Aspects of E. M. Forster’s 'Aspects of the Novel'
Aug 21 2013
Image by Courtney Nicholas
E. M. Forster opens Aspects of the Novel—a collection of lectures on fiction he gave at Trinity College in 1927 that is now pretty much required reading at writing programs now—stating how difficult it is to classify novels because they are so different. They should be more than than 50,000 words, he says, but other than that, how do you put such diverse works under the same heading? He tells his listeners not to concern themselves with how a particular novel fits into history, because they have not read every written work. Instead, he focuses on a novel’s intrinsic worth—he asks his audience to imagine all the great writers throughout history, sitting in one room together, writing their best works simultaneously. He does this in order to take the emphasis off of time and place and influence so all that's left is the work itself. He shows how the separation of 150 years between Samuel Richardson and Henry James doesn’t prevent their styles from resembling each other; they both have a sensitivity to suffering and appreciation of self-sacrifice. The 80 years separating Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells matters little when you're considering their styles; both are visualists and humorists who are terrific at cataloguing details. Forster even compares Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Virginia Woolf. His point is that artists are not influenced by history as much as they are influenced by inspiration.
A great novel could be written under the French or Russian Revolution, but the inevitable voice of the author—if she is good—will take precedence. “History develops, art stands still” is a vulgar, partial truth. Viewing novels as being written in one big room means we'll lose the chance to track the development of the human mind from generation to generation, but Forster doesn’t mind—the novel has only been around since the 18th century, which isn't enough time for humans to change in any essential way. It also means that Forster is uninterested in examining the tradition and history of the novel, which is probably why his book is taught in creative-writing courses but would be out of place in a lot of English classrooms.
In the Sacred Wood, T. S. Eliot's volume on poetry and criticism, he outlines the duties of the critic:
"It is part of his business to preserve tradition—when a good tradition exists. It is part of his business to see literature steadily and to see it whole; and this is eminently to see it not as consecrated by time, but to see it beyond time."
Forster clearly sees literature as beyond time, the way a carpenter might see making a table as an art beyond time, and treats it as a craft. There are rules to govern a novel, he says, but they are slippery. In the end, affection for a novel is what will decide its success, and Forster acknowledges the danger of sentimentality in this arrangement. To avoid too much of that, he outlines several aspects of the novel in order to give a framework of what ought to be appreciated: story, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.
At its most basic, the novel tells a story. This is the backbone of the novel. It goes back to the beginning of story telling, where one thing happens after the other. There is a universal curiosity to know what happens next. Therefore, a successful story is one that keeps the audience guessing and engaged. Like in the Arabian Nights, Scheherazade saves her own life because she keeps the king wanting to know what happens next. Thus, a story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence. But in novels, as in life, there is something else that organizes our experiences other than time—Forster classifies this as value. When a person looks back on his or her life, they do not remember events in perfect chronological order. The most intense occurrences loom above the others. Forster argues that a novel should be the same way—precedence should be given to value, although the clock cannot be forgotten. Time, however, can be ignored or hidden, but it must always be a touchstone in the novel or it becomes an incoherent mess. A story is not plot. Plot is cause and effect. A story doesn’t need to worry about time—it can be more ragged. A story can bring in elements that won’t pay off and appeals to what is primitive in us.
A novel is based on evidence plus or minus the author’s temperament. This always qualifies the effect of the evidence. The novelist’s function is to reveal the hidden life of a character at its source. It is his responsibility to tell the reader more about the secret life of Queen Victoria than what is known to others or even to her. This is not the Queen Victoria of history. A novel explores the pride, secret desires, and shames that could never be known to the outside world or even to a person’s confidants, because the novel showcases a character’s interior life. The historian records, while the novelist must create.
Aristotle’s maxim for drama, that character is revealed by action, does not apply here. Yes, on stage where everything must be externalized, a character is defined by his actions. Even his inner thoughts must be conveyed through the action of an aside. In theater, the interior cannot be shown unless it is through a technique like the one used by Eugene O'Neill in Hughie, where the character’s inner thoughts were printed between the lines. (O'Neill never intended to use the character’s inner monologue for more than context. However, Al Pacino’s production at the Taper in Los Angeles incorporated them into the performance to great success.) The fact that novels are often so interior is why some of them are so difficult to adapt to theater or film.
There are five basic elements to life on Earth—food, sleep, love, birth, and death—which are rarely depicted accurately. When I say sleep, I’m not talking about dreams. I mean the plain dark oblivion that rounds out a third of human life. We almost never read about literal sleep. Unlike sleep, food is used to bring characters together, but is rarely treated in detail unless it has something to do with a plot point. Digestion is also rarely gone into. Love is given prominence because union is a satisfying way to finish a novel. But a couple is expected to remain in happiness or unhappiness forever, there is almost never room for development beyond this in many novels and the reader accepts this because he lends the novel his dreams. But we know when we reflect on our own experiences that love does not play such a dominant role in life. Forster grants that two hours a day, at most, are spent on the actual physical application of love.
Some novels give the protagonist free reign, such as Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders. In Jane Austen's novels, on the other hand, all the characters are interdependent and strictly tied to the plot. There are flat characters and round characters. A flat character is one that never changes. They present a type and never vary from that type. If done well, flat characters can anchor the piece by being dependable. A round character is one that changes and hopefully can surprise the reader with their change, while still being believable.
There are different perspectives. First person, omniscient narrator, and partially omniscient narrator. Novelist can switch between all three. Switching can work as long as it reflects life. Often we are able to project ourselves into others and know their thoughts and feelings, and sometimes we are not. Critics often look for rules to govern the novel and get upset when a novel disregards these rules. Forster grants the novelist freedom to break their rules as long as it adds to the impact of the work and the technique doesn’t make itself apparent.
Forster’s famous equation: “’The King died, and then the Queen died' is a story; 'the King died and then the Queen died of grief’ is a plot,” is based in the idea that plot is controlled by causality. If it is a story we ask, “And then?” If it is a plot we ask “Why?” A story demands curiosity. A plot demands intelligence and memory.
Memory is also required because a good plot builds on itself. A writer has information that he reveals throughout the novel to give it pace and texture. If done right, these reveals can make a novel beautiful.
Plot can also be dangerous to a novelist, especially if he sets out to execute a prearranged plot. If he is too slavish to his preconception that is all that he will achieve in the finished product, and all the passion of the characters will be lost.
Forster distinguishes between fantasy and prophecy. Fantasy is a genre that makes an additional demand on the reader. The novelist asks his reader to first accept the world of his book and then accept the fantastic. Often fantasy is not represented in the book but hinted at. Its suggestion and absence are what classify the book as fantasy—like Tristram Shandy, where nothing fantastic happens, but the world represented would allow the furniture to begin talking without much surprise.
With prophecy, the subject is the universal. It demands humility and the absence of a sense of humor. Melville is able to represent evil in an indefinable way because he doesn’t have the conscience that gets in the way of other novelists.
Pattern often arises from plot. A plot might be shaped like an hourglass or like a ring. Here the characters are made secondary to the design. Therefore that design is the only thing that will bring beauty to this type of piece.
This is what can stitch together a novel when the plot is not the focus. Take Proust who has musical phrases that reoccur throughout the beginning of Remembrance of Things Past. There is not much plot to the book, but Proust’s rhythm, his attention to detail, and the reccurring motifs are what tie it together.
All considered, the development of the novel may become a true thing one day if the development of the human can be established—apart from the progression of history.
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