E. M. Forster Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 13) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster, E(dward) M(organ) 1879–1970

Forster was an English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic whose liberal humanism is evident in all his writing. He rejected the precepts of Christianity, and in his most famous work, A Passage to India, the central principle of Hinduism, total acceptance, is posited as the greatest unifying force for humanity. A Passage to India, published in 1924, was Forster's last major work, followed only by essays and minor pieces. Critics speculate that his inner struggle with his homosexuality, revealed only after his death, prevented Forster from adding to a collection of writing that marks him as a major twentieth-century author. (See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

I. A. Richards

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Where another writer possessed of an unusual outlook on life would be careful to introduce it, gradually preparing the way by views from more ordinary standpoints, Mr. Forster does nothing of the kind. This very sentence tacitly assumes that the personal point of view is already occupied by the reader, who is left to orient himself as he can. This may lead to lamentable misunderstandings. For example, once we have picked up the author's position we see that the characters in his early books, Mrs. Herriton, Harriet, Gino, Mr. Eager, Old Mr. Emerson, are less to be regarded as social studies than as embodiments of moral forces. Hence the ease with which Miss Abbott, for example, turns momentarily into a goddess. Where Angels Fear to Tread is indeed far nearer in spirit to a mystery play than to a comedy of manners. This in spite of the astonishingly penetrating flashes of observation by which these figures are sometimes depicted. But to understand why, with all his equipment as an observer, Mr. Forster sometimes so wantonly disregards vivisimilitude we have to find his viewpoint and take up toward them the attitude of their creator. (pp. 15-16)

Mr. Forster never formulates his criticism of life in one of those principles which we can adhere to or discuss. He leaves it in the painful, concrete realm of practice, presenting it always and only in terms of actuality and never in the abstract. In other words, he has no doctrine but only an attitude…. (p. 16)

Mr. Forster is a peculiarly uncomfortable author for [those] who are not content merely to enjoy the surface graces of his writing and the delicacies of his wit, but make themselves sufficiently familiar with his temper to see life to some degree with his eyes. His real audience is youth, caught at that stage when rebellion against the comfortable conventions is easy because the cost of abandoning them has not been fully counted. (pp. 16-17)

It is Mr. Forster's peculiarity that he offers his discomforting vision with so urbane a manner. He is no "holy howl-storm upon the mountains." He has no thunders, no hoots, no grimaces, nor any of the airs of the denunciating prophet, yet at the heart of his work there is less satisfaction with human existence as he sees it than in the work of any other living writer I can call to mind. The earliest of his books, The Longest Journey, is perhaps an exception to what has just been remarked about his manner. It has the rawness and crudeness and violence we should expect in the work of a very young writer. Those who have not realized the intensity of the dissatisfaction behind Mr. Forster's work would do well to read it. There is much there, of course, which time has mellowed. But the essential standards, the primary demands from life, which still make unacceptable to him so much that ordinary people find sufficient, have not altered.

Mr. Forster's peculiar quality as a novelist is his fiercely critical sense of values. What was, in the days of Longest Journey, a revolt, has changed to a saddened and almost weary pessimism. He has, in his later writings, in Pharos and Pharillon and in A Passage to India, consoled himself to some degree by a cultivation of the less militant and more humorous forms of irony. He has stepped back to the position of the observer from which in his Where Angels Fear to Tread he was at such pains to eject his Philip. But his...

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D. S. Savage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Longest Journey, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and A Room with a View are all] concerned with the dual theme of personal salvation and the conflict of good and evil. Of the three it is The Longest Journey which is the most emotionally intense and personal, the others being more objectively conceived novels of social comedy….

In each of these novels we have two opposed worlds or ways of life, and characters who oscillate between the two worlds. (p. 48)

In each of these novels, there is a spiritual conflict. In Forster's words, describing Lucy's inner struggle [in A Room with a View],

The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended….

The "real," however, seems to be associated with the natural; the "pretended," with the falsities of convention which deny and frustrate the natural impulses and passions. (p. 50)

In many respects the theme of The Longest Journey recapitulates that of Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View: but its development is more complex, and the spiritual drama more intense. It is, no doubt, this intensity which gives the book its overcharged emotional atmosphere and its consequent queer iridescence as of something faintly morbid or perverse.

For the intensity does not seem justified by the terms of the drama. Which means that the drama itself is emotionally worked up to a point at which it becomes false to the terms of reference within which the mind of the novelist is operating. Throughout all of Forster's writings there is to be seen an unfortunate tendency to lapse, at moments when the author feels the necessity to indicate something beyond the level of human relationships in their social setting (a level upon which alone he is perfectly at ease), into "poetical" vagueness of the most embarrassing kind. (p. 51)

Between the poles of conventionality and naturalness there is room for drama of a sort, but not a drama insufflated with the highly pitched emotional excitement of The Longest Journey, or even indeed that of the other two novels. This is not to say that the drama which is proposed is intrinsically unreal; only that it is made unreal by being set in such limited and lateral perspectives: the drama is too intense for the slight terms of reference. A spiritual conflict is imported into a naturalistic framework, and the effect is one, inevitably, of sentimentality and falsification.

This confusion of the spiritual and the natural runs throughout the earlier novels. As in D. H. Lawrence (who, however, avoided Forster's irrelevant sweetness and charm), spiritual attributes are conferred upon biological phenomena…. The importance which Forster confers upon sexual passion is shown both by the excessive excitement with which he approaches it, and the way in which he connects it with violent death—the finality of death being utilized to confer something of its own ultimate, absolute character upon the emotion stirred by sex.

To endow conventionality with all the attributes of the powers of darkness is, of course, grossly to overstate the matter. The world represented by the word "Sawston" has genuine undercurrents of evil which we are made to feel, but which are simply not explicable in the terms of Nature versus Convention which are proposed. (p. 54)

Not only in The Longest Journey is the question of salvation (raised in the action of the narrative and brought to an arbitrary conclusion there) left with a good many loose ends flying: the same is true of the other novels. What is to happen to Philip Herriton, now that his eyes have been opened to the wonder and beauty of life? What will happen to Lucy and George Emerson now that their difficulties are over and they are happily married? It is hard to see any more finality in their "saved" state than that implied in the insufficient and question-begging symbol, towards the end of The Longest Journey, of "Wiltshire"—the life of pastoral satisfactions.

The incompleteness and indeed the reversibility of Forster's moral symbolism is shown in his "realistic" confusion of the attributes of the "good" and "bad" types…. This confusion is true to life, no doubt, but it is not true to the symbolical pattern of the novels, and it is necessary to ask what are the reasons for this ambivalence.

The most plausible explanation of Forster's "realistic" confusion of good and bad types (a confusion which, it must be repeated, is out of place in a symbolical setting) lies in the very plain fact that the middle-class existence which Forster portrays … is false, because it is based upon social falsehood, and nothing can ever be made really right within it. Consequently, no stable system of moral symbolism can be erected upon it.

This is not to say that his characters are by that fact deprived of the possibility of spiritual struggle; only that such a struggle which takes place within a spiritual arena circumscribed by its reference to the framework of their false social order, and whose outcome does not result in an overthrowing or a repudiation of the limits set around their lives by their privileged social and economic position, is thereby rendered devoid of real and radical significance…. Their lives are lived in a watertight system abstracted from the larger life of society as a whole. They are out of touch with humanity, carefully, though for the most part unconsciously, preserving themselves, by means of their mental circumscriptions and social codes, from all encroachment of the painful and upsetting actualities which make their privileged existence possible…. [An] inner spiritual change which affects one's attitude to one or two other selected persons only, and does not extend itself to include every other human being irrespective of social distinction, is invalidated from the start. But at the point at which some attempt to deal with this question would seem necessary, Forster brings his stories to a close. (pp. 55-6)

[Forster], despite his perception of the reality of personal struggle towards salvation, is himself unable to transcend the pattern imposed on reality by the self-interest of the class to which he belongs, and instead, therefore, of permitting the drama with which he is concerned to break through the pattern and centre itself within the perspectives of reality, he curtails the perspectives themselves and attempts to persuade himself and his readers that the drama takes place between the poles of Nature and Convention, with Nature filling the place of God, or the Absolute…. The novelist's own awareness that this will not justify a real spiritual dynamism in his characters must eventually follow.

It is possibly the realization of something of this which led Forster to abandon the narrow personal drama and to embrace the social issues which are clearly displayed in his fourth novel, Howards End (1910). There is no doubt whatever as to the social orientation of this novel and its characterization, nor as to its bearing upon the logic of Forster's development. From the point reached in The Longest Journey there were two possible paths for one in Forster's situation: either to affirm the reality of the...

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Frederick C. Crews

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The trouble with Rickie Elliot's short stories, and equally with Forster's own, is an overbalance of meaningfulness at the expense of represented life—a preponderance of "unearned" symbolism. That this imperfection is less conspicuous in Forster's novels is largely due, I think, to the operation of a contrary feeling, his sense of the comic. Comedy provides the counterweight to keep the symbolist from slipping too far toward allegory; it continually refreshes his awareness of the world's intractability to private patterns of meaning.

In saying this I do not mean that comedy and symbolism, taken as literary methods, are opposites. Forster's Italian novels [Where Angels Fear to Tread and A...

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Jane Lagoudis Pinchin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

E. M. Forster arrived in Alexandria in 1915. He was thirty-six and already an established writer, with four novels and a collection of short stories behind him and a fifth novel written but unseen. Forster's was a unique voice, even from the start, large and marked by a generous humanism that has not found its equal in contemporary British fiction. He had already toured Greece, Italy, and India, and his early fiction reflects this contact with worlds that call into question the values of upper-middle-class England, the values of home, just as it reflects the special perception a homosexual brings to a heterosexual, and alien, world. (p. 82)

E. M. Forster's homosexuality shaped his writing—I'd...

(The entire section is 2462 words.)