Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This rather strange book, a series of chatty and informal lectures Forster delivered at his alma mater Cambridge in 1927, owes its fame to two simple but indispensable concepts that have become almost axiomatic to the study of fiction and the craft of fiction writing.
Forster’s first famous idea is the distinction between round and flat characters—in other words, characters who have a multitude of traits that make them seem three-dimensional, on the one hand, and characters defined by a single trait, on the other. Forster allows that great novelists from Dickens to Proust use flat characters and that they have two chief advantages over round characters: they are recognizable, and they are memorable. But he also implies that creating round characters takes greater art, which he shows through an example drawn from Austen’s Mansfield Park in which a minor comic figure deals with an unexpected event both unpredictably but (given what we know of her personality) aptly, going from flat to round and back again. “How Jane Austen can write!” Forster exclaims. Round characters, then, are the higher achievement—though Forster does wryly remark that “Russian novels” (he has in mind Tolstoy and Dostoevsky) could use fewer of them, presumably for ease of reading.
Forster’s second influential concept is the distinction between story and plot. The basic division is simple enough: a story is a series of fictional events in their temporal sequence, while a plot is the recitation of those events, in or out of sequence, with an emphasis on causality. Forster’s famous illustration of the principle:
“The king died and then the queen died,” is a story. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief” is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: “The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.” This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say “and then?” If it is in a plot we ask “why?”
This, too, is not just a scientific-seeming narratological observation, like the Russian Formalists’ similar but more neutral distinction between fabula and syuzhet, formulated around the same time. For Forster, story is a low form that caters to the base instinct of curiosity, rather than drawing on memory and intelligence, which he deems necessary to understand a proper plot. He emphasizes this judgment by tracing story back to “neolithic times, perhaps to paleolithic” and finding its more recent votaries in cave men’s “modern descendant the movie-public.”
These ideas are now so familiar that they feel like second nature—I think even middle schoolers know the flat/round distinction at least—so why do I describe this as a strange book?
For one thing, there is its tone. Disclaiming the status of scholar, Forster instead adopts the humble, good-natured, common-sensical, and even somewhat bumbling English persona that so genially narrates his fiction. Forster’s goal is transparency. He understands that his class of educated managers often pretends to an intellectual status it hasn’t earned:
True scholarship is incommunicable, true scholars rare. There are a few scholars, actual or potential, in the audience today, but only a few, and there is certainly none on the platform. Most of us are pseudo-scholars, and I want to consider our characteristics with sympathy and respect, for we are a very large and quite a powerful class, eminent in Church and State, we control the education of the Empire, we lend to the Press such distinction as it consents to receive, and we are a welcome asset at dinner-parties.
Forster’s title is meant to reflect the intellectual humility of the mere reader-practitioner, as opposed to the scholar. He declines to devise a definition of the novel more precise than “[a]ny fictitious prose work over 50,000 words” and sees this art form, younger and less formed than prior literary genres, as a boggy tract between the solider mountains of poetry and history. He goes on:
And I have chosen the title “Aspects” because it is unscientific and vague, because it leaves us the maximum of freedom, because it means both the different ways we can look at a novel and the different ways a novelist can look at his work. And the aspects selected for discussion are seven in number: The Story; People; The Plot; Fantasy; Prophecy; Pattern and Rhythm.
His first anti-scholarly gesture is to dismiss literary history, perhaps the most academic approach to literature this side of linguistics, and treat the novelists of the previous 200 years as existing more or less simultaneously, on the grounds that a couple of centuries is not enough time for human nature to change fundamentally. He asks us to imagine “all the novelists writing their novels at once,” and brilliantly demonstrates the irrelevance of periodization by pairing comparable passages from writers who differ in epoch and -ism while, more importantly, sharing a sensibility and aesthetic: Samuel Richardson and Henry James, Charles Dickens and H. G. Wells, Laurence Sterne and Virginia Woolf.
The highlights of the succeeding lectures, one on “Story,” two on “People,” and one on “Plot,” are the celebrated distinctions between story and plot and between round and flat characters summarized above. But they have their local pleasures, too: Forster’s reluctant praise of Walter Scott (whose work he regards as a relic of his grandparents’ generation) for mastering the lowly art of storytelling; his much less ambivalent praise of Defoe for creating a character as life-like and lively as Moll Flanders (“She fills the book that bears her name, or rather stands alone in it, like a tree in a park”); his aforementioned admiration for the subtle artistry of Jane Austen; and a comparison between George Meredith (“not the great name he was twenty or thirty years ago, when much of the universe and all Cambridge trembled”) and Thomas Hardy, which comes out in Hardy’s favor (“a writer who is far greater than Meredith, and yet less successful as a novelist”), despite what Forster sees as Meredith’s greater skill at plot and characterization.
Forster begins his book with the “unpatriotic truth” that no English novelist “is as great as Tolstoy,” “has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoevsky,” or “has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust,” but his chapters on the technical matters of story and character tend to assume the standard of English realism: “all novels contain tables and chairs, and most readers of fiction look for them first.” The next three chapters, by contrast—and here is another strange quality of Aspects—focus less on technique and more on moods and modes. They introduce foreign elements, foreign even when embodied by English novelists like Emily Brontë and D. H. Lawrence.
These unnovelistic aspects of the novel are “fantasy,” “prophecy,” and “pattern.” Fantasy, which Forster associates with writers like Sterne, Woolf, and Joyce, includes everything from what was once called “romance” (explicitly supernatural and unreal narratives) to subjective experimental narration to fictions built on the irrealist basis of parody. That fantasy makes Forster uneasy can be shown in his reading of Ulysses (“the most interesting literary experiment of our day”) as “a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud,” “the aim of which is to degrade all things and more particularly civilization and art, by turning them inside out and upside down”—a malicious fantasy of a profane quotidian, a vicious parody of English realism’s milder and more genial spirit. As for prophecy, Forster can hardly define it, and he can only name four prophets—Dostoevsky, Melville, Lawrence, and Emily Brontë—all of whom write novels of a mythic or Biblical stature that make metaphysical claims. Forster links prophecy, perhaps again thinking of premodern modes, with that not-very-novelistic quality of “song.”
He is patently uncomfortable with the fantasts and the prophets, yet he’s attracted to them, too, or else he wouldn’t devote two slightly out-of-place lectures to them. And why should fantasy and prophecy discomfit the author of “The Story of a Panic” or the Marabar Caves episode in A Passage to India anyway? Maybe one purpose of Forster’s slyly diffident critical voice is to incite suspicion, to invite investigation into what immoderate desire the modest tone conceals.
Forster is more straightforwardly opposed to what he calls “pattern,” the attempt to produce beauty in narrative art through a too-highly-wrought form. His example here is Henry James, who requires “that most of human life has to disappear before he can do us a novel,” and Forster goes so far as to take H. G. Wells’s side in his famous dispute with James over the purpose of fiction:
It is this question of the rigid pattern: hour-glass or grand chain or converging lines of the cathedral or diverging lines of the Catherine wheel, or bed of Procrustes—whatever image you like as long as it implies unity. Can it be combined with the immense richness of material which life provides? Wells and James would agree it cannot, Wells would go on to say that life should be given the preference, and must not be whittled or distended for a pattern’s sake. My own prejudices are with Wells.
Despite his siding with Wells, though, and despite his devotion to English realism, Forster also—right in the middle of the book—declares an allegiance that puts him closer to the likes of Sterne, Woolf, and Joyce, to Romantic and modernist subjectivities as opposed to realist solidities, than he might otherwise seem to be:
“Character,” says Aristotle, “gives us qualities, but it is in actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.” We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong and now we must face the consequences of disagreeing with him. “All human happiness and misery,” says Aristotle, “take the form of action.” We know better. We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access.
This belief that the inner life is the novelist’s real quarry explains why Forster opts for the more indefinite term “rhythm” instead of “pattern” when he comes to define where beauty in the novel might reside. His conveniently musical example is Vinteuil’s recurrent “little phrase” in Proust: the idea is that a novel should not be so rigidly designed that it has to exclude the variety and diversity of life, but rather that novels seeking to hold this vital chaos should be “stitched internally” by the repetition and variation of motifs that are introduced and then revisited at intervals. He cautions that this stitching must remain loose to be effective—as loose, we might say, as Forster’s own perusal of the novel’s aspects:
I doubt that it can be achieved by the writers who plan their books beforehand, it has to depend on a local impulse when the right interval is reached. But the effect can be exquisite, it can be obtained without mutilating the characters, and it lessens our need of an external form.
The subtle jab against the “planners” of the literary world speaks up for the novel as an organic rather than an artificial form, this in keeping with what I have elsewhere discussed as Forster’s “green world” Romantic naturalism.
In a brief conclusion, Forster suggests that the novel as a form, considered historically, tracks ideas of human nature: “the phrase ‘the development of the novel’ might cease to be a pseudo-scholarly tag or a technical triviality, and become important, because it implied the development of humanity.” Contemporary theorists of the novel have caught up with this idea, for better and for worse, and it’s tempting to wonder what Forster might think of today’s departures from the realism he seems (only seems?) to have held so dear.
Is Aspects of the Novel worth reading today? Like all other famous nonfiction books that introduced key ideas into the common sense of humanity, it is stranger, more singular and more complicated, than these ideas might suggest now that they’ve entered the dictionary or encyclopedia. Forster does rely on some outdated schemata—his notion of story as primitive relies on a cultural Darwinism that would now read, at least by implication, as offensive—and some now-obscure examples, as when, in his lecture on fantasy, he quotes at great length some long-forgotten “book about a witch: Flecker’s Magic, by Norman Matson.” But his thoughts on more resolutely canonical authors, like Defoe, Austen, Melville, and James, are intelligent and often counterintuitive—good to quarrel with, which alone makes Aspects of the Novel enjoyable as an insight into one major or near-major novelist’s reflections on his peers.
Above all, though, we can’t afford to neglect books whose ideas went from the wisdom of Cambridge to every high-school textbook: they are the building-blocks of our world, and if we want to change our world or preserve it, we have to know what it’s made of.