Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 978
E. M. Forster does more than mock English society. His comic novels perform the serious task of questioning the assumptions upon which identity is based. At the same time readers laugh at Forster’s pompous or pathetic characters, they are being taught to recognize how much damage can result from human beings passing judgment on one another. Where Angels Fear to Tread, Forster’s first novel, established his reputation as both artist and humanist.
More often than not, Forster’s novels are set outside England. The irony of this strategy is that, while abroad, his characters satirize English social custom as acutely as do the homebound characters created by Forster’s predecessor, Jane Austen. Forster incorporates many of her satiric impulses into his style. Social snobbery, religious hypocrisy, flighty liberalism, and ill-conceived romanticism are just a few of the aspects of the English character that Forster, like Austen, makes the target for his comic abuse.
In Where Angels Fear to Tread, Mrs. Herriton is the emblem of British arrogance. She fiercely guards a code of conduct that she would describe as “decency” but that really represents only a preference for English as opposed to continental customs. The cruelly immoral consequences of Mrs. Herriton’s brand of decency become gradually apparent as the plot unfolds. Mrs. Herriton’s ferocity works as a baseline in the novel. Even though she is unlikable, the strength of her character is a foil against which the feebleness of the others is revealed.
Lilia, whose low breeding and high spirits make her the kind of ingenue who can be an agent of chaos in both Austen and Forster, threatens Mrs. Herriton’s jealously guarded sense of order. Philip and Harriet, Mrs. Herriton’s own children, help fill out the satiric register: Harriet, who is warped by an embittered and ineffectual religiosity, and Philip, who is a snobbish worshiper of beauty. Through Philip, Forster carries out his trademark spoof of aesthetics, a school of literary criticism initiated by Walter Pater that dominated English letters in the period of transition between 1870 and 1930.
Perhaps Forster drops these stereotypical English characters into the provincial Italian setting of Monteriano (a fictional town modeled after San Gimignano near Florence) to draw attention to the fact that the novel is, at its core, a discussion of difference. English society, with its sometimes stuffy rules and expectations, becomes the source from which a series of divisions emerge. These divisions, all a form of the difference between the familiar and the strange and between self and other, form the intellectual substance of the novel. Forster thereby identifies and criticizes the often intolerant human instincts by which culture proceeds.
Indeed, the mistrust of cultures for one another, particularly England’s low opinion of its European neighbors and colonial subjects, is the first opposition upon which Forster draws in Where Angels Fear to Tread. In his later A Passage to India (1924), the issue of cultural division finds its fullest expression. However, the tone of resentment—sometimes comic, then again verging upon the tragic—that flavors the relations in that novel between native Indians and Anglo-Indians is already present in the Herritons’ concerted attempt to run roughshod over Monteriano.
The arrogantly unyielding manner in which the English respond to other cultures is present throughout the novel. It is most comically concentrated in the theater scene, where Harriet tries to impose her reverential method of listening to music on the Italians, whose good-natured custom it is to respond with lustful exuberance. For a time, Harriet’s sense of decorum prevails, but when the Italian audience mobs the heroine of that evening’s opera (Lucia di Lammermoor), throwing flowers and playbills, Harriet pronounces the whole affair disrespectful and stomps out of the theater. In this comic scene, Forster does not allow the English sensibility to imperialize the Italian, but the tide tragically turns at the end of the novel when Harriet has her grim revenge. Tragedy is too often the result of intolerance. Forster issues this warning while testing his readership’s tolerance of differences in class, gender, and even race.
Lilia’s marriage to the dentist’s son Signor Carella repulses the Herritons because it introduces middle-class stock into their patrician family. Philip somehow understands this violation of class distinction as the death of romance. Always evenhanded in his satire, Forster also uses the Italian Carella as the representative of gender bias. After marrying Signor Carella, Lilia is maddened by the dull, domestic life her new husband expects her to lead. Race is not an overt aspect of Where Angels Fear to Tread, but it is an underlying component in the power and menace of the swarthy Mediterranean Carella, who seduces both Lilia and the novel’s true heroine, Caroline Abbott. Forster here introduces a hint of the kind of racial “contamination” that outrages the Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India.
The uneven ending of Where Angels Fear to Tread serves as an object lesson in the complex process of judging human behavior. Philip, Caroline, and Harriet all at various times attempt to persuade or coerce Carella into giving up his child. When Philip and Caroline gradually realize that Carella’s right to the child is vindicated by his obvious love for him, they abandon the attempt to get the boy away from him. Forster champions this kind of learning, the gradual acquisition of wisdom, and Philip’s and Caroline’s spiritual growth earns for them at least partial redemption. Harriet, however, never loses her conviction that all that is English must triumph over all that is Italian. Harriet’s inability to reform her prejudices results in the novel’s tragic outcome. Forster shocked some of his readers by allowing the baby to die, but in doing so he hoped to nourish the spirit of tolerance not yet suffocated by the human inclination toward pettiness and spite.
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