All of Forster’s best-known and most anthologized stories appeared first in two collections, The Celestial Omnibus and The Eternal Moment. The words “celestial” and “eternal” are especially significant because a typical E. M. Forster story features a protagonist who is allowed a vision of a better life, sometimes momentarily only. Qualifications for experiencing this epiphany include a questioning mind, an active imagination, and a dissatisfaction with conventional attitudes. The transformation resulting from the experience comes about through some kind of magic that transports him through time—backward or forward—or through space—to Mt. Olympus or to heaven. Whether or not his life is permanently changed, the transformed character can never be the same again after a glimpse of the Elysian Fields, and he is henceforth suspect to contemporary mortals.
Forster termed his short stories “fantasies,” and when the discerning reader can determine the point at which the real and the fantastic intersect, he will locate the epiphany, at the same time flexing his own underused imaginative muscles. Perhaps “The Machine Stops,” a science-fiction tale about a world managed by a computerlike Machine that warns men to “beware of first-hand ideas,” was at the time of its writing (1909) the most fantastic of Forster’s short fiction, but its portrayal of radio, television, and telephones with simultaneous vision seems to have been simply farsighted.
Forster frequently uses a narrator who is so insensitive that he ironically enhances the perception of the reader. In “Other Kingdom,” for example, when Mr. Inskip finds it “right” to repeat Miss Beaumont’s conversation about a “great dream” to his employer, the reader correctly places the tutor on the side of unimaginative human, rather than in the lineup of Dryads to which the young lady will repair. When the narrator of “The Story of a Panic” boasts that he “can tell a story without exaggerating” and then unfolds a tale about a boy who obviously is visited by Pan and who finally bounds away to join the goat-god, the readers know that they must themselves inform the gaps of information. When the same narrator attributes the death of the waiter Gennaro to the fact that “the miserable Italians have no stamina. Something had gone wrong inside him,” the reader observes the disparity between the two statements and rightly concludes that Gennaro’s death has a supernatural cause—that he had been subjected to the same “panic” as had Eustace, and that only the latter had passed the test.
In Aspects of the Novel (1927), Forster suggests that fiction will play a part in the ultimate success of civilization through promotion of human sympathy, reconciliation, and understanding. In each of the short stories the protagonist gets a fingerhold on the universal secret, but he sometimes loses his grip, usually through the action of someone too blind, materialistic, or enslaved by time to comprehend the significance of the moment.
If, as Forster himself declares, the emphasis of plot lies in causality, he allows the reader an important participation, because the causes of transformation are never explicit, and the more mundane characters are so little changed by the miraculous events taking place around them that they are not puzzled or even aware that they occur.
The Eternal Moment
In “The Eternal Moment,” the stiffly insensitive Colonel Leyland, Miss Raby’s friend and traveling companion, is just such a character. Although Miss Raby is determined to accept the responsibility for the commercialization of the mountain resort Vorta engendered by her novel, Colonel Leyland can understand her feelings no more readily than can Feo, the uneducated waiter who is the immediate object of Miss Raby’s search. Although Miss Raby ostensibly has returned to the village to see how it has been affected by tourism since she made it famous, she also is drawn to the spot because it was the scene of the one romantic, although brief, interlude of her life. For twenty years she has recalled a declaration of passionate love for her by a young Italian guide whose advances she had rejected. This memory has sustained her because of its reality and beauty. She finds the once rustic village overgrown with luxury hotels, in one of which Feo, her dream-lover, is the stout, greasy, middle-aged, hypocritical concierge.
Miss Raby, whose instincts have warned her that the progress of civilization is not necessarily good, sees that “the passage of a large number of people” has corrupted not only the village and its values, but also Feo. Observing that “pastoral virtues” and “family affection” have disappeared with the onslaught of touristry, she accosts the embarrassed peasant who had once offered her flowers. In a scene that is the quintessence of a human failure to communicate, Feo believes that she is attempting to ruin him, while she is actually appealing to him to help the old woman who owns the only hotel untouched by modernity. Colonel Leyland, who cannot bear the thought, much less the reality, of such intimate contact with a member of the lower class, gives up his idea of marrying Miss Raby. The rich novelist, whose entire life has been enriched by the “eternal moment” when she briefly and in imagination only had spanned class barriers, asks Feo if she can adopt one of his children. Rebuffed, she will live alone, able perhaps to blot out reality and relive the happiness that the memory of the “eternal moment” has brought her.
Another misunderstood protagonist is Eustace, the fourteen-year-old English boy considered a misfit by the group of tourists with whom he is seeing Italy. Listless and pampered, bad-tempered and repellent, Eustace dislikes walking, cannot swim, and appears most to enjoy lounging. Forced to go to a picnic, the boy carves from wood a whistle, which when blown evokes a “catspaw” of wind that frightens all of the other tourists into running. When they return to their picnic site in search of Eustace, they find him lying on his back, a green lizard darting from his cuff. For the first time on the trip the boy smiles and is polite. The footprints of goats are discerned nearby as Eustace races around “like a real boy.” A dazed hare sits on his arm, and he kisses an old woman as he presents her with flowers. The adults, in trying to forget the encounter, are cruel to Eustace and to Gennaro, a young, natural, ignorant Italian fishing lad, who is a “stop-gap” waiter at the inn, and who clearly understands the boy’s experience. As Eustace and Gennaro attempt to flee to freedom from human responsibility, the waiter is killed, the victim of a society which in its lack of understanding had attempted to imprison Eustace, oblivious to his miraculous change, or at least to its significance. He has turned into an elfin sprite of the woods, to which he escapes forever, leaving behind him Forster’s customary complement of complacent, nonplussed tourists.
No Pan, but a Dryad, is Evelyn Beaumont of “Other Kingdom.” Mr. Inskip, who narrates the tale, has been hired as a tutor of the classics by handsome, prosperous, and pompous Harcourt Worters. Inskip’s charges are Worters’s fiancé, Miss Evelyn Beaumont, and his ward, Jack Ford. When Worters announces that he has purchased a nearby copse called “Other Kingdom” as a wedding gift for Evelyn, she dances her gleeful acceptance in imitation of a beech tree. On a celebratory picnic Evelyn asks Jack to stand in a position that will hide the house from her view. She is dismayed to learn that Worters plans to build a high fence around her copse and to add an asphalt path and a bridge. Evelyn values the fact that boys and girls have been coming for years from the village to carve their initials on the trees, and she notes that Worters finds blood on his hands when he attempts to repeat the romantic ritual. Upon hearing that Worters has obtained Other Kingdom by taking advantage of a widow, she realizes that he is a selfish person who views her as one of his possessions to be enjoyed. Broken in spirit, she apparently agrees to his plan of fencing in the copse, but she dances away “from society and life” to be united with other wood nymphs and likely with Ford, who knows intuitively that she is a free spirit that can never be possessed.
The Road from Colonus
Although Eustace in “Story of a Panic” is a Pan-figure, Evelyn a Dryad, and Harcourt Worters a prototype of Midas, Mr. Lucas of “The Road from Colonus” is associated with Oedipus. The tale’s title is reminiscent of Sophocles’ play, and Ethel, Mr. Lucas’s daughter, represents Antigone. As do Miss Raby, Eustace, and Evelyn Beaumont, Mr. Lucas enters into a special union with nature and humankind. Riding ahead of his daughter and her friends, he finds the “real Greece” when he spies a little inn surrounded by a grove of plane trees and a little stream that bubbles out of a great hollow tree. As he enters this natural shrine, he for the first time sees meaning to his existence, and he longs to stay in this peaceful spot. The other tourists, however, have schedules and appointments to adhere to, and they forcibly carry Mr. Lucas away from the scene of his revelation. That night the plane tree crashes to kill all occupants of the inn, and Mr. Lucas spends his remaining days fussing about his neighbors and the noises of civilization, especially those made by the running water in the drains and reminiscent of the pleasant, musical gurgles of the little stream in Greece.
The Celestial Omnibus
More fortunate than Mr. Lucas is the boy who rides “The Celestial Omnibus” from an alley where an old, faded sign points the way “To Heaven.” After the driver, Sir Thomas Browne, delivers the boy across a great gulf on a magnificent rainbow to the accompaniment of music, and back home to his nursery, the boy’s parents refuse to believe his tale. Mr. Bons, a family friend, attempts to prove the boy is lying by offering to make a repeat journey with him. On this trip the driver is Dante. Even though Mr. Bons is finally convinced that the boy has actually met Achilles and Tom Jones, he wants to go home. When Mr. Bons crawls out of the omnibus shrieking, “I see London,” he falls and is seen no more. His body is discovered “in a shockingly mutilated condition,” and the newspaper reports that “foul play is suspected.” The boy is crowned with fresh leaves as the dolphins awaken to celebrate with him the world of imagination. Mr. Bons, when accosted with this world, rejected it so violently that he suffered physical pain.
In all of these “fantasies,” a gulf separates reality from illusion, and the latter is clearly to be preferred. If one must inhabit the real world, one can bear its existence and even love its inhabitants if that person is one of the fortunate few receptive to a special kind of vision.
Play: Billy Budd, pb. 1951 (with Eric Crozier; libretto).
Novels: Where Angels Fear to Tread, 1905; The Longest Journey, 1907; A Room with a View, 1908; Howards End, 1910; Maurice, wr. 1913, pb. 1971; A Passage to India, 1924.
Miscellaneous: The Abinger Edition of E. M. Forster, 1972-1998 (17 volumes; Oliver Stallybrass, editor).
Nonfiction: Alexandria: A History and a Guide, 1922; Pharos and Pharillon, 1923; Aspects of the Novel, 1927; Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, 1934; Abinger Harvest—A Miscellany, 1936; Virginia Woolf, 1942; Development of English Prose Between 1918 and 1939, 1945; Two Cheers for Democracy, 1951; The Hill of Devi, 1953; Marianne Thornton: A Domestic Biography, 1797-1887, 1956; Commonplace Book, 1978; Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, 1983-1985 (2 volumes; Mary Lago and P. N. Furbank, editors); The Feminine Note in Literaturem 2001.short fiction • The Celestial Omnibus, and Other Stories, 1911; The Eternal Moment, and Other Stories, 1928; The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster, 1947; The Life to Come, and Other Stories, 1972; Arctic Summer, and Other Fiction, 1980.
Beauman, Nicola. E. M. Forster: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.Caporaletti, Silvana. “Science as Nightmare: ‘The Machine Stops’ by E. M. Forster.” Utopian Studies 8 (1997): 32-47.____________. “The Thematization of Time in E. M. Forster’s ‘The Eternal Moment’ and Joyce’s ‘The Dead.’” Twentieth Century Literature 43 (Winter, 1997): 406-419.Gardner, Philip, ed. E. M. Forster: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1997.Iago, Mary. E. M. Forster: A Literary Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995.McDowell, Frederick P.W. E. M. Forster. Rev. ed. Boston: Twayne, 1982.May, Charles E., ed. Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition. 8 vols. Pasadena, Calif.: Salem Press, 2004.Rapport, Nigel. The Prose and the Passion: Anthropology, Literature, and the Writing of E. M. Forster. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1994.Seabury, Marcia Bundy. “Images of a Networked Society: E. M. Forster’s ‘The Machine Stops.’” Studies in Short Fiction 34 (Winter, 1997): 61-71.Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1966.