Theodor Fontane Forster, E(dward) M(organ) (Vol. 22) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

E(dward) M(organ) Forster 1879–1970

English novelist, short story writer, essayist, and critic.

Liberal humanism pervades the writing of this major twentieth-century author. In his last major work of fiction and his most famous novel, A Passage to India, he demonstrates the deficiency of Christianity and posits instead Hinduism's central tenet of total acceptance as a unifying force for humanity. The recent posthumous publication of Arctic Summer and Other Fiction, Maurice, and The Life to Come provides new insight for Forster enthusiasts.

(See also CLC, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, 9, 10, 13, 15, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 13-14; obituary, Vols. 25-28, rev. ed.; Contemporary Authors Permanent Series, Vol. 1.)

Jeffrey Berman

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Since its publication in 1909, E. M. Forster's longest novella, "The Machine Stops," has received brief and sometimes begrudging critical attention, though a few critics have rightly recognized it as a masterpiece of science fiction…. For the imaginative predictions Forster made sixty-five years ago have proven to be frighteningly prophetic, and the story is one of the first of a distinguished family of serious twentieth-century anti-utopian novels. Written long before Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, "The Machine Stops" remains in many ways their superior in its tight compression, its impassioned warnings against the growing nightmare of technological dehumanization, and its brilliant satirical sting…. No one … has tried to explain why and how this neglected novella differs from his other works. Nor has another of Forster's comments on "The Machine Stops" been adequately explored. Referring to his novella in The Collected Tales as a "counterblast to one of the heavens of H. G. Wells," Forster has frankly acknowledged its connection, by way of satirical protest, to The Time Machine. But his comment, curiously enough, reveals a deeper significance in its conspicuous omission of a far more pervasive influence on "The Machine Stops" from a vastly older literary source. For in rejecting one type of utopia, Forster instinctively turned to another utopia—the "Myth of the Cave" section of Plato's Republic—to fashion both the form and content of his own subterranean, planetwide cave that constitutes the hellish civilization in which dwell the intellectually self-deceived, emotionally sterile inhabitants of his story before the machine stops. (p. 172)

Forster's authorial narrator begins in the same compelling way as he immediately implicates his readers into his fictive universe. "Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee."… The crucial word here, and of course with every utopia, is "imagine"; but Forster's added qualification—"if you can"—suggests a greater skepticism in his confidence that twentieth-century readers still retain this precious gift…. [The] allegorical nature of the "Myth of the Cave" has a decisive impact upon the schematic outlines of Forster's novella. But whereas the abstract, undeveloped cave in Plato's allegory vaguely extends "a long way underground," in Forster's fantasy the cave becomes more than merely an isolated image or a mechanical symbol (though it is a symbol of the mechanical). It becomes, in short, a complex and perfectly realized setting for an entire underground universe, in which the basic living unit, expressed by the ironic simile of the "cell of a bee," remains irreconcilably antithetical to the organic, natural, fecundating imagery evoked by the delicate insect that feeds on the nectar of flowers. (p. 173)

In Forster's fantasy, the subterranean worshippers of the futuristic machine age have voluntarily abandoned the surface of the Earth in the illusory belief that an artificially created social structure, regulated and oiled by an elaborate technology, is preferable to the older more natural forms of life. Forster ingeniously imagines all the modern conveniences and automated embellishments possible in an underworld permanently sealed off from the sun. All these inventions, needless to say, have now become, or could easily become, commonplace reality to "advanced" nations of the middle twentieth century…. Forster's point is not that many of these inventions lack value: he is no reactionary, and consequently, advocates of "progress" cannot easily dismiss his story. Rather, in their morbid fear of what he aptly calls the "terrors of direct experience," the inhabitants have allowed the Machine to deaden their senses and to dehumanize their...

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S. P. Rosenbaum

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The argument of this essay is that G. E. Moore's 'The Refutation of Idealism' provided E. M. Forster with a philosophical argument about the perception of reality that he used to connect the central concerns of The Longest Journey. This use involved converting the refutation of epistemological Idealism into an ethical conclusion about accepting the objective reality of other people, of other loves, of other societies, of nature, and finally of time. From Moore's interest in arguments against the existence of objective reality Forster develops his own novelistic interest in the objective and subjective assumptions that his characters act upon in their lives. In his own fictional terms Forster 'refutes' their idealisms—both epistemological and altruistic—by showing their consequences especially in love. (pp. 52-3)

Forster's use of Moore will undoubtedly strike some philosophers and even some critics as hopelessly naïve. The Longest Journey will never rank as a great philosophical novel…. Forster may not have understood the philosophical significance of Moore's refutation, but The Longest Journey suggests that he recognised a revolution in thought when he saw one…. There are many things wrong with The Longest Journey: the sudden deaths that his plot needed, the sentimental characterisation of Stephen, the authorial essays and purple patches, the ambivalence about Rickie's inadequacy and priggishness, the uncertain conflict between homoerotic and heterosexual love. Forster has admitted his painful awareness of some of these difficulties. But there are more things right about the novel than is often recognised. The Longest Journey is a far richer, subtler, and finally more serious book than many readers realise. One of the reasons why the novel has been so dispraised appears to be an unawareness of its philosophical basis. (p. 53)

S. P. Rosenbaum, "'The Longest Journey': E. M. Forster's Refutation of Idealism," in E. M. Forster; A Human Exploration: Centenary Essays, edited by G. K. Das and John Beer (reprinted by permission of New York University Press; copyright © 1979 by S. P. Rosenbaum), New York University Press, 1979, pp. 32-54.

John Beer

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Surveying the novels of [D. H. Lawrence and E. M. Forster] side by side, one is struck by a common curve in their careers. Each wrote an important early novel around the theme of an attractive young girl faced with a choice between two suitors, one of whom is acceptable by the standards of her own society, the other 'unsuitable' but more deeply attractive to her physically; in each case the novel proved difficult to work. The 'Lucy novel' took various forms in Forster's mind before it was published as A Room with a View in 1908; Lawrence's The White Peacock, similarly, went through various changes before its final version of January 1911.

As one compares these two novels, on the other hand, certain resemblances and differences between the two writers begin to define themselves. In A Room with a View, the heroine's choice is between Cecil Vyse, a cultivated and witty but enclosed young man on the one hand and George Emerson, an open-minded impulsive young man on the other. In the course of the novel she learns to trust the wholeness of her instinct towards George rather than the attractive aestheticism of Cecil. The choice is presented ultimately as one between enclosure and freedom: life in a succession of rooms with Cecil Vyse or life with an outward view, as offered by George.

By comparison Lettie Beardsall, the heroine of The White Peacock, seems more like a woman of the world. Her problem is something of the same, however; to choose the man who will respond to her own deepest instincts: the open bucolic George Saxton or the thriving young industrialist Leslie Tempest. It is in her own moments of self-examination that Lawrence's advance shows itself. For Forster's Lucy the question is simply one of self-liberation, of accepting the possibilities of the body and so discovering the full nature of love…. Both writers use flower imagery centrally, but the difference between Forster's Lucy and Lawrence's Lettie further defines itself in terms of the straightforwardly positive and sensuous role of the violets in A Room with a View, by comparison with the mysterious 'otherness' of snowdrops in The White Peacock…. (pp. 246-47)

Each writer, similarly, wrote a pivotal early novel involving detailed examination of elements in his own personality. In The Longest Journey Forster invented a crippled version of himself who shared his idealisms and who like him wrote short stories with a mythological content, but who lacked his own sense of other actualities. Lawrence's Paul Morel, in Sons and Lovers, is closer to his author … yet the novel as a whole is, like Forster's, an occasion for oblique self-examination.

In the case of each writer, also, his career pivots on two long novels, the first conceived positively, the second negatively. Forster's Howards End, when set at the side of The Rainbow, produces some revealing comparisons, particularly between the respective quests of the heroines, Margaret Schlegel and Ursula Brangwen. At the end, Margaret, looking across the fields by her house, sees a 'red rust', the creeping line of buildings that marks the encroachment of London, and feels it as a threat. She can still hope, however (almost against hope) that the current civilisation of motion will eventually be replaced by a civilisation that will 'rest on the earth'. At the end of The Rainbow, Ursula Brangwen looks out from her window to see 'the hard, cutting edges of the new houses, which seemed to spread over the hillside in their insentient triumph', but is relieved by the sense that life continues in all human beings…. As usual, Lawrence's vision is the more extreme, but the recognised predicament is strikingly similar.

Convergence of theme and organisation may further be traced between Women in Love and A Passage to India. Both novels carry, as a main element in their plots, the attempt by one man to reach a fruitful relationship with another. At the end of Lawrence's novel, Rupert Birkin is left contemplating Gerald Crich's death and his failure to build with him a friendship which might have complemented, at a less intimate level, his love for Ursula. Forster's novel, similarly, concludes with the recognition between Fielding and Aziz that in the conditions of British India, a full friendship between two men of the different cultures involved is not possible. And where Howards End and The Rainbow had both ended on a note of tentative affirmation, these two later novels conclude by stressing the theme of separateness; they also … betray greater readiness to make play with the 'shifting point of view'. (pp. 247-48)

The point which one...

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Robin Jared Lewis

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Forster's accounts of India and Indians show clearly that in writing A Passage to India he was very selective, lifting from personal experience only those elements that contributed to the novel's meaning. Life inevitably goes beyond art in these matters—the real person (Syed Ross Masood [the Indian friend he met at Oxford and later visited in India], for example) is far more complex and immediate than his fictional counterpart (Aziz)—so Forster simply took from experience what he needed and no more. In this sense, A Passage to India offers an intensely personal view of India under English rule, and Forster would have been the first to identify the book as such: he detested authors claiming to be...

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Ten of the 14 short stories in E. M. Forster's posthumously published collection, The Life to Come, deal in one way or another with love between males. They vary widely in tone and setting, from the Ruritanian farce of "What Does It Matter?" to the grim realism of "The Other Boat," from the English domesticity of "Arthur Snatchfold" to the exotic locale of "The Life to Come." What binds all these stories together is the basic myth or fable which underlies them, and which seems to have recurred often to Forster's mind throughout the five or more decades of their creation. We wish here to explore that myth and some of its implications for Forster's view of life, as he saw it in the perspective of homosexuality,...

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John Bayley

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

More than most successful writers E. M. Forster proceeded by fits and starts; success with him never produced a formula he could go on using. Two novels at least were aborted. The first, known as Nottingham Lace from its opening words, was Forster's first attempt, and petered out after 50 pages. The second, which he proposed to call Arctic Summer, exists in two major fragments, representing different attempts to come to grips with the plot. It was begun in 1911, a year after Howards End had made for him a reputation which he would have liked to exploit. Other bits and pieces, lovingly assembled and edited in [Arctic Summer and Other Fiction], are tales and short items which Forster either...

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Rosemary Dinnage

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arctic Summer is] not of very great interest except to Forster enthusiasts. Becoming a Forster enthusiast is luckily not difficult, and anyone reading or rereading P. N. Furbank's [E. M. Forster: A Life], in particular, would find it worthwhile to look at these fragments for the light they throw on Forster's themes and preoccupations. Being unfinished, they can show at what points he became blocked in his writing and why….

["Nottingham Lace" and "Ralph and Tony"] are about philistinism, sensibility, loneliness, and rescue; they are dominated by the conflict between Forster's two versions of masculinity, the sensitive and the strong. "Ralph and Tony" is an odd and rather confused...

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Anthony Dickens

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Arctic Summer and Other Fiction contains] the remnants of Forster's unpublished or uncompleted novels and short stories…. All these pieces and fragments date from the earliest years of the author's activity, roughly from 1899 to 1914 and show him experimenting with themes and methods of presentation. (p. 94)

Prominent themes throughout the collection are those for which Forster later became well known as an adept in their handling—class differences; the friendship and affection between men, especially younger men; the contrast between two marked types of young men, namely, the 'aesthetic' and the 'conventional' or 'heroic' he-male. Only one of the shorter stories is overtly homosexual and...

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