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...
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- Critical Essays