E. M. Forster

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Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

Forster was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic. His concept of humanism, reflected in all of his novels, was forged through an understanding and acceptance of both traditional and modern interpretations of the term. That is, he was concerned with both the study of classical texts and with the philosophy of human relationships and values. He rejected the precepts of Christianity, as is evidenced in his most famous work, A Passage to India, where the central principle of Hinduism, that of total acceptance, is posited as the greatest unifying force for mankind. A Passage to India, published in 1924, was Forster's last major work, followed only by essays and small minor pieces. Critics speculate that his inner struggle with his homosexuality (revealed only after his death) prevented Forster from adding to a collection of work that marks him as a major twentieth-century author. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Frank Kermode

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Forster is a kind of Symbolist. He declares for the autonomy of the work of art; for co-essence of form and meaning; for art as "organic and free from dead matter"; for music as a criterion of formal purity; for the work's essential anonymity. Like all art, he thinks, the novel must fuse differentiation into unity, in order to provide meaning we can experience; art is "the one orderly product that our muddling race has produced," the only unity and therefore the only meaning. This is Symbolist. But there are interesting qualifications to be made; they bear on the question of differentiation, of stresses within the unity…. (pp. 90-1)

The first qualification arises from Mr. Forster's celebrated insistence on the point that the novel tells a story…. In the novel, the matter which seeks pure form is itself impure. This sounds like the old Symbolist envy of music; but we soon learn that Mr. Forster really values this impurity…. He agrees with [H. G. Wells] that "life should be given the preference, and must not be whittled or distended for a pattern's sake." If "life" in this sense is pattern-resisting, impure, nevertheless our direct revelation of reality, pure as it is, must somehow include it. One thinks of Valéry, who said that no poem could be pure poetry and still be a poem. Unity implies the inclusion of impurity.

The second qualification again brings the French Symbolist to mind. "Organic unity"—art's kind of unity—has to be produced by a process coarsely characterised by Mr. Forster himself as "faking." "All a writer's faculties," he says, "including the valuable faculty of faking, do conspire together … for the creative act." "Faking" is the power he so greatly admired in Virginia Woolf. (p. 91)

In this sense of the word, a novel not only fakes human relationships but also, working against muddle and chance, fakes an idea of order without which those relationships could have no significance. The fraud committed is, in fact, a general benefaction of significance…. I must have some sort of a shot at the task of illustrating how, in A Passage to India, where it is almost inconceivably elaborate, the faking is done. The events it describes include the coming of Krishna, which makes the world whole by love; and the novel's own analogous unity is achieved by faking.

One can start at the opening chapter, indeed the opening sentence. "Except for the Marabar Caves—and they are twenty miles off—the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary." Easy, colloquial, if with a touch of the guide-book, the words set a scene. But they will reach out and shape the organic whole. Or, to put it another way, they lie there, lacking all rhetorical emphasis, waiting for the relations which will give them significance to the eye of "love." But they are prepared for these relations. The order of principal and subordinate clauses, for instance,...

(The entire section is 5,502 words.)