Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2091

Whether on business or vacation, a man—say he is middle-aged—leaves an England which is debased, industrial, and unpoetic for a Mediterranean country such as Italy or Greece. What he finds as if by accident in this more primitive, preindustrial country, in a momentary event that is both in and out...

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Whether on business or vacation, a man—say he is middle-aged—leaves an England which is debased, industrial, and unpoetic for a Mediterranean country such as Italy or Greece. What he finds as if by accident in this more primitive, preindustrial country, in a momentary event that is both in and out of time, a surprising perception wherein he discovers his genuine identity, obliges him quite literally to change his living in accord with the new knowledge of self, or die. Such is the archetypal if not practical situation which lies at the base of the short stories of E. M. Forster. While few of the stories fully correspond to this pattern, it nevertheless furnishes a useful means for perceiving their basic unity. Forster’s short stories, written in general immediately before and immediately after his major novels, HOWARDS END and A PASSAGE TO INDIA, do not make claims as imposing as his major fiction and tend in fact to have a stylized period quality that in some cases does not wear well. The stylization may take the form of a brief allegory (“The Other Side of the Hedge”), pre-Orwell doom-predicting science fiction (“The Machine Stops”), the picaresque tale (“The Road from Colonus”). Certain themes, however, are persistent throughout all the stories, notably the theme of imprisonment (“chains” as a continuing metaphor) and escape, and often the escape is at once mental and geographical. The motif of travel as escape and discovery accords both with Forster’s own period of personal travel in these decades and with the general international quality of pre-World War I Europe.

The tone of the earlier collection of stories, THE CELESTIAL OMNIBUS, is at once established and predicted by the first of these, “The Story of a Panic”—with the exception of the uncollected “Albergo Empedocle,” also chronologically the first. In an ironic manner that is not typical of the majority of his stories, Forster recounts through the eyes of a sensitive, intelligent English traveler in Italy the Dionysiac epiphany of a boy named Eustace. During a rural outing attended by a representative group of English tourists—a middle-aged female dilettante, a carping aesthete—there suddenly occurs a moment of inexplicable fear; the cause of the fright is unapparent, but its effect is felt as tangibly as if some prehistoric monster had reared its head in a scene of pastoral loveliness. This simile is hardly casual; what has taken place is a resurgence of the primordial power of nature, not that of natural charm so admired by the onlookers but that of the direct, sensual potency inherent in the countryside. This sudden, unforeseen revelation sets these cultivated and timid souls in a frenzy, except for the boy Eustace, previously scorned by the narrator for his unathletic and brattish nature. The reader finds here one of the recurrent motifs of the stories: the need to “set one’s self right” in youth. As a later story, “The Point of It,” remarks at greater length, only through establishing this kind of communion with things as they are, not through the veils men hang about them, in youth, before one can be easily lulled into self-deception, can a fundamentally fertile rapport with life be achieved. Forster points out this fact even more clearly through the story’s uncommon irony: the narrator, previously unable to see the source of Eustace’s corruption within the virtues of his own society, is equally incapable of understanding the boy’s exaltation after his conversion. To a “civilized” mind, Eutace’s wild actions can only be the result of some kind of mental disturbance, not the manifestation of the reclamation of man’s primitive, direct connection with his world. The incomprehension is reinforced by the secondary action of Eustace’s betrayal by his one confrere at the resort, the Italian youth Gennaro; the narrator, in a moment of strategic inspiration appropriate to civilized man, bribes him to return the boy. The scheme backfires and thus causes Eustace’s liberation and Gennaro’s death.

Forster insists that experience of the world in its direct reality must be panic; and its peculiar mood can best be described in a work whose situation is deliberately, initially, supernatural, and thus makes the reader aware of the tensions so directly germane to Forster’s thesis. In the earlier stories, the prototypic example of this effect is “The Celestial Omnibus,” which deals, once again, with a boy, but one who, unlike Eustace, already dwells in a state of literature. Significantly, the story is in the third person, and the well-meaning narrator now has become the boy’s interlocutor and opposite, the pillar of the community, Mr. Septimus Bons. The boy has discovered, near his home, the Celestial Omnibus, the eternally vital vehicle through time and space which great literature is; his discovery, however, is mocked by his culturally slavish bourgeois parents who hold out his reputed expedition to heaven to Mr. Bons as an example of childish perversity and deceit. When Mr. Bons accepts the boy’s challenge and accompanies him on the Celestial Omnibus, the result is predictable: when faced with the creators who should be dead, whose workers are symbolically entombed by him in vellum, he falls to his death from the heights, while his uncorrupted companion is elevated on the shield of Achilles.

The directly classical allusions aroused by “The Story of a Panic” are continued elsewhere, notably in “Other Kingdom” and “The Curate’s Friend.” The stories, which complement each other, are located in an English rural milieu, and they involve that settled and clerically infiltrated domain in collision with the antique immersion in a sensuous and vitally transcendent nature. In the first of these, the theme is enunciated by the translated sentence from the ECLOGUES, “Mortal fools, there be gods in these woods.” The classical instruction is conducted by the rather fussy narrator of the story and is soon broken into by the property-owner fiance of one of the pupils, Mr. Harcourt Worters, elated at having added a new meadow to his land. Upon their visiting this place, the Forsterian antithesis is posed: Mr. Worters is anxious to fence in the property, to place his mark upon it, while his betrothed, a rude girl from Ireland whom he is educating, wants to leave the meadow as it is, unbounded. Her spiritual divorce from Worters is physically confirmed when, during a true ecstasy that happens at a picnic in the woods, she forever departs and makes asses out of the mortals in the woods. The same humorous perversity also appears in “The Curate’s Friend,” in which a clergyman meets a faun, a reminder of Britain’s Roman past, who by casting his clerical acquaintance into a fit of despair causes him for the first time to react in an emotionally honest fashion to his experiences.

If one can speak of a movement from the earlier to the later stories, it is not characterized by an increased complexity but by a greater diversification; the later stories are essentially their predecessors, given the flesh and blood of the social environment in which they occur. “The Machine Stops,” the first of the tales in THE ETERNAL MOMENT, demonstrates this transition quite well: despite the fantastic setting of the story, in some nameless futurity, its tone, unlike that of “The Celestial Omnibus,” is highly practical. Readers are cast into an England of the future in which the most specifically “realistic” elements of the earlier stories—the human corruption of the natural environment, the elimination of sensual response and individuality—have reached their most extreme expression. The terrible responsibility of intelligence, which cannot escape a confrontation of the tangible facts of existence, has been given up to the machine, which soon becomes the object of a new religious devotion more potent than the well-intentioned Christianity of the curate. Forster affirms what Alexis de Tocqueville had foreseen in 1848: that the tyranny of a modern state, representing the will of the masses and with advanced means at its disposal, would be more terrible and far-reaching than any hitherto seen. The unity Kuno feels with those who have gone before and those who will come after him, on freeing himself from the deranged subterranean labyrinth, is that of man rediscovering his humanity.

Forster’s thesis is more substantially, if not more spectacularly, presented in “The Point of It,” which picks up a theme already stated in “The Road from Colonus”: the impossibility of grasping the source of truth when one has accepted a conventional set of values. In the earlier story, the old man, unlike Oedipus who led his daughter to the place of his disappearance from earth, is prevented by his daughter from accepting the gift of death at the place where he finally experiences a revelation of the real value of classical civilization, a value not to be found in the ruins of Thermopylae or the Parthenon. Forster’s picture of Mickey, the hero of “The Point of It,” furnishes the reader with the genesis of such a man, who, by doing good, is rewarded by his society and rises in it, although with no benefit to those closest to him. The story begins with an incident that points to a possible source of salvation for Mickey: he permits an invalid acquaintance to overexert himself while rowing against the tide in an estuary. His immediate guilt as soon as the acquaintance dies is still another of Forster’s eternal moments, returning to Mickey at intervals through a life of humanitarian actions by which he attempts to atone. Only after his death—in a tour de force, Forster follows his character’s moral progress even after death—does he realize that the conventional guilt was wrong, that his encouragement to his friend to respond to the situation as such was the only genuine human action in his life. The recognition itself makes for his eternal salvation.

Forster offers an even more enlarged and socially realized description of the same belief in his two final stories, “The Story of the Siren” and “The Eternal Moment.” In the first of these, the comprehension of a possible source of human revitalization in a world where Christianity is a mere gesture comes by means of the siren rising from the eternal sea. The life of the poor fisherman Giuseppe is totally disrupted by his encounter with her, and when he seeks out and marries a woman who has similarly experienced such a vision, he then disrupts the entire life of the village in which he lives, particularly the priest who causes the wife’s destruction and the death of their unborn child. Nevertheless, like the sea siren whose perpetuation is identifiable with the sea itself whose power can never be encroached upon by man, the promise of their child remains forever to be born. This inescapable possibility of reconciliation comes even more poignantly to life in the case of Miss Raby, the spinster novelist in “The Eternal Moment.” She returns to the village of Vorta, hoping to undo the damage she had done in popularizing the village in her novel, THE ETERNAL MOMENT. Ironically, although she discovers the worst effects of civilization to have come to pass in the town, there is a redeeming feature: her rediscovery of the amorous encounter that she finds, had been the true germ of her novel. Once again, Forster has shown how a whole life can be justified by the detailed, if adventitious and unexpected, understanding of a significant moment in the past.

There is a distinctly Dionysian quality of emphasis in these stories of Forster’s young manhood, a Nietzschean emphasis, complicated by a characteristic English reticence. As in the major novels, the mystic revelation of culture-bound adults, or the rescue of an intuitive child from uncomprehending elders, is Forster’s overwhelming interest. Nevertheless, the characters in the short stories are noticeably more maneuverable, flatter, and less rounded (to use Forster’s terms from his ASPECTS OF THE NOVEL) than the people in his longer fictions: they move more in the world of fantasy and allegory where moral values are clear-cut and the civilization of the British Empire, the Industrial Revolution, the increase of knowledge, the defacement of the countryside are unambiguously to be condemned. The stories put starkly the alternatives of sickness and health, both for individuals and their communities. Forster is at one with his novelistic contemporaries Lawrence, Mann, and Proust in repeating again and again in fictional situations the agonized warning that man must “Only Connect.”

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