Analysis of E. M. Forster’s The Road from Colonus

“The Road from Colonus” was written by E. M. Forster in 1903, shortly after he had visited Olympia in Greece. He had gone there as part of a cruise group made up largely of classical scholars against the enthusiasm and knowledge of whom Forster felt dull and irritable.

E. M. Forster / The Punch

For a public school– and Cambridge-educated young man of Forster’s time, Greece came too well mediated, too known in advance, and could inspire in the sensitive young artist only the disappointments of rehearsed responses. This fear of being unable to respond adequately to the essential vitality of the external world is a fear that was to haunt Forster’s early work. Philip Herriton in Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) is frozen into the painful position of a spectator, unable to engage wholly or fully with anything around him that does not comply with the straight and civilized lines of the actions and etiquette he knows. Likewise, Rickie Elliot in The Longest Journey (1907) fears that too much culture and self-consciousness has undone his capacity to respond to life with the abandon life sometimes urgently demands.

Unlike Herriton or Elliot, Mr. Lucas, the central character of “The Road from Colonus,” sees life not from the intense and anxious perspective of early manhood but from the weariness and greediness of old age. His age indeed forms the story’s matrix as that which all the characters, Lucas himself included, struggle to give meaning to. Lucas is holidaying in Greece with a party that includes his daughter Ethel, a woman destined by her authoritarian father to serve as the helpmeet and comfort of his old age; Mr. Graham, a young man of impeccably imperialist manners; and Mrs. Forman, one of those well-meaning but cruelly complacent older women who punctuate Forster’s fiction.

Lucas has dreamed of a trip to Greece for 40 years. Long a Hellenist, his desire to immerse himself in the Greece he has dreamed of has only been sharpened by the social and physical symptoms of the onset of old age. The attention and consideration he is constantly the object of threaten his independence, making that independence both more valuable and more difficult. Greece disappoints him: He can but look at it through the eyes of an old man, and to those jaded eyes, Greece itself appears as an old man. It is the ambiguity with which Forster presents this terrible loss of hope that gives this otherwise slight story its narrative interest and emotional depth. Lucas is an unlikably patrician figure, arrogant and irritable. Why should the external world conform to his desires? But why should it be unbearably sad when, as he does by the story’s end, he gives up on the hope that it would or even could?

The story opens on the threshold of a moment that is to challenge Lucas’s surrender to the inevitability of time. A discontent that had been growing in him blossoms on a trip to Olympia, issuing in a momentary rebellion against the authority of the young over the old, and against the tyranny of common sense and habit over beauty, peace, and solitude. His rebellion is defeated. He is physically lifted from the place he desires to stay in and led impassively away, back to his now despised, empty life and away from that which had promised him happiness and beauty. The scene in which Lucas is overcome is a triumph of precision and conciseness and provides a moment of sadness that gives the story as a whole its affective power.

Read with Forster’s “The Story of a Panic,” a story in which a rebellion succeeds as the boy Eustace seizes himself out of the grip of domesticity and polite power, “The Road from Colonus” shows Forster again tackling the terrors of direct experience. The well-mannered but no less cutting conflicts that thread this story pit the visible world against the invisible and convention against desire in a sharp analysis of cruelty’s resting place in duty and self-deception.

Analysis of E. M. Forster’s Stories

Analysis of E. M. Forster’s Novels

Forster, E. M. The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories. London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1911.

Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

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