Characteristics of E. M. Forster Novels

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      Edward Morgan Forster has been a controversial figure in the world of 20th-century fiction. The bulk of his creative work belongs to the Edwardian era. However, his art and thought has a great affinity to the works of the prominent Georgian novelists. Even though he has not produced any novel after 1924, his claim to be one of the greatest English novelists of the present century has not suffered. As a matter of fact it is very difficult to assess his real place in the 20th century world of fiction. Walter Allen is right in saying: "Forster is a novelist difficult to assess; he can be easily overestimated as underestimated".

Plot Construction

      In his Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster makes a distinction between the plot and the story. According to him the story exists merely in time sequence but the plot exists in relationship between cause and effect. The plot in the novels of Forster are not conventional and they are not very easy to understand. It is not easy to follow the skein of his intricate thoughts which is made more difficult by the symbolic intrusion in the frame-work of his novels. It is somewhat astonishing then to find Fredrick R. Karl and Marvin Magalaner to assert in their book A Reader's Guide to Great Twentieth-Century English Novels that Forster's Plots are simple, direct and economical. It is easier to agree with Walter Allen that Forster's plots "are as improbable at any rate in the four novels before A Passage to India as any in Victorian fiction, as melodramatic and as far-fetched".

      It is one thing to write on the craft of fiction but to apply those tenets to the writing of a novel is an entirely different thing. And though Forster's ideas on plot construction may be right, his plot construction in the novel A Passage to India does not measure up to his own standard as laid out in his Aspects of the Novel. In the words of E. Albert, "he disregards convention of plot construction and frequently introduces startling and unexpected incidents". The relationship between cause and effect is found lacking in the plot construction of A Passage to India as also in some of his other novels.


      Forster's characters are mostly 'types' or 'flat' characters. They are not rounded and are rarely portrayed as 'individuals'. They come under two groups. They are either Crustaceans or Vitalists. The Crustaceans are hidebound conservatives and the followers of lifeless conventions. Their responses, once conditioned in youth are unable to change. Characters like Ronny Heaslop, the Turtons and Major Callendar belong to this group. On the other hand, characters like Fielding and Mrs. Moore belong to the groups of Vitalists. They are men of feeling and deep devotion. They learn from their experiences and their characters evolve gradually. They are not like the stagnant pools of water which the Crustaceans are.

      Whether male or female, the characters of Forster lack in passion and sexual fulfillment. They stand for certain values of life, and a certain religious colors. The author keeps himself detached from his characters. In the words of Gerald Bullett: "He does not identify himself exclusively with any one character, but stands a little alof, a sympathetic spectator, who from time to time leans forwards to get a more intimate view of them".


      Forster is generally placed in the realistic and naturalistic tradition of Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy and H.G. Wells. But the fact is that the author of Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Passage to India is not such a pronounced realist as some of the twentieth-century masters of realism. Moody Lovett in A History of English Literature comments: "The surface manner of Forster's novels may appear to be realistic and comic but his impatience with realism is apparent in the manner he infused sudden acts of violence and accidents in his plots and in his wilful juxtaposition of a romantic figure in a realistic environment as in The Longest Journey or a realistic figure in a romantic environment as in Room with a View." Forster's maturest novel A Passage to India is faithful in its depiction of Anglo-Indian relations but the novel tends to be more philosophical and symbolical than a realistic representation of the racial problem.


      As a moralist, Forster is not in favor of convention, worship, snobbery, money and affected manners. He is opposed to all shams and falsehoods. He advocates the adoption of sincerity and truthfulness in human relations. Some critics consider Forster to be a propagandist intent on preaching his gospel of good relationships and intercultural understanding and sympathy. His novels are the expression of his moral vision, and its world rests on moral foundations. On this aspect David Cecil's comment is pertinent: "If that Vision is incoherent, if those foundations are insecure, so also is the building that rests on them, we move through it entranced but uneasy; for we are, half unconsciously, aware that any moment the whole delicate structure may come tumbling about our ears."

Criticism of Contemporary Civilisation

      In this novel, E.M. Forster has criticized the contemporary civilization as well. Like D.H. Lawernce, Forster too, launched tirade against the ills of a civilization which was founded on the ideals of materialism and affluence. As A.C. Ward remarks: "His satire is sharp and penetrating as he deals with conventions and incidents; and there is profound (sometimes bitter) irony in the poising of massive effects upon tiny causes, like a monstrous inverted pyramid".

      E.M. Forster can be compared to D.H. Lawrence as a critic of the contemporary civilization. As Dr. A.C. Collins asserts: "Not only did Forster and Lawrence share this general reaction against contemporary civilization, but they also had a common positive theme, for the novels of both are really exercises on the motif of "right personal relationships", a favorite phrase of Forster". However, the solutions that the two novelists provide are very different. Intelligence, culture and an awakening of the heart was the antidote against modem materialism on which Forster relied. Lawrence, on the other hand, was preoccupied with sexuality, a theme almost alien to Forster. Like Forster, Lawrence too was preaching to the heart, but unlike him, he believed in the passions of the blood. Both believed in the necessity for the individual to be free in his inner life, not even in love should a person suffer himself to be possessed in his thoughts and feelings by another. Forster, like Lawrence, revolted from the idea of marriage as "eternal union, eternal ownership".


      Symbolism is a prominent feature in the novels of E.M. Forster. He makes conscious use of various symbols in his novels. At times his symbols and symbolic representations are difficult to comprehend. It is only after straining with some intellectual effort that one can hope to unravel the mystery of the symbols he uses.

      In A Passage to India the very title is symbolic. "Passage" is symbolic of "link" and the author seems to advocate a link between the British ruling class, the Anglo-Indians and the natives of India. The division of the novel is in three parts — 'Mosque', 'Caves' and Temple' is symbolic as well. It stands for the three seasons of spring, summer and monsoon in India, respectively. These symbols have significance in reference to man's nature as well. Mosque stands for man's emotional nature whereas the Caves symbolize his intellect. His devotion and love is symbolized by the Temple. Glen. O. Allen explains the three fold division of the novel as the three attitudes towards life - the path of activity is represented by Dr. Aziz, the path of knowledge is represented by Fielding and the path of devotion is represented by Prof. Godbole.


      Though die novels of Forster end on a note of tragedy, he seems to lack the attitude of a tragedian. He stands at a distance from the tragic drama of his novel, and admires the exponent of the comic spirit. He devotes himself to "judging, criticizing, observing, with an irony, sometimes bitter, more often sympathetic, the hot, perplexed, undignified little bundles of hopes and aspirations, fears and desires that he conceives human beings to be".

Lyrical Sensibility

      Blended with the comic vein in the novels of Forster is the element of poetry. He has an acute lyrical sensibility. His response to a landscape, to music, and more especially to the exotic, the Indian and the Italian scene is that of a poet. Romantic association counts for more than mere sensuous appeals to the eye or the ear.

A Liberal Humanist and Rationalist

      Forster in the true sense of the word represents a liberal humanist and rationalist. Although, he was rationalist, he was convinced that life was not merely being intellectual. It was something more than that. Though he believed that the 'wisdom of the heart' was elected in the nineteenth century, he could not reconcile himself to the cult of the blood which D.H. Lawrence advocated. Passion lies in the life of vital grace and sincerity. It is to be found in the vivacious nature of Dr. Aziz. However, emotional restraint plays an important part in Forster's characterization. In Aziz, Forster has caught the mixture of pride, vanity and an almost grotesque desire to please his English masters. Thus, it is Forster's humanism and rationality which help him depict his characters in all their aspects.


      E.M. Forster's prose style is the exact mirror of his mind and temperament. He is not a grand style; there is no eloquence or running passion in it. As David Cecil comments: "It is infinitely sensitive, infinitely dexterous, infinitely graceful. In it, all his verse qualities are to be seen deftly and fastidiously translated to his very choice of epithet, the very lift and tempo of his lights, tuneful, unpredictable rhythms. Nor does complexity ever obscure beauty. Forster is like a dancer who can execute the most complicated steps easily and without making a single ugly movement".


      To sum up, we can say with Arnold Kettle: "E. M. Forster is not a writer of the stature of D.H. Lawrence or Joyce, but he is a fine and enduring artist and the only living British novelist who, can be discussed without fatuity against the highest and the broadest standard". He is a novelist who may be lacking in emotional fire and human warmth but there are certain virtues m him which very few novelists possess.


What are the salient features of the novels of E.M. Forster?
"Forster likes to work with surprises, mild and great". Discuss.
What is the importance of 'rhythm' in Forster's prose style, specially with reference to his novel A Passage of India?
Is mysticism a prominent feature in the novels of E.M. Forster?

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