E.M. Forster, “Aspects of the Novel”

1927

For Forster, the novel has not been adequately critiqued, partly because the tools we have to critique it are disorganized and problematic.

Forster likens Woolf to Sterne – both are “fantasists” who “start with a little object, take a flutter from it, and settle on it again.” He does this to undermine chronology in literary study. He refers to Eliot’s tradition but says the novel is spongier and more difficult to pin down. Its seven traits are story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

Story: We live life by two times: actual and valued. The good novel succeeds in creating suspense for us – the desire to know what happens. This is important because life is lived sequentially, by anticipation. War and Peace exhilarates us by extending over space as well as time. (It’s interesting that he and Henry James would disagree on this so completely, given that he critiques James, who called Tolstoy’s novel “a loose baggy monster.”)

People: Characters are not people – they are like people. They spend far too much time in love and far too little time cooking and eating. We can know these people with more perfect clairvoyance and intimacy than our own friends by the author’s words. A character is real when we feel the author knows everything about him. Dickens writes flat characters, but they vibrate with vitality in their environment and against each other. A flat character is marked through the text in the same way by one characteristic and does not change. Round characters (in James and Austen) have the capacity to live outside the pages of the book they are in. They can surprise us.

“The test of a round character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round. It has the incalculability of life about it—life within the pages of a book.”

Plot: Plot is a sequence of events given causality. The balance between plot and character is difficult, as the first must surprise and the second must run smooth – be believable. The reader must also have intelligence and memory to piece together facets of the reading experience across time.

Fantasy & Prophecy: Fantasy favors writers more interested in the world than the individual. Prophecy is the attendance of intangible infinity to the everyday (not the same as symbolism, with its concrete meanings).

Pattern & Rhythm: A novel’s pattern is its geometric shape – a circle, etc. The hourglass figure of The Ambassadors consists in the two characters switching places (Chad and Strether). For Forster, this pattern is too forced, achieved “at the cost of life,” and therefore “Beautifully done, but not worth doing.” If story satisfies curiosity and plot intelligence, then pattern satisfies aesthetics. Rhythm is a motif, an “almost-agent” in the text that arises at the right moments of the writer writing; rather than being planned, it “stitches the book from the inside.”

“Expansion. That is the idea the novelist must cling to. Not completion. Not rounding off but opening out. When the symphony is over we feel that the notes and tunes composing it have been liberated, they have found in the rhythm of the whole their individual freedom. Cannot the novel be like that? Is there not something of it [that can bring us to] a larger existence than was possible at the time?”

“The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and summoned us to help analyze his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.”

“All history, all our experience, teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it, and they must balance like jugglers if it is to remain; if it is constant it is no longer a human relationship but a social habit, the emphasis in it has passed from love to marriage.”

 

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