EDWARD MORGAN FORSTER (1879-1970)

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BIOGRAPHY

E. M. Forster was born in London in 1879 and died in Coventry in 1970.

As a child he was educated by his mother and did not attend regular school until he was eleven when he was sent, first to Eastbourne and later to Tonbridge School. He then attended King’s College in Cambridge, here he majored in Latin Language and Literature and in History. He too gravitated for some time around the Bloomsbury Group coming into close contact with many intellectuals of the time among whom, of course, Mrs. Woolf. He lived comfortably most of his life thanks also to a legacy he received from a grand-aunt of his, a steady presence in his life since childhood as she helped his widow mother raise him.

Once he completed his University studies he lived for some time in Italy where two of his earliest novels are set, the first, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), and the third, A Room with a View (1908). Forster also travelled to India on more than one occasion and each journey inspired his writing, as is the case with another one of his great novels, A Passage to India (1924).

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THE THEME OF THE “CONTRAST” AND ONLY CONNECT

In both Where Angels Fear to Tread and in A Room with a View Forster meant to underline the contrast between a natural and spontaneous life-style so typical of Italians as opposed to the more controlled, strict Victorian manners that still characterised the English state of mind.

Contrasts are also outstanding in Howards End (1910), the first of his two masterpieces, where, as Peter Burra[1] puts it: “A proper mixture of characters” are developed “as a vehicle for conveying ideas …built around – generally the violent – clash of opposites. Clash of human beings to achieve intimacy. And finally characters merge, they connect”, so it could be said that Howards End is a novel strongly concerned with connection, a connection that might heal from separating contrasts such as that between rural England and Suburbia or, rather, between tradition and permanence identified in the former, whereas transitoriness and change are embodied in the latter.

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Therefore, Howards End can also be read as an historical novel in the sense that here Forster analyses how historical forces and changes act upon reality, in fact, he includes in this novel all the historical and social issues that pressed England in 1910, so much so that he makes of England an urgent public issue and, as Forster is well aware, of living in a time of great and troubled changes he seems to be asking himself “Who was responsible for the sufferings that Industrialism had brought? And what was to be done?”[2] since he had foreboding feelings about the future.

Yet if Howards End is a novel about connection and of coming together as Margaret, one of the characters, feels:

“She would only point out the salvation that was latent in his own soul, and in the soul of every man. Only connect! …Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die. Nor was the message difficult to give…By quiet indications the bridge would be built and span their lives with beauty. But she failed.”[3]

A Passage to India instead states that, in fact, connection is not possible, the disillusionment here is complete as clearly shown by the closing words of the novel that are:

“Why can’t we be friends now? …It’s what I want. It’s what you want. But …the earth didn’t want it, …the birds… didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, ‘No, not yet,’ and the sky said, ‘No, not there’.”[4]

In a way it’s as if Forster has lost all hope and that exhortation: “only connect” has lost all its strength in face of the lacking human will to make an effort in reaching out to others anchored, as most are, in their own positions as they strenuously hold their ground. Or, on the other hand, it’s as if Forster is aware of some sort of difficulty to overcome contrasts as he shows, perhaps, in the description of landscape, the arid, sunburned turf of the vast country that is India and the lush green of Britain. Two opposites that can hardly come together and that may very well influence its inhabitants or guests.

A PASSAGE TO INDIA (1924)

Imperialism and the Communication Gap – A Political Novel

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Forster first visited India in 1912 but his links with this great country date back to the end of 1906 when he began to tutor Syed Ross Masood, a young muslim, in Latin. The friendship that developed was life-long lasting and it also brought Forster in contact with other Indian acquaintances that contributed to spur in him interest and curiosity for this part of the world, due also to the British overwhelming presence in India, as a matter of fact it is Forster’s strong criticism of Imperialism, even if it at its approaching end, that, to some extent, shapes the novel itself along with the great communication gap, characterising Anglo-Indians and Indians, that he feels cannot be overcome. Again a contrast that cannot be defeated.

The writing of his most important novel was a long going process full of many drawbacks and emotional tensions that were caused, in part by the outbreak of World War I and all its consequences, and by his first journey there as well as he himself states in a 1950 manuscript of Three Countries :

“Looking back on that first visit of mine to India, I realize that mixed up with the pleasure and fun was much pain. The sense of racial tension, of incompatibility, never left me. It was not a tourist’s outing, and the impression it left was deep.”[5]

His second journey to India took place in 1920 when he accepted a post as private secretary of the Maharjah of Dewas State Senior. Yet the reluctance he experienced in picking up his unfinished novel continued to afflict him along with a previously unfelt pessimism and growing dislike of people in general, regardless of their nationality.

WRITING STYLE AND TECHNIQUES

The lack of historical certainties and their influences in his writing

In addition to all that has been underlined above there was also a growing uneasiness regarding traditional writing techniques and style and he began to  wonder about possible innovations and changes which would also concern idealistic standpoints, in fact, it must not be forgotten that Forster did perceive the world around him as crumbling down, the lack of certainties that ensued thereafter will surely have influenced his literary production.

A Novel, Much More Than “Just Telling a Story”

Therefore, even though he struggles with traditional style and writing techniques that he believes are no longer fully apt at rendering the true needs of a modern artist that, according to him, is to break away from the idea of “just telling a story”, of portraying a tidy organised life just as life, in point of fact, is not, at the same time he rejects the abstract blur of reality so he tends to shift from tradition to modernism. Therefore, on the one side, he maintains an outward compliance to chronological order and employs the third person all-knowing narrating technique and, on the other, he makes great use of dialogues through which his characters try to breach that communication gap that afflicts them and at the same time Forster often creeps up behind characters’ thoughts and feelings to allow the reader to peek in behind the unsaid, and still he also requires the reader to make an extra effort, to remember attentively those small, seemingly unimportant details scattered here and there, again apparently at random, yet significantly relevant when the time is due as he has precisely meant for them to be so. It is, then, evident that Forster builds his plots carefully making also great use of irony and humour in order to outline and serve characters while enticing the reader’s memory to pin-point details that will contribute to link everything together as in a well mastered symphony.

Forster, in his own way, tries to hold together past and future and he does so by ostensibly clinging to Victorian tradition, on the one hand, by choosing to portray, in his earlier literary production, English comedy of manners echoing Miss Austen’s draw rooms and ballrooms as he investigates and gently pokes in his characters’ minds and souls, whilst, on the other hand, in his two masterpieces, he goes way beyond that by penetrating, or attempting to do so, as he himself says when trying to explain why the title of A Passage to India is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman: “to indicate the human predicament in a universe which is not, so far, comprehensible to our minds. “[7]

The difficulty he faced while writing, or attempting to write, A Passage to India was also proof of these qualms regarding style and technique. However it did not stop him from experimenting and trying alternatives that he practiced with other writings among which there is a collection of short stories and critical essays, or as he completed Maurice (1971), a novel published posthumously, as Forster expressedly wanted, that is about his homosexuality and the way he deeply felt about it.

Gender Discrimination and Racism

Finally, A Passage to India is also about the communication gap related to the contrasting feelings and attitudes that characterise the way Adela, one of the protagonists, is treated not only by the natives but by her fellow British as well.

Granted that she does make a mistake by accusing wrongly Dr Aziz of rape while visiting the Marabar Caves, however the episode and the trial that ensues serve Forster the purpose to investigate in depth the reactions both of the natives and of the British community.

The latter immediately stand on the side of Adela and as they claim justice for her they actually underline their deep-set racism towards the natives who they automatically deem well capable of such despicable actions embracing the cliché that after all Indian men are sexually attracted by white women regardless of their looks, thus stating that Miss Quested was not at all attractive.

However, what’s more striking is the women’s behaviour towards Adela. Both Indian and British women have very strong reactions, the former aren’t in any way sympathetic with the Adela and indeed blame her for the rape; the latter instead fiercely befriend her at first, but upon learning that she retracts all accusations against Dr Aziz and that she confesses her terrible mistake due, perhaps. to the profound state of confusion she felt inside the caves and the echo that she kept hearing, they all turn their back on her and refuse to have anything else to do with her banning her from the rest of the community.

The only one who shows Adela sympathy and understanding is Fielding, a university professor, who is also the only character Forster bestowes with rationale and the only one who shows true interest in people and who is stands for Dr Aziz’ innocence and not because he is an Indian but because he is an individual deserving justice. Yet, the moment he stands by Adela after she is ostracized by the same people who had encouraged her to seek justice, and after she has the courage to admit her mistake and retracts, professor Fielding loses Dr. Aziz’ friendship and understanding as Aziz cannot come to terms with the idea that Fielding could treat Adela Quested, a woman, with the same even temper that he showed him during his troubled time.

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Forster here underlines that racism belongs both to Indians and British; albeit in different ways both communities are in point of fact influenced by their cultural prejudices and these prevent both from engaging in any sort of dispassioned and even relationship with one another.

Furthermore, Forster draws attention to the reproachful attitude reserved to Adela by the British and not because she has wrongfully accused someone of a terrible crime but because she has disappointed their desperate need to find evidence that might corroborate their prejudices.

Moreoever, as pointed out above, it is especially the women of the British community that condemn Adela to isolation and ostracism and specifically because she is a woman, had she been a man, Forster seems to say, their attitude and reactions would have been more lenient and indulgent. Therefore, Adela Quested is twice the victim, on the one hand because she is considered and treated as inferior by Dr Aziz because she is a woman, as we can observe by his refusal of Fielding’s friendship when Fielding shows compassion towards Adela in the aftermath of her confession.But she is also mistreteated by those who should comprehend her best, her fellow country men and women.

Racism and gender discrimination are elements that can be found throughout the entire novel, for instance during the episode of the Bridge party, Forster emphasises that the British women have great difficulty in communicating with the Indian women invited to the party to make their acquaintance. The British ladies have learned only a small number of Indian words and those are specifically used to give orders to their servants so they lack completely the ability to make any type of conversation with people that they are to treat on an equal level. This naturally produces an embarassing situation for all those involved.

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It also points to the fact that the British did not even think it worthwhile before the event to enrich their vocabulary and improve their knowledge of the Indian language on behalf of their guests and that is because they feel superior to them regardless. It is through all these small and and only apparently irrilevant details that Forster sets a general mood and shows clearly that all humans are deep down incapable of really coming into contact with others, it is, then, this rooted unwillingness that separates individuals and that erect walls of refusals and detachments.

Forster shows that everyone is guilty of making a point of difference between oneself and the rest of the world. Nationality and cultural background are only excuses, the truth is, according to Forster, that racism is part of the British as it is part of the Indians, thus gender discrimination is too a habit, a rooted attitude both for the Indians and the British too.

When A Passage to India was finally published, in 1924 and fourteen years after Howards End, it was very well received by literary reviews both in the UK and in the U.S., it was, at first, considered mainly a political novel and its fairness towards Anglo-Indians was strongly questioned although Forster claimed that he had tried to be as fair as possible considering the actual truth of their behaviour towards natives. But as Forster himself said:

“the book … is about something wider than politics, about the search of the human race for a more lasting home, about the universe as embodied in the Indian earth and the Indian sky …It is – or rather desires to be – philosophic and poetic”.[6]


[1] Appendix II Peter Burra’s Introduction to the Everyman Edition, pp. 319-334, from: A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, Penguin Books, London 1989; edited by Oliver Stallybrass.

[2] Introduction by Samuel Hynes, p. viii, from: Howards End, E. M. Forster, A Bantam Book, New York, 1985.

[3] Howards End, E. M. Forster, A Bantam Book, New York, 1985; Chapter 22, p. 147

[4] A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, Penguin Books, London 1989, p. 316

[5] A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, Penguin Books, London 1989; edited by Oliver Stallybrass, p. ii; From Three Countries, (manuscript-cum-typescript of the 1950s at King’s College, Cambridge).

[6] See footnote 5.

[7] Appendix III Forster’s Programme Note to Santha Rama Rau’s Dramatized Version, pp. 335-336, from: A Passage to India, E. M. Forster, Penguin Books, London 1989; edited by Oliver Stallybrass.

© L. R. Capuana

Images taken from Google Search.

2 Replies to “EDWARD MORGAN FORSTER (1879-1970)”

  1. EM Forster has been a favorite since I was a teenager…LONG before the movies came out. (I was reading Forster when my friends were reading Mary Stewart, of The Crystal Cave.) However, your elaborations and elucidations make the works so much more meaningful, deep, and applicable to life than I ever grasped as a young woman. I just knew they were wonderfully written, exotic, and absorbing.

    I introduced my daughter through the movies and even today one of us will call out “Truth!” and the other reply, “Beauty!” And, of course, “How do you do? Come and have a bathe.”

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    1. I’ll say this: teaching is an eye-opener, if you want students to participate actively and to get involved in what you present in the program, then you have to dig deeper and find ways to get and maintain their attention. I don’t know if I am successful in the task, but I certainly try my best. Thanks for your feed back, it’s greatly appreciated.

      Liked by 1 person

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