.
A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 69-70.
E. M. Forster is for me the only [contemporary] novelist who can be read again and again and who, after each reading, gives me what few writers can give us after our first days of novel-reading, the sensation of having learned something…. In America Forster has never established a great reputation. Perhaps his readers are more numerous than I suppose, but at best they make a quiet band, and his novels—excepting A Passage To India, and that for possibly fortuitous reasons—are still esoteric with us. In England, although scarcely a popular writer, he is widely known and highly regarded; still, it is not at all certain whether even in England he is properly regarded and truly known. (p. 7)
It is Forster's manner, no doubt, that prevents a greater response to his work. That manner is comic; Forster owes much to Fielding, Dickens, Meredith and James. And nowadays even the literate reader is likely to be unschooled in the comic tradition and unaware of the comic seriousness…. Forster is not only comic, he is often playful. He is sometimes irritating in his refusal to be great. Greatness in literature, even in comedy, seems to have some affinity with greatness in government and war, suggesting power, a certain sternness, a touch of the imperial and imperious. But Forster, who in certain moods might say with Swift, "I have hated all nations, professions and communities, and all my love is for individuals," fears power and suspects formality as the sign of power. "Distrust every enterprise that requires new clothes" is the motto one of his characters inscribes over his wardrobe. It is a maxim of only limtied wisdom; new thoughts sometimes need new clothes and the seriousness of Forster's intellectual enterprise if too often reduced by the unbuttoned manner he affects. The quaint, the facetious and the chatty sink his literary criticism below its proper level; they diminish the stature of his short fiction and they even touch, though they never actually harm, the five novels; the true comic note sometimes drops to mere chaff and we now and then wish that the style were less comfortable and more arrogant…. In all this Forster is not bizarre. He simply has the certainty of the great novelists that any novel is a made-up thing and that a story, in order to stand firmly on reality, needs to keep no more than one foot on probability. (pp. 8-10)
Hawthorne is no doubt the greater artist and perhaps the greater moralist, yet Forster stands with him in his unremitting concern with moral realism. All novelists deal with morality, but not all novelists, or even all good novelists, are concerned with moral realism, which is not the awareness of morality itself but of the contradictions, paradoxes and dangers of living the moral life. To the understanding of the inextricable tangle of good and evil and of how perilous moral action can be, Hawthorne was entirely devoted. Henry James followed him in this devotion and after James, though in a smaller way, comes Forster, who can say of one of his characters that he was "cursed with the Primal Curse, which is not the knowledge of good and evil, but the knowledge of good-and-evil." (pp. 11-12)
Forster's plots are always sharp and definite, for he expresses difference by means of struggle, and struggle by means of open conflict so intense as to flare into melodrama and even into physical violence. Across each of his novels runs a barricade; the opposed forces on each side are Good and Evil in the forms of Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Fertility and Sterility, Courage and Respectability, Intelligence and Stupidity—all the great absolutes that are so dull when discussed in themselves. The comic manner, however, will not tolerate absolutes. It stands on the barricade and casts doubt on both sides. The fierce plots move forward to grand simplicities but the comic manner confuses the issues, forcing upon us the difficulties and complications of the moral fact. The plot suggests eternal division, the manner reconciliation; the plot speaks of clear certainties, the manner resolutely insists that nothing can be quite so simple. (p. 12)
[His] novels are politically and morally tendentious and always in the liberal direction. Yet he is deeply at odds with the liberal mind, and while liberal readers can go a long way with Forster, they can seldom go all the way. They can understand him when he attacks the manners and morals of the British middle class, when he speaks out for spontaneity of feeling, for the virtues of sexual fulfillment, for the values of intelligence; they go along with him when he speaks against the class system, satirizes soldiers and officials, questions the British Empire and attacks business ethics and the public schools. But sooner or later they begin to make reservations and draw back. They suspect Forster is not quite playing their game; they feel that he is challenging them as well as what they dislike. And they are right. For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism. Forster is at war with the liberal imagination. (p. 13)
Forster's insistence on the double turn, on the something else that lies behind, is sometimes taken for "tolerance," but although it often suggests forgiveness (a different thing), it almost as often makes the severest judgments. And even when it suggests forgiveness it does not spring so much from gentleness of heart as from respect for two facts co-existing, from the moral realism that understands the one apple tasted. (pp. 16-17)
To an American, one of the most notable things about Forster's work is the directness and consciousness of its connection with tradition. We know of Forster that he is a Hellenist but not a "classicist," that he loves Greece in its mythical and naturalistic aspects, that Plato has never meant much to him, perhaps because he mistrusts the Platonic drive to the absolute and the Platonic judgment of the body and the senses. He dislikes the Middle Ages and all in Dante that is medieval. He speaks of himself as a humanist and traces his descent to Erasmus and Montaigne. He is clearly in the romantic line, yet his admiration for Goethe and Shelley is qualified; Beethoven is a passion with him but he distrusts Schumann. He has no faith in the regenerative power of Christianity and he is frequently hostile to the clergy, yet he has a tenderness for religion because it expresses, though it does not solve, the human mystery…. The great thing Forster has been able to learn from his attachment to tradition and from his sense of the past is his belief in the present. He has learned not to be what most of us are—eschatological…. This is a moral and historical error into which Forster never falls; his whole work, indeed, is an implied protest against it. The very relaxation of his style, its colloquial unpretentiousness, is a mark of his acceptance of the human fact as we know it now. He is content with the human possibility and content with its limitations. The way of human action of course does not satisfy him, but he does not believe there are any new virtues to be discovered; not by becoming better, he says, but by ordering and distributing his native goodness can man live as befits him. (pp. 19-23)
Forster is that remarkably rare being, a naturalist whose naturalism is positive and passionate, not negative, passive and apologetic for man's nature. He accepts the many things the liberal imagination likes to put out of sight. He can accept, for example, not only the reality but the power of death…. He is one of the thinking people who were never led by thought to suppose they could be more than human and who in bad times, will not become less. (pp. 23-4)
The theme [of the undeveloped heart] is almost obsessive with Forster. It is not the unfeeling or perverted heart that absorbs him, but the heart untrained and untutored, the heart checked too early in its natural possible growth. His whole literary effort is a research into this profound pathology. (p. 28)
Forster's style at its best—and that is in the novels—is the style of personal discourse, a middle style, easy and lucid. It presupposes a reader, and it is intended to set the reader at ease and to convince or persuade without bullying. At its best it is simple and direct…. This is a style that flourishes more easily in England than in America. (p. 33)
[In his] early stories are the clearly stated themes which Forster will develop through his career as a novelist—the basic theme of the inadequate heart, the themes of the insufficient imagination, of death, money, snobbery and salvation. And not only are Forster's persisting themes announced in these early works but also the character types which we shall encounter in all his novels. (p. 46)
Lionel Trilling, in his E. M. Forster (Copyright 1943; © 1964 by New Directions Publishing Corporation; reprinted by permission of New Directions Publishing Corporation), New Directions, 2nd edition, 1964.
It is sometimes said that E. M. Forster is, in literature, the last survivor of a cultured liberal tradition which has now been swept away by two world wars, by economics and by the internecine struggle of dogmatically opposed ideas. If this tradition is imagined as being gentle, tolerant, and intelligent; as containing an intense enthusiasm for the arts and a passionate hatred of imperialism, it is true that Mr Forster is in the tradition. But he is also capable of standing outside it. He is creative beyond the boundaries of a mild tolerance, more deeply moved and more deeply moving than one who carries for a short period an inherited torch. Though he has influenced many others, he shows in his own work no obvious derivations. His books are filled with a passion for truth in personal emotions and relationships, a hatred for what is false and smug. He accepts the size and grandeur of the world, then with a vigorous modesty comes to grips with it. So a world of art is created and, in its turn, shapes and alters what exists. (pp. 7-8)
Nearly all E. M. Forster's short stories are frankly didactic and much influenced by Greek mythology and ideas. He believes, as did the Ancient Greeks, that the natural passions and emotions of the body are good, and that the world would be a better place if man would enjoy them honestly and without shame. (p. 8)
It is in some ways odd that E. M. Forster should have chosen the novel form in which to expound his views. Of all art forms the novel is the least abstract; it pretends that life is a neat and well-ordered affair. Nevertheless the lives of most of Mr Forster's characters are not well-ordered; they are a muddle, incidentally a word and a conception of which he seems greatly fond. His novels are much concerned with what a character in one of them has called 'the anodyne of muddledom." (p. 9)
It is the … two qualities [lack of imagination and hypocrisy] which are chiefly satirized in the novels They are responsible for what Mr Forster has called the 'undeveloped heart', one of the central themes of his thought. (p. 10)
Brilliant as he is in his treatment of women on all occasions except when they are in love, he seems to deal with their love scenes as if they were unavoidable plagues. Nor is he much more successful with the men, all of whom, when in love, become suddenly incredible. Nor, I think, does Forster mean this to happen. He might well suggest that love between the sexes is a transitory experience of which much is hoped and from which little comes. But it is not quite this that he does suggest. One is tempted to feel that what he thinks is that this is one of the things that he ought to like, but doesn't. And his women are usually made to answer for it. (p. 12)
One other point about Forster's method should be made clear…. It is, in its own way, a symbolic or allegorical method. The characters mean more than they say; the plot suggests more than is actually there…. His horizons expand beyond the limits that he sets for them. His writing, in fact, is poetical, not realistic. (p. 13)
Rex Warner, in his E. M. Forster, Longman Group Ltd., for the British Council, 1964.
Forster's principal writings concern the failure of human beings to communicate with one another satisfactorily, their failure to smash down the walls of prejudice that have risen between them and to establish among themselves the relationships that are so richly possible. Given a wider application, this is the history of humanity in our time…. The value of his fiction lies to a great extent in his representative portraits of people. (p. 3)
The outstanding characteristic of [Forster's short] stories [is] they are almost entirely given over to fantasy, mythology, magic, the supernatural. These elements are sometimes at the edge of Forster's novels, and in A Passage to India there is a suggestion that they have made a definite invasion; yet the novels for the most part are in the vein of everyday realism. They are pointed up by the comic and the ironic, but they remain largely within the area of the realistic (though rarely the naturalistic)…. [In] Forster's short stories, on the other hand,… [we] may meet in any of them a group of plausible people, and they may say what we might expect them to say, but there is always the tense possibility that, without warning, a poltergeist will start tumbling the furniture about. No reader is quite "safe" in a Forster short story.
Still another aspect of his work in this medium should be noted. The themes are essentially those of the novels. In other words, Forster in the short stories adopts the guise of fantasy to put across what he says realistically in his longer fiction. (p. 6)
The element of the romantic in Forster's fiction, so often neglected in discussion of his work, appears forcibly in Howards End, not so much in relation to love as in relation to a romantic feeling for the earth, the places on it, and their influence. There is, above all, Howards End itself, the center of sanctification for both Mrs. Wilcoxes. It is a way of life upon the earth. (p. 37)
A Passage to India, the only one of the novels set entirely outside England, has its own complexities and contains a mystery not too easy to resolve. As a novel,… it is more satisfactory than any of the others, for a number of reasons. For one thing, it has more dramatization (and significant description that bears on the action) and fewer editorial comments than all the rest. More important, all its characters, English and Indian, are convincing: there are no imperfections in the portraiture such as there were in the instances of Stephen Wonham and Leonard Bast. And because the people of A Passage to India fuse so readily with theme and plot, the book is satisfactory in a way that no other Forster novel is: he had achieved a mastery of the medium. (p. 37)
Democracy, which has been on the defensive, would answer in the affirmative, and Forster's work has again and again celebrated the good points of democracy. Yet within the framework of the system itself, individual human beings are unable to "connect." E. M. Forster's novels have given us an important vision of this failure. They are art, first of all, a recording and a projecting of life, but they have looked deeply enough into life to be also prophetic, and importantly so. They have accomplished this with comedy, pathos, romance, and irony, and with an implicit sense of the tragic, for they have shown what Zeus in the Iliad calls blindness of heart when he says that the gods should not be blamed by mortals for the trouble they have brought upon themselves through their own blindness of heart. It is just such human weakness that Forster deals with, always keeping the accent on the human, on the behavior of individual human beings. Of all imaginative works in English in this century, Forster's stand highest among those which may properly be called humanistic. (p. 45)
Harry T. Moore, in his E. M. Forster ("Columbia Essays on Modern Writers," No. 10), Columbia University Press, 1965.
Forster criticism of recent years has tended to overlook the fact that A Passage to India is a very funny novel as well as a very serious one. Clearly one of the distinctions of Forster's masterwork is the fluency with which it moves back and forth from shrewd social comedy to the most exacting kind of metaphysical speculation…. Forster has always been primarily a comic writer in that his moral values are consistently those of the comic spirit—reasonableness and common sense. When his characters are funny, they are funny because they are stupid.
Vereen M. Bell, "Comic Seriousness in A Passage to India," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1967 by the Duke University Press), Autumn, 1967, pp. 606-17.
E. M. Forster … could never be accused of writing too much. His first novel—Where Angels Fear to Tread—appeared in 1905, and his fifth, last and best—A Passage to India—in 1924. On this mere handful a very formidable reputation rests. The Forsterian technique is traditional, and some of his plot-elements seem to belong to the world of melodrama rather than to the sophisticated modern novel, but his originality and subtlety lie in the dry, often sceptical, frequently witty, always civilized commentary. Perhaps his themes are best summed up in the motto to Howards End—'Only connect'—and the remark of Helen Schlegel in the same book: 'Personal relations are the important thing for ever and ever, and not this outer world of telegrams and anger.' Two worlds are always trying but always failing to connect—that of a society with formal conventions, some intelligence but no real grasp of life's purpose; that of the individuals who lie outside this society, generally inefficacious in action, aware of personal inadequacy but, at moments of crisis, better able to act than the group that, superficially, is better endowed. The melodramatic situations are contrived so that human capacity can be tested to the uttermost.
Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 32-3.
Actually, Forster has written two masterpieces—his last novel and his first, Where Angels Fear to Tread. Angels is on a much smaller scale than Passage; it is a perfect little comedy of manners. Such success at first try shows that Forster's talent is essentially comic; and criticism, which is better suited to talk about the ideas and symbols in the novels, has never done justice to their lightness and charm. Except for George Eliot in her lighter moments, Forster is the only English novelist in whom one can discern another Jane Austen.
Robert Langbaum, "A New Look at E. M. Forster," in The Southern Review, Vol. IV, No. 1, Winter, 1968, pp. 33-49 (and in The Modern Spirit, by Robert Langbaum, Oxford University Press, 1970, pp. 127-46).
[Forster] discovered [after World War I] that the social world he had known was no longer firm; and his humanistic values, strong enough for him to live by, were insufficient to support him in major creative efforts. He was not able, therefore, to depict in fiction a milieu that had grown strange to him. Postwar Europe repudiated, at least in part, the values he had cherished; or it embraced values alien to him. Forster's miscellaneous work in the 1930's and later broadened his range, extended his authority, and increased his stature as a man of letters, however disappointing his abandoning the novel may have been. (pp. 9-10)
In the 1930's Forster remained an influence, more as a critic perhaps than as an artist. His voice became increasingly public, as the menace at home and abroad to intellectual freedom and democratic institutions became sharper. By World War II Forster had become a spokesman for the cultivated public and the intelligentsia alike with his protests against domestic conformity and Nazi tyranny in The Nordic Twilight, in the broadcast talks based on this book, and in numerous other utterances. Forster's values were, in the main, still those of nineteenth-century Romanticism, liberalism, and humanism…. With the publication of Lionel Trilling's E. M. Forster (1943) the present "Forster revival" began. (p. 10)
From the beginning Forster's values have been ambivalent…. [Respect] for lucid intelligence, as it grapples with the realm of fact, opposes an intimation, basic to Romanticism, that an ineffable realm lies just beyond the world perceived by the senses. Two main strands in Forster's mind became evident: the rational, skeptical, logical, or Apollonian; and the intuitive, religious, imaginative, or Dionysian. These tendencies form the basis of contrasting humanisms dramatized in the novels: Mrs. Moore's versus Fielding's in A Passage to India, Stephen Wonham's versus Stewart Ansell's in The Longest Journey. Characters like Rickie Elliot, Margaret Schlegel, and Professor Godbole unite, with varying success, both ranges of experience. In his fiction Forster charts, accordingly, the relationships between secular experience and mystical aspiration, between the tangible and the intangible, between the empirically observed and the transcendentally poetic…. It was Forster's aim to fuse into a single vision such opposed entities as body and soul, prose and poetry, fact and aspiration, intellect and mysticism. At times he attains in his fables the balance he seeks. At other times … the novels illustrate the failure of the characters to connect rather than their reconciliation of the contrarieties of life. In any event, the novels are significant for the spirited efforts made by the central characters to achieve wholeness, whatever their success in such an enterprise may be.
One of Forster's links with nineteenth-century Romanticism is a belief in the fecundity of earth and in its regenerative powers…. In A Passage to India Forster only tentatively asserts this trust in nature as leading to spiritual renewal, as in the concluding section when the autumn rains revive the parched earth. Still, Forster never abandoned the Romantic view of nature as a source of spiritual reality and moral inspiration, although India for much of the year is a wasteland inimical to life. (pp. 24-7)
Forster upon occasion regards passion as subsidiary to companionship…. Love can reach beyond sex to include the whole of mankind; and Eros can become Agapé to the degree that it aligns us with our fellow men…. In the early days of World War II, Forster, was, however, suspicious of love as a civilizing agent. The greatest of all forces in private life, he feared, might mislead in public affairs and provide a less certain means for social reconstruction than would tolerance…. Love is positive in its inception and operation; tolerance, negative. Love provides, says Forster, a satisfying explanation of our earthly existence; but tolerance may avert disaster from it. Love and tolerance are both opposed to passivity and complacency: tolerance risks the loss of political advantage and may entail various embarrassments; love risks destruction by one's personal enemies.
The individual in Forster's view has worth, not only socially and politically, but metaphysically as he achieves, progressively, a state of inner illumination…. Whereas the aggrandizement of the ego may have its dangers, we can guard against them if we know them for what they are. Egoism can face two ways: without imagination, it becomes the "vilest" aspect of life; with imagination, the "highest." (p. 30-1)
In the conflict of the individual with the community, Forster favors the individual…. The liberal orders his sensitivity, his intellect, and his powers of contemplative insight to encourage from within a change of heart in himself and others. Perhaps this purposeful cultivation of the private self, of good will and charity, is basic to meaningful social action, especially since, as Forster said, so many of the panaceas of the 1930's were not radical enough…. The only sure basis for reform, Forster maintained, lies in the appeal to the individual's conscience and to his sense of identification with other men as components of the human race. (p. 32)
In Forster's world,… men do not know enough to control natural, let alone moral, evil, even if … Forster conceives the humanist's responsibility to be that of utilizing reason to secure the greatest degree of internal and external order. (pp. 37-8)
Forster is skeptical of science and its results, especially when the intelligence acts oblivious of ethical considerations. Yet his own intelligence allowed Forster to supplement the idealism of his humanistic philosophy with more rigorous concepts. His is no blind faith in human possibilities, no unconsidered belief in the nobilty of man's nature and the rightness of all his impulses. Balancing Forster's Romantic enthusiasms, there is his consciousness of man' limitations. (p. 39)
Forster's consciousness of the presence of evil forces in human nature and in society informs the confessional "What I Believe." This essay is less optimistic in tenor than some of the earlier prose pieces, but also less pessimistic than A Passage to India. Tolerance, good temper, sympathy—the humanistic virtues—are all precious attributes; but unfortunately, says Forster, they are not widely effective in a world characterized by religious and racial persecution, in which ignorance rules and in which science has been deflected from altruistic ends. Still, in a world of violence, personal relationships, if they are not powerful, provide evidence that values other than empirically perceived ones exist and that men have noble impulses as well as insidious instincts. We can believe still in the residual goodness of human nature; we can, with respect to human possibilities, still "shelter a flickering flame." Forster concludes that earthly life is not a failure but a tragedy, principally because it is difficult to translate private decencies into public ones. (p. 40)
Frederick P. W. McDowell, in his E. M. Forster, Twayne, 1969.
Wherever Forster departs from common usage he becomes precious and 'literary' in both vocabulary—'glebe', 'ere', 'difficile', 'with child' for pregnant, 'without' for outside—and syntax—'all was not sadness', 'here had lived an elder race', 'after him came silence absolute', 'much did she censure'. And alongside these strange departures is found another idiom which is straight out of women's magazines, where people speak 'rather seriously' or 'after profound reflections' or, when they are especially moved, 'quietly'; they walk 'briskly' and their hair is 'ruffled' by the wind; cars 'slip out' of towns and gas lamps 'glimmer'. What is unusual and what is stock in Forster's language both reflect a mind that experiences the world as if it were the stuff of middle-brow fiction….
Alongside [the] 'poetry' in Forster's style and no doubt intended to counterbalance its intensity is an ironic tone, which one might call 'the chatty'. This ironic chattiness makes Forster, Trilling says (by way of a compliment), 'irritating in his refusal to be great'. Malcolm Bradbury calls it his 'sense of scrupulous integrity' and the 'devastating moral rigour' with which he scrutinizes his own commitments. But ironic self-doubt is not necessarily rigorous or scrupulous; like other forms of modesty it is often simple prudence. Forster's self-defensive ironic stance seems more the effect of a suspicion that he is over-reaching himself than one half of a complex vision. Why else, except from fear that he is making a fool of himself, does he resort so often to capital letters ('Remorse', 'Nature', 'Time', 'Death', 'Judgment', 'Love and Truth')—as if these could, miraculously, rescue him from the truisms and platitudes he has fallen into?…
Like his metaphors and authorial comments, Forster's symbols draw attention to themselves—there is something uncomfortably self-conscious about them. They seem to be stuck on characters and incidents arbitrarily, to be signifying importances that haven't been supplied, like signposts to non-existent towns or labels on empty boxes.
Duke Maskell, "Style and Symbolism in Howards End," in Essays in Criticism, July, 1969, pp. 292-308.
[Considering] that Forster was … at the height of his powers as a novelist [when he wrote Maurice in 1913–14], the book [posthumously published in 1971] is curiously disappointing. Yet, in principle, it has every intriguing ingredient…. Had Forster published Maurice when it was written the book would, however, have seemed strange and brave, even outrageous. It would probably have made his life—doomed to run so placidly—impossible. So he suppressed it. Now the novel comes too late and seems too much a period piece, with its outdated manners, class attitudes, and sad, bright undergraduate chatter…. Like all of Forster's novels, Maurice has its own brand of self-effacing courage and originality; it also handles tactfully what was then an impossible volatile subject [homosexuality]. Why, then, should the book seem now so lightweight, so disappointing?…
[The] failure of Maurice is a matter of artistic balance and priorities. All through his career Forster's fatal Cleopatra was Cambridge, and here, although he finally turns on her in the person of Clive, her seductions are inescapable. Page after page is devoted to the high-minded maundering, the coltish high feeling and playfulness of the two "young gentlemen" lovers, all of which is somehow justified and rendered spiritual by the beauty of the place, by the faintly spurious air of high civilization emanating from the architecture, the river, the fields….
A. Alvarez, "E. M. Forster: From Snobbery to Love," in Saturday Review, October 16, 1971, pp. 39-40, 42-3.