E. M. Forster

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Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 3)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1897–1970

An English novelist of rare sensibility, a short story writer, and essayist, Forster is considered one of the most important writers of our time. He is best known for his greatest novel, A Passage to India, and for the motto "only connect," around which Howards End is constructed. His Aspects of the Novel is basic to modern literary criticism. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28.)

[Just] as there is a subtle contradiction within Forster's attitude to himself—he who clings to a view of life which he sees clearly is basically not satisfactory so there is a subtle contradiction in his attitude to his characters. They are what their world has made them, yes, and they have, like their creator, a resilience, a down-to-earth, practical, quite unsentimental optimism, an almost insolent power of recuperation from the buffets and cruelties of life; yet they never quite manage to master life, even their odd particular corner of it, so that there is always a certain sense in an E. M. Forster novel of life's being rather more casual than it is, not flat, not mechanical, certainly not dull, but arbitrary somewhere deep down.

Up to a point this sense of the arbitrariness of existence is one of the great virtues of A Passage to India. The sudden shafts of violence, of horrors, of death and of the indifference of the living to the dead, are extremely effective in the novel, both in conveying the actual unexpectedness of life's detail and in counteracting the urbane, high comedy tone of Forster's narrative manner….

The weakness of all Forster's novels lies in a failure to dramatize quite convincingly the positive values which he has to set against the destroyers of the morality of the heart. In Howards End he lapses into a rather half-hearted paean in praise of country life and the yeoman stock in whom lies Britain's hope. In A Passage to India the weakness lies in a certain vagueness surrounding the Mrs. Moore-Professor Godbole material….

And yet the tentativeness, the humility of Forster's attitude is not something to undervalue. The "perhapses" that lie at the core of his novels, constantly pricking the facile generalization, hinting at the unpredictable element in the most fully analysed relationship, cannot be brushed aside as mere liberal pusillanimity. He seems to me a writer of scrupulous intelligence, of tough and abiding insights, who has never been afraid of the big issues or the difficult ones and has scorned to hide his doubts and weaknesses behind a facade of wordiness and self-protective conformity. His very vulnerability is a kind of strength.

Arnold Kettle, "E. M. Forster: A Passage to India (1924)," in his An Introduction to the English Novel, Volume Two (copyright © 1960 by Arnold Kettle; reprinted by permission of Hutchinson & Co., Publishers, and Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Hutchinson, 1960, pp. 152-63.

The symbols, like the cultural generalizations, the sense of place, and the repetitious patterns and echoes throughout the [novels], are part of Forster's form, his novelistic control. He never pretends that the form represents "truth," that the symbols or the cultural generalizations encapsulate human experience. Rather, the elements of form are an introduction to the vastness of human experience, a partial statement of the ranges of human possibility. Beyond the limits of form, symbol, and generalization, in Forster's terms, is a mystery we can never fully explain, a sense of passion and power like Beethoven's that is not translatable into words.

Since, for Forster, the novel is, as he said in Aspects of the Novel, "one of the moister areas of literature," there is no reason why his forms should be complete, no necessity for his symbols or his patterns to express all of human experience. The form is part of the conscious search, the attempt. But this leads to a paradox at the very center of Forster's fiction . At the same time that his patterned forms are a search or...

(The entire section is 3,037 words.)