E. M. Forster Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 15) - Essay

Virginia Woolf

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Mr. Forster is extremely susceptible to the influence of time. He sees his people much at the mercy of those conditions which change with the years. He is acutely conscious of the bicycle and of the motor-car; of the public school and of the university; of the suburb and of the city. The social historian will find his books full of illuminating information…. Mr. Forster is a novelist, that is to say, who sees his people in close contact with their surroundings…. But we discover as we turn the page that observation is not an end in itself; it is rather the goad, the gadfly driving Mr. Forster to provide a refuge from this misery, an escape from this meanness. Hence we arrive at that balance of forces which plays so large a part in the structure of Mr. Forster's novels. Sawston implies Italy; timidity, wildness; convention, freedom; unreality, reality. These are the villains and heroes of much of his writing. In Where Angels Fear to Tread the disease, convention, and the remedy, nature, are provided if anything with too eager a simplicity, too simple an assurance, but with what a freshness, what a charm! Indeed it would not be excessive if we discovered in this slight first novel evidence of powers which only needed, one might hazard, a more generous diet to ripen into wealth and beauty…. [Though] Mr. Forster may be sensitive to the bicycle and the duster, he is also the most persistent devotee of the soul. Beneath bicycles and dusters, Sawston and Italy, Philip, Harriet, and Miss Abbott, there always lies for him—it is this which makes him so tolerant a satirist—a burning core. It is the soul; it is reality; it is truth; it is poetry; it is love; it decks itself in many shapes, dresses itself in many disguises. But get at it he must; keep from it he cannot. (pp. 162-64)

Yet, if we ask ourselves upon which occasions this happens and how, it will seem that those passages which are least didactic, least conscious of the pursuit of beauty, succeed best in achieving it. When he allows himself a holiday—some phrase like that comes to our lips; when he forgets the vision and frolics and sports with the fact;… it is then that we feel that his aim is achieved…. But the second novel, The Longest Journey, leaves us baffled and puzzled. The opposition is still the same; truth and untruth; Cambridge and Sawston; sincerity and sophistication. But everything is accentuated. He builds his Sawston of thicker bricks and destroys it with stronger blasts. The contrast between poetry and realism is much more precipitous. And now we see much more clearly to what a task his gifts commit him. We see that what might have been a passing mood is in truth a conviction. He believes that a novel must take sides in the human conflict. He sees beauty—none more keenly; but beauty imprisoned in a fortress of brick and mortar whence he must extricate her. Hence he is always constrained to build the cage—society in all its intricacy and triviality—before he can free the prisoner…. At the same time, as we read The Longest Journey we are aware of a mocking spirit of fantasy which flouts his seriousness. No one seizes more deftly the shades and shadows of the social comedy; no one more amusingly hits off the comedy of luncheon and tea party and a game of tennis at the rectory. His old maids, his clergy, are the most lifelike we have had since Jane Austen laid down the pen. But he has into the bargain what Jane Austen had not—the impulses of a poet. The neat surface is always being thrown into disarray by an outburst of lyric poetry. Again and again in The Longest Journey we are delighted by some exquisite description of the country; or some lovely sight—like that when Rickie and Stephen send the paper boats burning through the arch—is made visible to us forever. Here, then, is a difficult family of gifts to persuade to live in harmony together: satire and sympathy; fantasy and fact; poetry and a prim moral sense. No wonder that we are often aware of contrary currents that run counter to each other and prevent the book from bearing down upon us and overwhelming us with the authority of a masterpiece. (pp. 164-66)

[Mr. Forster's] concern is with the private life; his message is addressed to the soul. "It is the private life that holds out the mirror to infinity; personal intercourse, and that alone, that ever hints at a personality beyond our daily vision."… This belief that it is the private life that matters, that it is the soul that is eternal, runs through all his writing….

[Let] us look for a moment at the nature of the problem he sets himself. It is the soul that matters; and the soul, as...

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Austin Warren

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Both in theory and in practice Forster declines to restrict the novelist's ancient liberties. The richness of the novel, for him, lies in its range of levels. There is the "story"; then there are the persons of the story who act and speak; then there is the "inner life" of the characters, to be overheard and translated by the author; and, finally, there is the philosophic commentary of the author. Plot, characters, philosophy: each has a life of its own and threatens to expand until it menaces its competitors. If the novel restrict itself to action and speech, it does no more than reduplicate—and with the subtraction of mimes present "in person"—the drama or even the biography. To avoid being less, the novel must be more. "A memoir," says Forster, "is history, it is based on evidence…. And it is the function of the novelist to reveal the hidden life at its source: to tell us more than could be known. In daily life we never understand each other…. But people in a novel can be understood completely by the reader, if the novelist wishes; their inner vision as well as their outer life can be exposed." If, on the other hand, the "inner life" become all, then, like some parts of Proust's À la Recherche, the novel turns into a psychological treatise and the persons decompose into their constituent moods and "intermittences." (pp. 49-50)

To Forster, then, the novel has its own function, that of a persuasive equilibrism: it must balance the claims of the existence and the essence, of personalities and ideas. To Forster, values are more important than facts; and the real values are friendship, intellectual exploration, insight and imagination, the values of the "inner life." But observation and interpretation, though terminal values, are, biologically, parasitic upon the body and the life of action. Forster's own work very satisfyingly preserves this equilibrium both in its repertory of characters and in its narrative method. (p. 50)

In Howards End [Forster] expresses the view that the complexity of the modern world offers to the best-prepared and best-intentioned but an option of alternative visions: seeing life steadily or seeing it whole. His own choice is clearly the latter; like Santayana he has the excellent...

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Laurence Brander

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster made his chief contribution to the subject [of the novel] in the Clark Lectures which he delivered in the spring of 1927. [They were printed unrevised as Aspects of the Novel.] (p. 73)

[What we find in this collection] is an idea of the novel which will stand beside the great celebrations of the epic form. It might have helped if Forster had edited away quotations and discussions of contemporary books now forgotten, if some listener had made notes of the fine things and left the rest, as happened to Aristotle, for then we might have found it easier to realize that here we have one of the great appreciations of the most lively organism in words that genius has developed during the past two hundred years. (p. 74)

Between the invocation and the conclusion, the lectures deal with the usual aspects, the story and the plot and the characters. These offer the emotional pleasures of the novel. Then come the intellectual pleasures, which interest him more; fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm. (pp. 74-5)

[At the end of his first lecture, Forster offers two] illuminating comments: 'The final test of a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else we cannot define.' The other comment is a major one, expressing the essence of the novel's contribution in literature: 'The intensely stiflingly human quality of the novel is not to be avoided; the novel is sogged with humanity; there is no escaping the uplift or the downpour, nor can they be kept out of criticism. We may hate humanity, but if it is exorcised, or even purified the novel wilts, little is left but a bunch of words.'

It is the natural comment of the intellectual novelist. Two kinds of writing are full of people, the play and the novel. But the dramatist detaches from his characters and the audience watches a spectacle. In the novel, writer and reader are involved, critically and emotionally, and neither of them can escape from the people in the tale. The heart-felt cry is related to the famous little cry in the next lecture, about the story. 'Yes—oh dear yes—the novel tells a story. That is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist … and I wish it was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth …' Are we hearing now why he gave up the novel? He probed truth for his own country and his own people in The Longest Journey and in Howards End, and then he sought to make it a note in music in writing about India. We cannot say he failed. It was neither failure nor success that stopped him, but he wrestled no more with what he called this 'low atavistic form'. (p. 76)

What we are hearing in these lectures is his farewell to the novel.

A mere story, he says, is like 'a tape-worm, for its beginning and end are arbitrary', and he returns to his repellent simile: 'wriggling and interminable, the naked worm of time—it presents an appearance both unlovely and dull', and later: 'it is never possible for a novelist to deny time inside the fabric of his novel: he must cling however lightly to the thread of his story, he must touch the interminable tapeworm.' He wants something more than that: 'there seems something else in life besides time, which may conveniently be called "value".' (p. 77)

It would have been interesting if he had returned to the questions of time and space—'as soon as fiction is completely delivered from time it cannot express anything at all'—with our modern conception of time-space. It might have affected his clear distinction between story and plot which he appropriately discusses after his two lectures on 'People', but which we may look at now.

In a plot, he says, the emphasis falls on causality. '"The king died and then the queen died" is a story. "The king died and then the queen died of grief" is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it.' He is naturally for plots and we are not surprised to hear that the story arouses only curiosity but 'a plot demands intelligence and memory also'. Intelligence and memory in the reader are as closely connected as time and space and are an essential combination for the reader of Forster's novels. 'Memory and intelligence are closely connected for unless we remember we cannot understand.' Then comes a fine description of a plot: 'Every word or action in a plot ought to count: it ought to be economical and spare … organic and free from dead matter … and the final sense will be … of something aesthetically compact, something which might have been shown by the novelist straight away, only if he had shown it straight away it would never have become beautiful'. Like the power for tranquillity in the house called Howards End.

And there are other moments in this chapter on plot which illuminate Forster's novels. When he speaks of human beings in novels being 'enormous, shadowy, and intractable, and three-quarters hidden like an iceberg' we think of Stephen Wonham, who was so much too big for his companions in The Longest Journey. And Helen Schlegel who, if never unwieldy, was always 'three-quarters hidden'. (pp. 77-8)

When we consider what he says about People, those characters made up of words who are the stuff of prose fiction, we see how intellectual is Forster's approach and the pleasure his work gives. The characters are exercises for intellectual analysis and the most interesting of them are those who are remote enough from the author and his readers to make the idea of personal relationships a challenge…. (pp. 78-9)

It is here that Forster introduces the discussion about the nature of history and the nature of prose fiction, a comparison which brings us nearer to the name and nature of the art of creating characters and displaying them in interesting situations. (p. 79)

[For Forster,] the historian finds out and interprets, whereas the novelist creates and in doing so interprets. History, he says, is based on evidence while a novel is based on evidence plus or minus an unknown quantity which is the temperament of the novelist. He goes no further than this, presumably taking for granted the obvious reflection that the chief character in every novel is the author of it. A novel is a brain child and we recognize the parent of it. The novelist is the god of his novel, and everything depends on how his God made him. Nothing could possibly give a man away more than writing a novel. A prose fiction is as individual as a fingerprint, and if the author is a shallow man it will at once appear. The novelist, unlike the dramatist, never escapes from his novel. (pp. 79-80)

[In his discussion of Moll Flanders Forster presents] one of the most delightful analyses in the lectures. Moll has a delightful sponsor and she repays him by providing him with material on the main theme of his lecture: people in novels 'are people whose secret lives are visible or might be visible: we are people whose secret lives are invisible.' The last words complete his conception of the novelist as creator: 'And that is why novels … can solace us; they suggest a more comprehensible and thus a more manageable human race, they give us the illusion of perspicacity and power.' The desire of the preacher to manage the race.

The second lecture on 'People' has the famous things on flat characters and about the novelist 'bouncing' us into accepting what he says…. [Flat characters] are useful in novels because 'they are easily recognized whenever they come in … they never need reintroducing, never run away, have not to be watched for development, and provide their own atmosphere.' Round characters, on the other hand, are 'full of the spirit of mutiny … they try to live their own lives and are consequently often engaged in treasons against the main scheme of the book. They "run away", they "get out of hand": if they are given complete freedom they kick the book to pieces.' So the novelist employs flat characters. Anything more like real life it is difficult to imagine…. Generally, the aspects of a character in a novel are developed which cause the required reactions in other characters. That is all there is time for, that is all that is appropriate. (pp. 81-2)

We come to major truth when we come to the lecture on Fantasy and Prophecy. The series is mounting to its climax as he discusses what is in effect comedy and tragedy in the novel. He had begun himself as an almost purely comic or fantasy novelist and proceeded to the other kind before falling silent and in all of them we feel a reaching towards the perfection of which the novel form is capable. Now the simplest and most obvious thing about a novelist is that he has observed humanity. He may have turned fantasist as a result and avoided it as in Zuleika Dobson, or created 'the army of unutterable muddle' as in Tristram Shandy, or made 'a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud' as in Ulysses. But in every case the novelist has been reacting to the human scene and as Forster says at the end of these two lectures 'the human mind is not a dignified organ' and not always strong and it is the sensitive spirits who escape into fantasy. Stronger ones, he names them—'I can only think of four writers to illustrate it—Dostoievsky, Melville, D. H. Lawrence and Emily Brontë'—are able to prophesy.

But to separate fantasy and prophecy is as false as to separate time and space. The stuff of novels is human beings and their surroundings and that is the stuff of the world. But in the novel there is something more, for the novel is the product of mind and mind contemplating human beings and their surroundings can translate what it sees prophetically or fantastically and these powers are connected so there is a 'fantastic-prophetical axis'. A novelist can get on with his characters and his plot and the background against which they move and be satisfied. But there are novelists in whom the fantastic-prophetical axis is essential: 'Deprive Sterne or Virginia Woolf or Walter de la Mare or William Beckford or James Joyce or D. H. Lawrence or Swift, and nothing is left all.' (pp. 83-4)

In the end he equates the prophetic gift with what we call 'genius' to get us out of farther analysis. The greatness of D. H. Lawrence, he says, rests 'upon something aesthetic' and concludes his appreciation thus: 'What is valuable about him cannot be put into words; it is colour, gesture and outline in people and things, the usual stock-in-trade of the novelist, but evolved by such a different process that they belong to a new world.'… The paradox would seem to be that in the intensely individual characters which the great novelists create there is also an abstraction or essence of human character generally, and in this sense, prophecy is the ontological content of a novel. The sense in which Forster himself excelled. (pp. 85-6)

As we finish the lecture we may feel that we have not found any very precise formulae, but we have a new sense of the novel form. We have a new sense also of how the ideal form of the novel pursued our lecturer in his own work. We recall how the early novels left the impression of exercises, trials, and how each of the three which followed was obviously an essay or attempt. He was trying to discover how far he could expand his form. He ceased abruptly and the likeliest explanation is the nature of the times in which he was living, a time of the breaking of nations, not expansion.

We come to the last lecture, which will help us to look back on the series and find new value in every part…. He calls his final subject Pattern and Rhythm and tells us it is the search for beauty in the novel. Once again there is a close relationship, pattern being the shape, which makes it 'an aesthetic aspect of the novel' and because it is beauty the lecturer's voice quickens and gathers emphasis: 'Here, here is the point where the aspect called pattern is most clearly in touch with its material, here is our starting point … Beauty is sometimes the shape of the book, the book as a whole, the unity.'… (p. 87)

That is beauty appearing in unity and when unity is lacking the beauty that is present he calls 'rhythm'. Rhyt m is of two kinds, the one you can tap to and the one you can't but which 'some can hear'. The simpler kind is like Forster's famous echo: 'The little phrase crosses the book again and again, but as an echo, a memory' and a little later he adds: 'this seems to me the function of rhythm in fiction, not to be there all the time like a pattern, but by its lovely waxing and waning to fill us with surprise and freshness and hope', and again 'the effect can be exquisite … it lessens our need of an external form.' The simple kind of rhythm is thus related to pattern.

The deeper rhythm is described by [Forster's famous parallel comparing the end of a novel to the end of] the Fifth Symphony, when the orchestra stops we hear it, and every part of the symphony is heard as a unity: 'all enter the mind at once, and extend one another into a common entity.' He admits that he cannot find any analogy: 'Yet there may be one; in music fiction is likely to find its nearest parallel.' The reader need not seek far for a likeness, for the distinguishing property of Forster's serious novels is this sense that the novelist's mind is a glowing bundle of atoms which race about hitting one another, raising echoes which become a harmony.

And certainly we enjoy in his three serious novels the final effect he suggests that the novel can offer. Again the analogy is with music: 'Music … does offer in its final expression a type of beauty which fiction might achieve in its own way. Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out.' And he asks: 'Cannot the novel be like that?' (pp. 87-8)

He sums up his argument for the other kind of rhythm by referring to the greatest novel of them all, War and Peace. 'As we read it do not great chords begin to sound behind us, and when we have finished it does not every item … lead a larger existence than was possible at the time?' The conclusion has an echo, back from the lecture on Prophecy when he said that the human mind is not a dignified organ. (p. 88)

The actual ending of the series is a note in music, expressing the hope so many scientists have offered since...

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Wilfred Stone

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In facing any problem, [Forster] tended to define it dualistically. But he could not leave it there. "Only connect" is his prayer and his argument: only connect the prose and the passion, the seen and the unseen, the private and the public, the near and the far, the conscious and the unconscious, the body and the soul. (p. 386)

[What] the posthumously published homosexual fiction (Maurice and the stories in The Life to Come) brings home with special force is just how much the ideal of "only connect" is a wish fulfillment rather than a plan of action. In "What I Believe" (1939) Forster tells us that "Psychology has split and shattered the idea of a 'Person,'" but that we must, for the...

(The entire section is 2446 words.)