E. M. Forster Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 10) - Essay


(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, is inverted, so that the exception may be mentioned first—"except for the Marabar Caves." The excepted is what must be included if there is to be meaning; first things first. First, then, the extraordinary which governs and limits significance; then, secondly, we may consider the city. It keeps the caves at a distance; it is free of mystery till night-fall, when the caves close in to question its fragile appearance of order—an appearance that depends upon a social conspiracy to ignore the extraordinary. Henceforth, in this novel, the word "extraordinary" is never used without reference to the opening sentence. It belongs to the caves. The last words of the first chapter speak once more of "the extraordinary caves." Miss Quested's behaviour in relation to the caves is "extraordinary."

It is a characteristically brilliant device; the word occurs so naturally in conversation that its faked significance cannot disturb the story. The characters say "extraordinary" but the novelist means "extra-ordinary."… The caves are the exception that menaces the city, the city of gardens and geometrical roads made by the English, the Indian city of unholy muddle. And sometimes it is possible to exclude them, to ignore them like the distance beyond distance in the sky, because, like God in the song of the beautiful ecstatic girl, they are without attributes.

In a sense,...

(The entire section is 1769 words.)

Malcolm Bradbury

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Recent criticism of Forster has tended to take a different approach [from earlier commentaries]; in a variety of ways it has demonstrated that Forster's intellectual and technical character is a good deal more complex and more modern than the earlier view allows. What has been shown to us clearly over recent years is—among other things—the complexity and resource of Forster's fictional method, particularly in Howards End and A Passage to India, his last two novels…. On the other hand, the balance of criticism has now turned so far in favour of regarding Forster as a modern symbolist that we are sometimes in danger of forgetting the important fact about him that many earlier critics never got beyond—that he is a comic social novelist, a writer of comedy of manners, a man who manifests and is attentive to the social and historical context out of which he derives. This is not the whole Forster, but it is a Forster who never ceases to be present in all the novels, short stories, travel books, and essays.

There is another view of Forster—associated with the opinion that his fictional manner is Victorian—which has also tended to fade. This is the view that he is intellectually a Victorian, that he is visibly the child of English middle-class liberalism, a liberalism that has an evident historical location in the heyday of the advanced, but wealthy, intellectual bourgeoisie. To locate a writer like this is often an effective means of limiting him, a means of suggesting that his work has not transcended its determining situation, that it is not universal…. Certainly Forster does derive much from the Victorian intellectual tradition…. And this means that he derives substantially from the Romantic debate which continued through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Forster himself has made such debts quite plain; and he clearly does espouse many of the attitudes of nineteenth century romantic and political liberalism. But he also confronts an essentially modern disquiet; the generous and positive optimism about the future that one finds in the nineteenth century is already uneasy in Forster before the First World War, which challenged that optimism so very radically. Forster, in Howards End, is one of the first novelists who portrayed in depth the struggle of the modern intelligentsia to define its alliances, who depicted both its disquiet about its independence and the principles that determine that independence…. When we call him a liberal humanist, then, we must be aware of his impulse to mysticism, on the one hand, and his sense of the difficulties of liberalism and openness of view on the other. He is prepared to assert a reconciling, enlarging, invisible quality in the "unseen," and thus to challenge his classical rationalism; at the same time, his visions, though they may suggest an order or...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster's chief failure in Maurice is his conception of his protagonist. It is not that Maurice Hall does not possess life; rather, it is the kind of life he possesses that is disconcerting. In order for him to illustrate the difficulties that an average man would face if he were to express homosexual urges, Forster drastically limits Maurice as a human being. He never expands, therefore, to the point that he threatens Forster's austere control of him, never expands to the point that he runs away with his author as Forster's best characters tend to do. In order to keep his homosexual subject matter in full prominence, Forster seems to have felt that he must downplay his central character, that he must conceive...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)

Gorman Beauchamp

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster's novella The Machine Stops established the essential outlines of the dystopian parable. It is set, of course, in the future, at a time when men have abandoned the surface of the earth to live in massive underground cities resembling air-conditioned anthills. Here, in a completely controlled and artificial environment, they are removed from all contact with Nature…. (p. 90)

In this story … Forster has anticipated most, if not quite all, of the themes of subsequent dystopian novels: the horrors of a society "perfected" by technology; the totalitarian face of a regime deifying "reason" in all its regulations; the denial of the body, the passions and the instincts, and the consequent...

(The entire section is 415 words.)