Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 848
Best known for his haunting novel A Passage to India (1924), E. M. Forster in The Longest Journey creates a less exotic setting but an equally powerful delineation of character and exploration of humanist values. The primary theme of The Longest Journey is Rickie Elliot’s progression from unloved child to responsible brother, a lengthy progression of his own soul epitomized by the novel’s very title. Unlike Rickie, Forster had a close attachment to his mother, but like his character, Forster had a very lonely childhood that did not end until he entered King’s College, Cambridge, in 1897. As an undergraduate there, he studied classics and history and joined a circle of intellectuals—the so-called Cambridge Apostles—who met regularly to discuss aesthetics and art. It was the sort of life that Forster thoroughly enjoyed, and he was sorry to see it end upon his graduation in 1901. After he had established himself as an important writer with the publication of A Passage to India, Cambridge invited him to deliver a series of lectures about the art of fiction; these lectures were revised and published as Aspects of the Novel (1927). He later became an honorary Fellow at King’s College and continued to visit and lecture at Cambridge until his death on June 7, 1970.
To understand the primary theme of The Longest Journey—Rickie’s gradual acceptance of responsibility for his half brother, Stephen Wonham—one should consider the characters symbolically. Forster conceives Rickie as an Everyman, a person intended to set an example for the reader. After a life of frustrations, Rickie thinks he finally understands the nature of things and, more important, of himself. As it turns out, all his hard-earned knowledge is irrelevant when he is confronted by a person who is anti-intellectual and continually acts from impulse. This person is Rickie’s own half brother, who symbolizes passion. At first, Rickie denies the importance of his half brother and rejects the notion of any relationship between them. Symbolically, he thereby rejects the idea that impulse, or passion, is necessary for life.
The necessity of passion in life is a major theme in nearly all of Forster’s early novels and short stories, as, for example, in “The Road from Colonus” (1903), “The Story of a Panic” (1904), and A Room with a View (1908). Essentially, Forster argues in these works that the English are so preoccupied with material society that they neglect their inner selves. This neglect, however, may be rectified with a trip to southern Europe—specifically, Greece or Italy—where the people have not lost their passion for life. Indeed, in each of these works the central character travels to Greece or Italy and there experiences a revelation about how to live. In A Room with a View, for instance, Lucy Honeychurch, who is somewhat similar in nature to Rickie Elliot, travels to Florence and learns the value of passionate love. Rickie, however, never travels to Italy, although he longs to do so throughout the novel. Consequently, he is left unfulfilled and dies without ever learning about the human need for passion. Certainly, he gains a measure of self-knowledge when he saves his drunken brother from the train, but it comes too late for him to change his life for the better, as Lucy Honeychurch changes hers in A Room with a View. Thus, while Lucy’s novel ends happily with her new insight into human nature, Rickie’s ends tragically just as he begins to attain a glimpse into human nature.
A secondary theme of The Longest Journey attempts to answer the question, What is a proper education? The Sawston School, where Rickie teaches, is modeled on the public school in Tonbridge that Forster attended from 1893 to 1897. Forster loathed the educational system of Tonbridge and often said that his four years there were the worst of his life. He particularly despised the bullying inflicted on him by the older boys, although he found some solace in being one of the better scholars in his class. By dramatically contrasting the harshness of Sawston School with the freedom of Cambridge in The Longest Journey, Forster makes clear his belief in the importance of a liberal, humanist education that allows a mind to roam freely through the arts and sciences. Forster intends for his readers to see Cambridge as the ideal environment in which young people should be educated.
The Longest Journey remained Forster’s favorite among his own novels throughout his life. It was the only one of his works that had practically written itself. Upon its publication on April 16, 1907, the novel received favorable reviews from most critics, although some of Forster’s closest friends felt that the characters were poorly developed. Their objections to the work did not, however, discourage Forster from resuming work on his next novel, A Room with a View, which he had begun to write in 1902, or from planning another novel that eventually became Howards End (1910). The Longest Journey is certainly not Forster’s best novel, but it is the one that helped to establish him as a leading novelist in Edwardian England.
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