The English novelist and essayist Edward Morgan Forster (1879-1970) was concerned with the conflict between the freedom of the spirit and the conventions of society.
Educated at Tonbridge School (which he disliked intensely), E. M. Forster went on to Cambridge. His father, an architect, had died when Forster was only 2 years old, but a legacy from an aunt afforded him his education and the opportunity to travel. It was his experience of Cambridge and of travel in Europe after taking his degree in 1901 which stimulated Forster's imagination and thought and led to the extraordinary burst of creative activity which produced a volume of short stories, The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories (1911), and four novels in quick succession: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howard's End (1910).
Where Angels Fear To Tread presents a conflict between two worlds, represented by the English town of Sawston ("that hole," as one of the characters calls it) on the one hand and the Italian town of Monteriano on the other. Those two worlds are characterized by the English Herritons, seeking to buy (or, as eventually transpires, steal) the child of their dead sister, and Gino, the Italian father of the child. Linking the two is Caroline Abbott; loved by Philip Herriton and in love with Gino, she is the meeting point of one world with another. In the novel the child is killed and the Herritons leave Italy, which they had once thought beautiful. No happy resolution is afforded, unless it is that Philip Herriton does abandon his home in Sawston—and the values it represents—to make his living in London. Such endings of loss, death, and disappointment, redeemed only by the possibility of future change and the knowledge of the existence of beauty, are characteristic of Forster's fiction. And characteristic, too, are the instruments Forster uses: the settled, conventional middle-class English brought into sudden and unnerving contact with a strange and more exotic people.
In 1912 Forster first visited India, and after spending the war years from 1915 to 1918 in Alexandria with the Red Cross, he returned to India in 1922 as private secretary to the maharajah of the state of Dewas Senior. India is the location for Forster's only novel set entirely out of England, A Passage to India, which, begun in 1912, was not completed until after Forster's second visit and was finally published in 1924. The conflicting worlds which Forster treats in this novel are those of the colonial English and the native Indian.
On the title page of Howard's End Forster had placed the phrase "Only connect." It is Forster's instruction to people whose most significant failure, as he sees it, is their reluctance to destroy the barriers of prejudice that have risen to divide them. This thought is also evident in A Passage to India. At the center of the novel are two characters—the Indian, Aziz, and the Englishman, Fielding—each intellectual, each aware of the traditions of his country yet largely freed from them, and each desiring to be friends. Yet circumstances, forged by inexplicable and supernatural impulses and abetted by worldly prejudice, transpire to separate them and breed a reluctant mistrust. As the novel closes, they both desire friendship: "But the horses … the earth … the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the guest house, … they didn't want it; they said in their hundred voices 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there."' The division between the two men is confirmed. It is the division also between their two nations; and it is the division, Forster implies, which characterized the 20th century and stems from man's failure to overcome his individual and traditional differences.
A Passage To India is generally conceded to be Forster's finest novel. The novel is essentially dramatic, the characters completely realized; and people, theme, and plot fuse into a totally convincing action. Yet although this novel suggests that Forster had acquired a complete mastery of the genre, he subsequently published no more novels. His later work—written at his home in Abinger or at King's College, Cambridge (of which he was elected a fellow in 1927 and where he resided from the end of World War II until his death)—took the form of literary criticism, biography, and general essays.
Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922) and Pharos and Pharillon (1923) are superficially histories and guides, as the subtitle of the first suggests. But fundamentally they present the comments of a liberal, thoughtful, and Hellenistic mind on human manners and traditions. This characteristic bent of mind is evident in all of Forster's subsequent essays.
Perhaps the most noted and influential of these is the volume of criticism Aspects of the Novel, the text of the Clark Lectures which Forster delivered in 1927. This work advances a theory of characterization and of "pattern and rhythm" in the novel. Forster asserts that characters are either flat—types or caricatures, particularly useful in comedy—or round—capable of surprising the reader, yet in a totally convincing fashion. He speculates that a sort of symphonic rhythm (the "three large blocks of sound" that make up Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, for example) may have its counterpart in fiction. These thoughts provide an illustration of Forster's own concern as a novelist. For his own characters do, in fact, range from the flattest of symbols to the complex and surprising cipher of human personality; and his own novels are sometimes built out of three recognizable parts and controlled by recurrent symbols.
Further literary essays are contained in Abinger Harvest (1936) and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951). In their impressionistic re-creation of their subjects' styles and preoccupations, and their idiosyncratic use of personal anecdote, these essays suggest the influence of Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey—reminding the reader that Forster was at the center of the Bloomsbury group. A constant awareness of the progress and possible destruction of human civilization is characteristic of the finest of these essays and reveals directly what perhaps is one of the driving intellectual forces of the novels. The epilogues to "The Pageant of Abinger" in Abinger Harvest and "The Last of Abinger" in Two Cheers for Democracy voice a detestation of the increasing dominance of material values.
Firm opposition to prejudice, racism, and totalitarianism has seldom been more finely expressed than in Two Cheers for Democracy, and the long essay "What I Believe" remains the moving credo of a man who in an age of increasing uniformity insists upon the rights and sanctity of the individual and the importance of the personal life. A balance between the right of every human individual to be uniquely himself and the right of every community to organize in order to preserve that individual uniqueness is finely maintained by Forster. Because the political system in which Forster was nurtured attempts to sustain this balance, he is prepared to give it two cheers: "Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three. Only Love, the Beloved Republic, deserves that." The knowledge that the beloved republic can neither be founded by his race nor banished from its aspirations furnishes the despair and the hope which are inseparable in all of Forster's writing.
Rose Macauley provided an early personal appreciation of Forster's work in The Writings of E. M. Forster (1938), and a quite different though no less personal tribute is Natwahr-Singh, ed., E. M. Forster: A Tribute (1964). There are many good critical studies of Forster's work. J. K. Johnstone in Bloomsbury Group (1954) devotes a long section to an analysis of Forster's novels which has probably not been surpassed. Among the more recent serious critical studies are H. J. Oliver, The Art of E. M. Forster (1960); J. B. Beer, The Achievement of E. M. Forster (1962); and Frederick C. Crews, E. M. Forster: The Perils of Humanism (1962).