The Road from Colonus

by E. M. Forster

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The story’s title, containing an allusion to a Sophoclean tragedy, suggests the importance of myth to the development of the story’s themes. Narrated in the third person, the story incorporates ample dialogue, primarily between Mr. Lucas and his daughter Ethel, to reveal the characters’ points of view.

The story is remarkable for its use of symbolism, myth, and irony. The flowing water, the shrine, and the shrine’s little ornaments are all symbolic of spiritual experience. Given Lucas’s reaction, the country inn symbolizes a final resting place, the end of one’s life journey.

The mythic elements derive from the allusions to Oidipous epi Kolni (401 b.c.e.; Oedipus at Colonus, 1729), by Sophocles. In that tragedy, the blind Oedipus, having suffered in exile for many years, reaches a peaceful rural spot, Colonus, somewhere near Athens. There, accompanied by his daughter Antigone, he experiences a peaceful, happy death. The gods, whose will had imposed on Oedipus a long period of expiation for past misdeeds, once again showed their favor. Like the Greek protagonist, Lucas seeks peace and coherent meaning in life, and these are suggested at the site of the inn.

Lucas’s Antigone-like daughter, however, leads him away from his fate for his own good. The story’s most telling irony lies in the title. The road to Colonus led Oedipus to peace, atonement, contentment, and meaningful death. The road from his metaphoric Colonus leads Lucas to a querulous, petulant, difficult old age in which he loses his independence and freedom and must endure the autocratic supervision of the unmarried sister whom he hates.

Although the story treats every character briefly except Lucas, the dialogue between Ethel and her father is laced with irony. After Lucas is forced to leave the inn and lapses into an uncaring lethargic state, Ethel comments that her father is once again himself; this is a casual observation to her, but a telling commentary to Forster. Further irony occurs in Ethel’s final observation that their departure was providential, a comment that Lucas does not hear because he is working on his letter of complaint.

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