Aspects of the Novel

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Aspects of the Novel

E. M. Forster 1927

Author Biography
Key Figures
Historical Context
Critical Overview
Further Reading


Aspects of the Novel is the publication of a series of lectures on the English language novel, delivered by E. M. Forster at Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1927. Using examples of classic works by many of the world's greatest writers, he discusses seven aspects he deems universal to the novel: story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

Forster dismisses the method of examining the novel as a historical development, in preference to an image of all novelists throughout history writing simultaneously, side by side. He first establishes that, if nothing else, a novel is a story that takes place over a period of time. He stresses the importance of character, maintaining that both "flat" and "round" characters may be included in the successful novel. He regards the necessity of plot, which creates the effect of suspense, as a problem by which character is frequently sacrificed in the service of providing an ending to the novel. Fantasy and prophecy, which provide a sense of the "universal," or spiritual, Forster regards as central aspects of the great novel. Finally, he dismisses the value of "pattern," by which a narrative may be structured, as another aspect that frequently sacrifices the vitality of character. Drawing on the metaphor of music, Forster concludes that rhythm, which he defines as "repetition plus variation," allows for an aesthetically pleasing structure to emerge from the novel, while maintaining the integrity of character and the open-ended quality that gives novels a feeling of expansiveness.

Author Biography

Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1, 1879, the only surviving son of Edward Morgan Llewellyn Forster, an architect, and Alice Clara Forster. Forster's father died of tuberculosis in 1880, and he was subsequently raised by several female family members, in addition to his mother, all of whom made a strong impression on his youth, and some of whom eventually turned up as characters in his novels. Marianne Thornton, his greataunt on his father's side, died in 1886, leaving him an inheritance, which paid for his secondary and college education, as well as his subsequent world travels, and bought him the leisure to pursue the craft of writing. Forster recalled bitter memories of his time spent as a day attendant at Tonbridge School in Kent, from 1893 to 1897. In 1897, he enrolled in King's College, Cambridge, where he was grateful to be exposed to the liberal atmosphere and ideas lacking in his education up to that point.

Upon graduating with a bachelor of arts degree in classics and history, Forster went abroad and devoted himself to a writing career. He lived in Greece and Italy from 1901 to 1907, during which his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) was published. Upon returning to England, he lectured at Working Men's College. His second and third novels, The Longest Journey (1907), and A Room With a View (1908) appeared during this time. Howard's End (1910), his first major literary success, was a critique of the British upper class. In 1912, he made one of several trips to India. During a period including World War I, Forster worked as a Red Cross volunteer in Alexandria from 1915 to 1919. When the war ended, he returned to England, serving as literary editor of the Labor Party's Daily Herald, and contributing to journals such as Nation and New Statesman.

From 1921, Forster held various prestigious lectureships in England, and gave a lecture tour in the United States in 1941. He became associated with the London intellectual and literary salon known as the Bloomsbury Group, which included such celebrated modernist writers as Virginia Woolf. His second masterpiece, A Passage to India, was published in 1924, after which he published no more novels during his lifetime, devoting himself to nonfiction writing, such as essays, literary criticism, and biography. In addition to Aspects of the Novel, two important essay collections were Abinger Harvest (1936) and Two Cheers for Democracy (1951). After his death on June 7, 1970, in Coventry, England, his novel Maurice (1971) was published for the first time, apparently suppressed by the author because of its autobiographical content concerning a young homosexual man.



In an introductory chapter, Forster establishes the ground rules for his discussion of the English novel. He defines the novel simply—according to M. Abel Chevalley in Le Roman Anglais de notre temps, as "a fiction in prose of a certain extent." He goes on to define English literature as literature written in the English language, regardless of the geographic location or origin of the author. Most importantly, Forster makes clear that this discussion will not be concerned with historical matters, such as chronology, periodization, or development of the novel. He makes clear that "time, all the way through, is to be our enemy." Rather, he wishes to imagine the world's great novelists from throughout history sitting side by side in a circle, in "a sort of British Museum reading room—all writing their novels simultaneously." Finally, he acknowledges the intended ambiguity of the phrase "aspects of the novel" to indicate an open-ended discussion in which he will cover seven of these "aspects": story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern, and rhythm.

The Story

In a chapter on "The Story," Forster begins with the assertion that the novel, in its most basic definition, tells a story. He goes on to say that a story must be built around suspense—the question of "what happens next?" He thus defines the story as "a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence." Forster adds that a good novel must include a sense of value in the story. He then discusses The Antiquary, by Sir Walter Scott, as an example of a novel that is built on a series of events that narrate "what happens next." However, he criticizes The Antiquary as a novel that adheres to a sequence of events but has no sense of value in the story. Forster refers to Russian novelist Tolstoy's War and Peace as an example that includes value in a narrative of events that unfold over time. He brings up the American writer Gertrude Stein as an example of a novelist who has attempted to abolish time from the novel, leaving only value. However, he declares this a failure that results in nonsense.


In two chapters entitled "People," Forster discusses characterization in the novel. He describes five "main facts of human life," which include "birth, food, sleep, love, and death," and then compares these five activities as experienced by real people (homo sapiens) to these activities as enacted by characters in novels (homo fictus). He goes on to discuss the character of Moll Flanders, in the novel by Defoe of the same title. Forster focuses on Moll Flanders as a novel in which the form is derived from the development of the main character. In a second lecture on characters, Forster distinguishes between flat characters, whose characterization is relatively simple and straightforward, and round characters, whose characterization is more complex and developed. Forster finds advantages in the use of both flat and round characters in the novel. He points to Charles Dickens as an example of a novelist nearly all of whose characters are flat but who nonetheless creates "a vision of humanity that is not shallow." He spends less time discussing round characters but provides the examples of Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevski, most of whose characters are round. Forster moves on to a brief mention of point of view, concluding that novels with a shifting or inconsistent point of view are not problematic if the author possesses the skill to integrate these shifts into the narrative whole.


In a chapter on plot, Forster defines plot as a narrative of events over time, with an emphasis on causality. He claims that the understanding of plot requires two traits in the reader: intelligence and memory. He discusses George Meredith who, he claims, though not a great novelist, is one of England's greatest masters of the plot. He then turns to Thomas Hardy as an example of a novelist whose plots are heavily structured at the expense of the characters; in other words, the characters are drawn to fit the measure of the plot and therefore lack a life of their own. He asserts that "nearly all novels are feeble at the end," because the dictates of plot require a resolution, which the novelists write at the expense of the characters. He adds that "death and marriage" are the most convenient recourse of the novelist in formulating an ending. He provides the example of André Gide's Les Faux monnayeurs as a novel in which the author attempted to do away with plot completely, concluding that, though plot often threatens to suffocate the life out of characters, it is nonetheless an essential aspect of the novel.


In a chapter on fantasy, Forster asserts that two important aspects of the novel are fantasy and prophecy, both of which include an element of mythology. Using the novel Tristram Shandy, by Sterne, as an example, Forster claims even novels that do not include literal elements of the supernatural may include an implication that supernatural forces are at work. He lists some of the common devices of fantasy used by novelists, "such as the introduction of a god, ghost, angel, or monkey, monster, midget, witch into ordinary life." He adds to this list "the introduction of ordinary men into no-man's land, the future, the past, the interior of the earth, the fourth dimension; or divings into and dividings of personality. He goes on to discuss the devices of parody and adaptation as elements of fantasy, which, he says, are especially useful to talented authors who are not good at creating their own characters. He points to Joseph Andrews, by Henry Fielding, which began as a parody of Pamela,by Richardson. He goes on to the example of Ulysses, by James Joyce, which is an adaptation from the ancient text the Odyssey, based on Greek myth.


Forster describes the aspect of prophecy in a novel as "a tone of voice" of the author, a "song" by which "his theme is the universe," although his subject matter may be anything but universal. He notes that the aspect of prophecy demands of the reader both "humility" and "the suspension of a sense of humor." He then compares Dostoevsky to George Eliot, concluding that, though both express a vision of the universal in their novels, Eliot ends up being preachy, whereas Dostoevsky successfully expresses a "prophetic song" without preaching. Forster confesses that there are only four writers who succeed in creating prophetic novels: Dostoevsky, Melville, D. H. Lawrence, and Emily Brontë. He discusses passages from Moby Dick and the short story "Billy Budd" in order to illustrate Melville's prophetic voice and from Wuthering Heights for a discussion of Brontë as "a prophetess." He points to D. H. Lawrence as the only living novelist whose work is successfully prophetic.

Pattern and Rhythm

In a chapter on pattern and rhythm, Forster describes the aspect of pattern in the novel in terms of visual art. He describes the narrative pattern of Thaïs, by Anatole France, as that of an hourglass and the novel Roman Pictures, by Percy Lubbock, as that of a chain. He determines that pattern adds an aesthetic quality of beauty to a novel. Forster then discusses the novel The Ambassadors, by Henry James, which, he claims, sacrifices the liveliness of the characters to the rigid structure of an hourglass pattern. Forster concludes that the problem of pattern in novels is that it "shuts the door on life." He then turns to the aspect of rhythm, which he describes as "repetition plus variation," as better suited to the novel than is pattern. He describes the multi-volume novel Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, as an example of the successful use of rhythm. Forster concludes that rhythm in the novel provides a more open-ended narrative structure without sacrificing character.


In a brief conclusion, Forster speculates as to the future of the novel, asserting that it will in fact not change at all because human nature does not change. He concludes that "the development of the novel" is no more than "the development of humanity."

Key Figures

Jane Austen

Jane Austen (1775-1817) was an English novelist whose works depicting the British middle class are a landmark in the development of the modern novel. She is best known for the novels Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813), Mansfield Park (1814), Emma (1815), and Persuasion (1817). Drawing examples from both Emma and Persuasion, Forster notes that all of the characters in Austen's novels are "round."

Sir Max Beerbohm

Sir Max Beerbohm (1872-1956) was a British journalist celebrated for his witty caricatures of the fashionable elite of his time. His publications include The Works of Max Beerbohm; Caricatures of Twenty-Five Gentlemen (both in 1896); The Happy Hypocrite (1897), a light-hearted fable; and Seven Men (1919), a short story collection. Forster discusses Beerbohm's only novel, Zuleika Dobson, a parody of Oxford University student life, as an example of the complex use of fantasy.

Arnold Bennett

Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British novelist, critic, essayist, and playwright whose major works include a series of novels set in his native region of the "five towns," then called the Potteries (now united into the single city of Stoke-on-Trent). The "Five Towns" novels include Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Old Wives' Tale (1908), Clayhanger (1910), Hilda Lessways (1911), These Twain (1916), and The Clayhanger Family (1925). Forster discusses The Old Wives' Tale as an example of a novel in which time is "celebrated" as the "real hero." He concludes that, while The Old Wives' Tale is "very strong and sad," the conclusion is "unsatisfactory," and it therefore "misses greatness."

Charlotte Brontë

Charlotte Brontë (1816-1855), the sister of Emily Brontë, was a British novelist of the Victorian era, celebrated for her masterpiece Jane Eyre (1847). Her other works include Shirley (1849) and Villette (1853). Forster uses Villette as an example of a novel in which the plot suffers due to an inconsistency in the narrative voice.

Emily Brontë

Emily Brontë (1818-1848), the sister of Charlotte Brontë, was a British writer whose only novel, Wuthering Heights (1847), is generally considered to be a greater achievement than any of her sister's novels. Forster asserts that Emily Brontë "was a prophetess," in his literary sense of the word. He explains that, while Wuthering Heights makes no reference to mythology, and "no book is more cut off from the Universals of Heaven and Hell," the prophetic voice of her novel gains its power from "what is implied," rather than from what is explicitly stated.

Daniel Defoe

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) was an English novelist and journalist, and author of the novels Robinson Crusoe (1719-1722) and Moll Flanders (1722). Forster discusses Moll Flanders as an example of a novel in which the plot and story are subordinate to the main character. Forster states that "what interested Defoe was the heroine, and the form of his book proceeds naturally out of her character."

Charles Dickens

Charles Dickens (1812-1870) is often considered the greatest English novelist of the Victorian era. His works, many of which remain popular classics, include A Christmas Carol, Oliver Twist (1837-1839), David Copperfield (1849-1850), Bleak House (1852-1853), A Tale of Two Cities (1859), Great Expectations (1860-1861), and Our Mutual Friend (1864-1865). (His novels were originally published in serial form, often spread out over a period of years.) Forster makes the point that most of the characters in Dickens novels are "flat" and can be summed up in one sentence. However, he asserts that these characters evoke "a wonderful feeling of human depth," by which Dickens expresses "a vision of humanity that is not shallow." In a discussion of narrative point-of-view, Forster uses the example of Bleak House, in which the narrative perspective shifts around inconsistently, yet does not alienate the reader, due to Dickens' stylistic skill.

Fyodor Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-1882; also spelled Dostoevski) was a nineteenth-century Russian writer who remains one of the greatest novelists of all time. His most celebrated works include the novels Crime and Punishment (1866), The Idiot (1868-1869), The Possessed (1872), and The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880), and the novella Notes from the Underground (1864). In a discussion of prophesy, Forster compares a passage from The Brothers Karamazov with a passage from a novel by George Eliot, concluding that in Dostoevsky's work can be heard the prophetic voice of the novelist.

Media Adaptations

• Forster's best known novels were adapted to film during the 1980s and 1990s. A Passage to India (1984), directed by David Lean, stars Judy Davis, Victor Bannerjee, and Alec Guinness. Merchant-Ivory productions adapted several of his novels, under the direction of James Ivory: A Room With a View (1986) stars Helena Bonham Carter, Daniel Day-Lewis, Judi Dench, Julian Sands, and Maggie Smith; Maurice (1987) stars James Wilby and Hugh Grant; Howard's End (1992) stars Helena Bonham Carter, Anthony Hopkins, Vanessa Redgrave, and Emma Thompson. Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991), directed by Charles Sturridge, stars Helena Bonham Carter, Judy Davis, and Rupert Graves.

Norman Douglas

Norman Douglas (1868-1952) was an Austrian writer of Scottish-German descent who traveled widely in India, Italy, and North Africa, and most of his works are set on the Island of Capri in southern Italy. Master of a conversational style of prose, he is best known for the novels Siren Land (1911), South Wind (1917), and Old Calabria (1915) and for the autobiography Looking Back (1933). Forster mentions Norman Douglas in a discussion of character. He quotes an open letter written by Douglas to D. H. Lawrence, in which he criticizes the novelist for his undeveloped characters.

George Eliot

George Eliot (pseudonym of Mary Ann, or Marian, Evans; 1819-1880) was an English novelist celebrated for the realism of her novels. Her best known works include Adam Bede (1859), The Mill on the Floss (1860), Silas Marner (1861), and Middlemarch (1871-1872), her masterpiece. In a discussion of prophesy, Forster compares a passage from Adam Bede with a passage from The Brothers Karamazov, by Dostoevsky, concluding that, while both express a Christian vision, Dostoevsky's vision is that of a prophet, whereas Eliot's is merely preachy.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding (1701-1754) was a British writer, considered to be one of the inventors of the English novel. His best known works include the novels Joseph Andrews (1742) and Tom Jones (1749). Forster mentions Fielding as a novelist who successfully creates "round" characters. In a discussion of point of view, Forster criticizes Fielding for his intrusive narrative voice, which is no better than "bar-room chattiness" that deflates the narrative tension. In a discussion of fantasy, Forster mentions Joseph Andrews as an example of an "abortive" attempt at parody. He explains that Fielding started out with the intention of parodying the novel Pamela, by Samuel Richards, but, through the invention of his own "round" characters, ended up writing a completely original work.

Anatole France

Anatole France (1884-1924) was a French novelist and critic who was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1921. In a discussion of pattern, Forster describes France's novel Thaïs (1890) as having a narrative structure in the shape of an hourglass.

David Garnett

David Garnett (1892-1981) was a British novelist best known for his satiric tales, such as Lady into Fox (1922) and A Man in the Zoo (1924). He also wrote several books based on his association with the Bloomsbury Group, including The Golden Echo (1953), The Flowers of the Forest (1955), The Familiar Faces (1962), and Great Friends: Portraits of Seventeen Writers (1980). In addition, he edited a 1938 edition of The Letters of T. E. Lawrence (1938). Forster discusses Lady into Fox, in which a woman is transformed into a fox, as an example of the fantastic in the novel.

André Gide

André Gide (1869-1951) was a French writer awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1947 and is best known today for his novel L'Immoraliste (1902; The Immoralist). In a discussion of plot, Forster discusses Gide's Les Faux monnayeurs as an example of a novel in which the story is entirely determined by the main character and contains almost no plot whatsoever.

Oliver Goldsmith

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774) was an English novelist, essayist, and playwright whose major works include the novel The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), the essay collection The Citizen of the World, or Letters from a Chinese Philosopher (1762), the poem The Deserted Village (1770), and the play She Stoops to Conquer (1773). In a discussion of plot, Forster describes The Vicar of Wakefield as a novel in which the formulation of the ending comes at the expense of the story and characters. Referring to Goldsmith as "a lightweight," Forster notes that in The Vicar of Wakefield, as in many novels, the plot is "clever and fresh" at the beginning, yet "wooden and imbecile" by the ending.

Thomas Hardy

Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) was an English novelist and poet whose major works include the novels Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), The Return of the Native (1878), The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Tess of the d'Urbervilles (1891), and Jude the Obscure (1895). In a discussion of plot, Forster describes Hardy as a novelist whose plots are so overly structured that the characters are lifeless.

Henry James

Henry James (1843-1916) was an American-born novelist who lived much of his adult life in England, creating characters who represent conflicts between American spirit and European tradition. His major works include the novels Daisy Miller (1879), The Portrait of a Lady, Washington Square (both 1881), The Bostonians (1886), The Wings of a Dove (1902), and The Ambassadors (1903). In a discussion of pattern, Forster describes The Ambassadors as a novel in which the narrative is structured in the pattern of an hourglass, stressing symmetry at the expense of character.

James Joyce

James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist whose major works include the novels A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), Ulysses (1922), and Finnegans Wake (1939), and the short story collection, Dubliners (1914). In a discussion of the fantastic, Forster describes the experimental novel Ulysses as an adaptation of the classic Greek mythology of the Odyssey. Although he refers to Ulysses as "perhaps the most remarkable literary experiment of our time," Forster concludes that it is not entirely successful as a novel, as it lacks the element of prophecy.

D. H. Lawrence

D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was an English novelist whose major works include Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1920), and the highly controversial Lady Chatterley's Lover (first published in 1928, though not readily available to the reading public until 1959). Drawing an example from Women in Love, Forster asserts that Lawrence is, to his knowledge "the only prophetic novelist writing today," (in 1927).

Percy Lubbock

Percy Lubbock was an author and critic whose book The Craft of Fiction (1921) contributed to the development of the theoretical study of the novel. In a discussion of character, Forster cites Lubbock as claiming that point of view is central to characterization. In a discussion of narrative pattern, Forster discusses Lubbock's Roman Pictures, a comedy of manners, as a narrative structured in the pattern of a chain. Forster asserts that this novel is successful, not simply because of this pattern, but because of the appropriateness of the pattern to the mood of the story.

Herman Melville

Herman Melville (1819-1891) was an American novelist whose masterpiece, Moby Dick (1851) is considered one of the greatest novels ever written. In a discussion of prophecy, Forster describes Melville as a profoundly prophetic writer, citing passages from both Moby Dick and the short story "Billy Budd."

George Meredith

George Meredith (1828-1929) was an English novelist and poet, known for his concern for women's equality and his mastery of the internal monologue. Meredith was highly influential among many of the great modern novelists of the early twentieth century. His major works include The Ordeal of Richard Feverel (1859), Evan Harrington (1860), The Adventures of Harry Richmond (1871), Beauchamp's Career (1876), The Egoist (1879), and Diana of the Crossways (1885). In a discussion of plot, Forster, drawing from the examples of Harry Richmond and Beauchamp's Career, explains that, while Meredith is no longer the towering figure of literary accomplishment he once was, he is, if nothing else, a master of plot in the novel.

Marcel Proust

Marcel Proust (1881-1922) was a French novelist whose masterpiece is the seven-volume, semi-autobiographical novel, Á la recherche du temps perdu (1913-27; Remembrance of Things Past). At the time of Forster's lectures, the final volume of Remembrance of Things Past had not yet been published. In a discussion of character, Forster refers to Proust as an example of a writer whose "flat" characters function to accent the "round" characters. In a discussion of rhythm in the novel, Forster praises the work of Proust as an example of a novel that, while chaotic in structure, is held together by rhythm, the literary equivalent of a musical motif.

Samuel Richardson

Samuel Richardson (1689-1761) was an English novelist credited with inventing the epistolary novel, in which the story is narrated through a series of letters between the characters. His major works are Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747-1748). In a discussion of parody and adaptation, Forster mentionsPamela as the work that Henry Fielding set out to parody in his novel Joseph Andrews.

Sir Walter Scott

Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) was a Scottish novelist credited with the invention of the historical novel. Ivanhoe (1819) is the best known of his many novels and novel cycles. In a discussion of storytelling in the novel, Forster uses the examples of The Bride of Lammermoor (1819) and of The Antiquary (1816; the last of a trilogy, set in Scotland from 1740-1800, known as the "Waverly" novels). Forster, although admitting that he does not consider Scott a good novelist, does concede that he is a good storyteller, to the extent that he is able to narrate a sequence of events that occur over time. Forster concludes, however, that the result of Scott's perfunctory storytelling is a shallow and unemotional work, lacking the qualities which lend value to a novel.

Gertrude Stein

Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) was an American writer of experimental novels, stories, and essays, whose major works include Three Lives (1909), Tender Buttons (1914), The Making of Americans (1925), and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933). In a discussion of story, Forster describes Stein as an example of a novelist who attempted to write stories without the element of time.

Laurence Sterne

Laurence Sterne (1713-1768) was an Irish-English writer whose masterpiece is the novel Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), in which narrative digression dominates the story line. In a discussion of fantasy and prophecy, Forster mentions Sterne among a number of novelists in whose works both fantasy and prophecy are essential.

Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian novelist whose major works, War and Peace (1865-1869) and Anna Karenina (1875-1877), are considered among the greatest novels ever written. In a discussion of character, Forster describes War and Peace as a novel in which the narrative point of view, while scattershot and inconsistent, is successfully rendered by the skill of the novelist. In a discussion of rhythm, Forster celebrates War and Peace as a novel in which the author not only succeeds in creating rhythm but comes close to the equivalent of a musical symphony on a par with Beethoven's Fifth.

H. G. Wells

H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was an English novelist best known for his now-classic science fiction novels The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), and The War of the Worlds (1898), as well as the comedic novels Tono-Bungay (1909) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910). In a discussion of character, Forster notes that Wells's characters, like those of Dickens, are almost all completely "flat" yet succeed in the context of his novels due to his great narrative skill.

Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) was a British novelist and critic whose major works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), and Orlando (1928), as well as the early work of feminist criticism, A Room of One's Own (1929). In his introduction, Forster cites a passage written by Woolf in comparison with a passage by Sterne.


The Literary Critic

Throughout his lecture series, Forster includes commentary on the role he plays as a literary critic in relation to literature. He makes observations about his methodology as a critic, occasionally refers to the assertions of other critics, and sometimes questions the validity of the critic in the world of literature. In his introduction, Forster dismisses, for the purposes of his discussion, standard methods in literary criticism based in the tracing of historical development and the influence of earlier writers on those who come after them. Likewise, Forster mentions the notion of tradition put forth by T. S. Eliot, who asserted that it is the task of the critic to preserve the best of literary tradition. Forster immediately dismisses this as an impossible task. He does, however, agree with Eliot that the critic is required to see literature in its entirety and not as it may be determined by the constraints of a historical timeline. Throughout the book, Forster occasionally cites other literary critics, often in order to present a counterargument. He also continues to question the relationship of the critic to literature when he observes that perhaps his lectures have moved away from literature itself, in the pursuit of abstract theorizing about literature. Ultimately, however, Forster asserts that the most important measure by which literature ought to be judged is that of the "human heart," concluding that the most important "test" of a novel is "our affection for it."


Forster's series of lectures on the novel are concerned not just with analysis of the novel itself but with what he deems the requirements the novel demands of the reader. He asserts that the appreciation of plot requires of the reader both intelligence and memory. He explains that, while curiosity may be what leads the reader to take an interest in the story, it is, in itself, a rather basic and uninteresting trait in a reader. In order to grasp the plot, however, the reader must first possess intelligence. He observes that, though curiosity is the quality that allows the reader to take an interest in individual pieces of information, intelligence makes it possible for the reader to appreciate the aura of mystery embedded in plot, allowing her or him to contemplate the relationships between pieces of information. He further notes that the reader requires memory in order to recall the relationship of information provided earlier in a novel to that which comes later; it is therefore the responsibility of the writer to satisfy the reader's memory by making sure each piece of information contributes to the whole. Forster further claims that the element of prophecy requires both humility and the "suspension of a sense of humor." He explains that humility is required of the reader in order to hear the voice of the prophetic in the novel and that "suspension of a sense of humor" is required in order to avoid the temptation to ridicule the universal, or spiritual, element that makes it great. In describing his requirements for the great novel, Forster thus makes clear his definition of the appropriate reader of great literature.

Topics for Further Study

  • Forster discusses many of the major novelists of the English language, as well as several French and Russian writers. Pick one author from the list of Key Figures in this entry and learn more about that author and her or his major works.
  • Forster discusses seven aspects he deems essential to the novel: story, plot, character, fantasy, prophesy, pattern, and rhythm. Pick a work of fiction not specifically mentioned by Forster and analyze it in terms of these seven elements. How well does it measure up to Forster's standards? Do you agree with this assessment?
  • Although Forster discusses elements specific to the novel, they may also be applied to the short story. Try writing a short story which takes into account each of the seven aspects discussed by Forster.
  • Two years after Forster's lecture series on Aspects of the Novel, Virginia Woolf, his contemporary and a fellow member of the Bloomsbury Group, wrote a very different critical work on literature and literary history, a book-length essay entitled A Room of One's Own. Read A Room of One's Own. What are the central points of Woolf's discussion of literature in this essay? To what extent do you agree or disagree with her arguments and conclusions?

The Universal

In his discussion of prophecy, Forster touches upon the element of the universal as the most profound aspect of the novel. The universal, as Forster uses it, could also be thought of as the spiritual, in the broadest sense of the term, although not necessarily in relation to a specific creed or religion. Forster explains that the universal in a novel may refer to specific religions or spiritual practices, or it may refer to profound human emotions such as love and hate. He notes that the element of the universal in a novel may be indicated directly, or it may be implied through subtle, indirect means. In order to illustrate what he means by the prophetic, Forster compares passages from George Eliot's Adam Bede and Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Brother's Karamazov. He observes that, though both authors are from a Christian background and both wish to express the idea of salvation as inspired in the sinner by love and pity, Eliot's direct reference to Christianity comes off as a heavy-handed sermon, whereas Dostoevsky's subtle and indirect reference to Christian spirituality succeeds in being prophetic. Forster goes on to observe that, though Eliot is sincere in her invocation of the spiritual, her references to Christianity remain in the realm of realism and fail to inspire in the reader a sensation of the spiritual. Dostoevsky, on the other hand, though also a master of realism, imbues his characters with the spirit of the infinite, or universal, so that, "one can apply to them the saying of St. Catherine of Siena that God is in the soul and the soul is in God as the sea is in the fish and the fish is in the sea."


Tone and Structure

The narrative tone, or voice, of Aspects of the Novel is first and foremost determined by the fact that it is a printed version of a series of lectures, originally written and presented in verbal form by the author before an audience of college and university students and professors in the halls of Trinity College, Cambridge, Forster's alma mater, in the name of the distinguished Clark lecture series. An editor's note that opens the reprinted lectures observes that their tone is "informal, indeed talkative." Because of this informal, chatty tone, Forster's voice throughout this collection of lectures is relatively intimate and, on a surface level, appears to make unexpected digressions or include various asides, which one might not find in a work originally intended solely for the printed page. The overall structure of Forster's discussion, however, is not the least haphazard or off-the-cuff. Each chapter/lecture progresses through a clearly planned series of points to present a specific position on each of the seven aspects of the novel with which Forster is concerned. Thus, though informal in narrative tone, the underlying structure of Aspects of the Novel progresses through a well-developed argument, illustrated by carefully chosen examples.


An analogy is a use of figurative language in which the writer draws a parallel between a concrete, familiar, or easily understandable object or concept and a more abstract, original, and complex idea for purposes of explanation and clarity. The central analogy with which Forster opens and concludes Aspects of the Novel is an image of all of the novelists from world literature throughout history writing simultaneously, side by side, in a great circular room, such as that of the library of the British Museum. Forster utilizes this analogy in order to make the point that the novel and the novelist are oblivious to variation in culture and history and that all novelists write in accordance with the same basic principals of creativity.

Forster employs this overarching analogy in order to make clear that, in his discussion of the novel, he is not interested in historical development or regional difference but in the universal qualities. The analogy of writers working side-by-side allows Forster to discuss the work of novelists who lived and worked in disparate centuries and continents, in order to demonstrate their commonalties as well as differences. He thus devotes a significant portion of the introduction to placing side-by-side passages from such far-flung origins as Samuel Richardson of the eighteenth century and Henry James of the early twentieth century or a Dickens novel from 1860 with an H. G. Wells novel from 1920. Forster thus utilizes the analogy of novelists writing side-by-side in order to illustrate his premise that "history develops, art stands still." In his concluding chapter, Forster comes back to this analogy in order to speculate about the direction of the novel in the future. He proposes that "we must visualize the novelists of the next two hundred years as also writing in the same room," asserting that the "mechanism of the human mind" remains essentially the same throughout history.

Historical Context

English History and Literature

Forster's discussion covers three centuries of the novel; his own life and work spanned the late nineteenth through the late twentieth centuries. His life was affected by such major events as World War I, in which he participated, and his novels bridge the historical transition from Victorian to Edwardian England, as well as the literary transition from romanticism to modernism.

Compare & Contrast

1837-1901: The reign of Queen Victoria lends its name to the Victorian era, a term that first comes into use in the 1850s.

1901-1910: The reign of King Edward VII, referred to as the Edwardian age, marks a contrast with the national atmosphere of his austere mother.

1914-1918: The horror and disillusionment experienced by the World War I era has a profound effect on English literature and the modernist movement.

1924-1937: James Ramsay MacDonald is the first candidate of the Labour Party, with which Forster sympathized, to be elected prime minister. MacDonald, however, holds office for only nine months. MacDonald again holds the office from 1929-1935. However, during the 1920s and 1930s, English politics are dominated by Prime Minister Baldwin, who holds office from 1924 to 1929 and from 1935 to 1937, as a result of which the 1920s and 1930s come to be known as the Baldwin Era.

1979-1997: British politics are dominated by the Conservative government of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, whose term of office is followed by that of the Conservative John Major.

1997: The Labour Party, with which Forster had been associated during his lifetime, wins a landslide victory in the election of Tony Blair as prime minister.

1780s—1840s: Romanticism, focusing on the imagination of the individual, is the predominant literary movement in England.

1840s—1890s: Romanticism gives way to the Gothicism and realism of the Victorian era novelists.

1901-1910: Novelists of the Edwardian era express a critical perspective on British society.

1910s—1930s: The modernist movement in literature expresses a desire for doing away with older literary forms in extending the boundaries of the novel.

1939-1945: During the World War II era, various factors cause poetry and the short story to gain prominence over the novel in English literature. A brief movement in poetry known as the New Apocalypse develops during the war years.

1940s: The New Apocalypse gives way to a development known simply as the Movement in poetry.

1950s: A group of novelists known as the Angry Young Men are known for their realistic, autobiographical works.

Today: New developments in the novel are characterized by what is known as post-colonial and post-modern fiction, alongside the enduring form of the realist novel.

Victorian and Edwardian England

The Victorian era is the name given to the period of English history during the long reign of Queen Victoria, from 1837 to 1901. While commonly associated with a culture of conventionality and prudishness, Victorian England witnessed major upheavals in economic, political, and technological structure. In the nineteenth century, England lead the way in the Industrial Revolution, ultimately followed by other European and non-European nations. Significant advances in wages and a significant population expansion were integral to a series of political reforms that gradually increased the rights of average citizens and decreased the power of the regency in the political realm. The Reform Act of 1832 began a trend that lead to the Reform Bill of 1867 and a series of economic and social reforms introduced in the 1870s. The requirements for voting rights were altered to vastly increase the proportion of the male population eligible to participate in elections to Parliament and local government offices. While the era of Queen Victoria was in part characterized by the conservative values associated with traditional family structure and social propriety, a strong strain of liberal thought characterized significant elements of nineteenth-century intellectual life. A major and controversial landmark was the biological theory of evolution put forth in Charles Darwin's 1859 Origin of the Species. The Victorian era ended upon the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when her son ascended the throne as King Edward VII, thus initiating the much shorter era of Edwardian England. King Edward, unlike his mother, brought with him a freer, looser atmosphere that had its effect on the mood of the nation. Edward, who was already fifty-nine years of age when he became king, died in 1910 and was succeeded by King George V, whose reign lasted until his death in 1936.

World War I and the Post-War Era

The period of World War I, from 1914 to 1918, had a profound effect on Forster, who served as a Red Cross volunteer throughout the War, and many of the writers of his generation. A landmark in British politics of the post-War era was the People Act of 1918, which extended the right to vote to women over the age of thirty and to all men over the age of twenty-one, regardless of property holdings. In 1928, the right to vote was extended to women ages twenty-one to thirty. Forster was an active supporter of the Labour Party, which won its first major victory in 1924 when James Ramsay MacDonald was the first Labour Party leader elected to the position of prime minister of England. MacDonald, however, held this office only nine months before he was replaced by Stanley Baldwin, who remained prime minister until 1929, taking the office again in 1935, where he remained until 1937.

The 1920s and 1930s in England came to be known as the Baldwin Era, which encompassed the period in which Forster first wrote Aspects of the Novel in 1927. Although Forster was politically engaged, his lectures make little reference to political or historical events. His only direct reference to British politics is the mention of Prime Minister Asquith, who remained in power from 1908 until 1916.

English Literature

Though Forster explicitly avoids any discussion of historical development in the novel, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of the standard chronological periodization of English literature during the time periods in which the works discussed by Forster were produced.

In the course of his discussion, Forster mentions the four great novelists of the eighteenth century: Daniel Defoe, whose major works appeared in the 1720s; Samuel Richardson and Henry Fielding, both of whose major works appeared in the 1740s and 1750s; and Laurence Sterne, whose major works were published in the 1750s and 1760s. Major poets of the eighteenth century include Alexander Pope, Robert Burns, Oliver Goldsmith, and Samuel Johnson.

The literary era known as the romantic period spanned the 1780s to 1820s. Focusing on the imagination of the individual, the early romantic poets include William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and William Wordsworth; the late romantic poets include Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The major English novels of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries include the popular Gothic works of Ann Radcliffe and Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (author of Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, 1818), the historical novels of Sir Walter Scott, and the masterpieces of Jane Austen.

The end of the romantic era in literature and the beginning of the Victorian era is generally dated around the mid-1840s, from which point numerous masterpieces of the English novel were produced. Charles Dickens, publishing from the 1830s through 1860s, was an early master of the Victorian age novel, contemporary with William Makepeace Thackeray whose masterpiece, Vanity Fair, was published in the 1840s, and Elizabeth Gaskell, publishing in the 1840s and 1950s. Among the greatest novelists of the age were the Brontë sisters, Emily and Charlotte, whose works, combining elements of Gothicism and realism, were published in the 1840s and 1950s. Later Victorian novelists working in the 1850s through 1890s include George Eliot, Anthony Trollope, George Meredith, and Thomas Hardy.

The literary period of the first decade of the twentieth century, associated with Edwardian England, was characterized by the novels of H. G. Wells, Arnold Bennett, Galsworthy, and Forster. The modernist movement in literature, with which Forster is also associated, began in the pre-World War I era and continued into the 1930s. Early modernism included the poets of the Georgian movement, who represented a transition from Victorian to modern literature, as well as the more forward-looking poetry of the imagist movement, made prominent by Anglo-American poet and critic Ezra Pound. The great modernist novelists wrote during and after World War I and included D. H. Lawrence, James Joyce, and Ford Madox Ford, as well as Forster. Modernist poets include T. S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats. Forster was a member of the informal group of modernist writers and intellectuals known as the Bloomsbury Group, which met regularly between 1907 and 1930 in private homes located in the Bloomsbury district of London to discuss literature and ideas and included such great modernist writers as Virginia Woolf. Most of the men belonging to the Bloomsbury Group, such as Forster himself, were graduates of King's College or Trinity College of Cambridge.

Critical Overview

Forster is best remembered as a master of the English novel. He published five novels between 1905 and 1924, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), Howard's End (1910), A Passage to India (1924), the last two being his undisputed masterpieces. He was to publish no more novels in his lifetime, although Maurice, originally written in 1914, was published posthumously in 1971. Norman Page, in E. M. Forster (1987), observing that Forster produced only six novels in his lifetime, notes, "Forster's impact on the twentieth century has gone far beyond what his modest output might lead one to expect." Of Forster's lifelong literary career, Claude J. Summers, in E. M. Forster (1983), notes that, at least since the 1950s, "he was regularly … described as England's greatest living novelist." By the time of his death, "he had earned an international reputation as an incisive interpreter of the human heart and a champion of the liberal imagination."

Forster spent the last forty-five years of his life writing various forms of nonfiction, as well as a few short stories. While most agree that Forster cannot be considered a great literary critic, critics vary in their overall assessment of Aspects of the Novel. Lionel Trilling, in E. M. Forster (1943), an early and influential essay, claims that Forster is "not a great critic, not a great 'thinker."' Trilling qualifies this statement, conceding that Aspects of the Novel"is full of the finest perceptions." He nonetheless observes, "Even if we grant Forster every possible virtue of his method—and it has virtues—he is never wholly satisfactory in criticism and frequently he is frustrating." However, Trilling suggests that "the laxness of the critical manner in which Forster sets forth his literary insights" is in fact a conscious protest against the Western over-valuation of rational thinking. Harry T. Moore, on the other hand, in E. M. Forster (1965), asserts that Aspects of the Novel"is valuable not only for what it tells of Forster's ways and means of writing, but it is also an important study of the art of fiction." Wilfred Stone, in The Cave and the Mountain (1966), claims that Aspects of the Novel is "Forster's most ambitious aesthetic statement." Moore, in E. M. Forster (1967), observes of both Aspects of the Novel and Forster's other works of literary criticism: "surprise and delight with unexpected insights, practical and impractical, casting light on Forster and his own fiction, obscuring both in order to illuminate some corner hitherto deprived of adequate light." Page assesses the significance and impact of Aspects on the Novel on literary criticism, as well as on Forster's career, in observing, "though informal in tone, [these lectures] were to have a wide influence in a period when the theory and criticism of fiction was relatively unsophisticated, and they increased Forster's reputation as a man of letters." Summers observes of Aspects of the Novel that it is "Forster's most sustained critical statement," in which the casual, conversational style of the writing masks an ambitious "ideological work" of criticism. Summers concludes, " Aspects of the Novel is extraordinarily well-written, amusing and lively as well as rueful in tone. Throughout, the book is enlivened by sharp judgments and original insights on particular works and individual authors." Finally, Summers asserts that "Forster's essays, criticism, and biographies are a significant fraction of an important literary career."

Philip Gardner, in Dictionary of Literary Biography, points to Forster's humanism as the overriding theme throughout his essays:

Through all his essays … one registers Forster as a man with an alert eye for the telling detail, who responds to what he sees, reads, and hears with emotions ranging from delight to indignation, but always with intelligence and personal concern. His voice is never that of a detached academic observer, but that of a human being reaching out to other human beings, on the one hand his readers, on the other the individuals, dead as well as living, about whom he writes.

Summers likewise assesses the corpus of Forster's eight books of nonfiction, Aspects of the Novel being among the "most completely successful" of these, in essentially glowing terms. He claims that these works "collectively chart a career remarkable for its breadth of interest and depth of commitment." He goes on to note, "In these books, Forster emerges as a sensitive and thoughtful critic, a charming yet unsentimental popular historian, a skillful biographer, and an essayist of rare power."


Liz Brent

Brent has a Ph.D. in American culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema. In the following essay, Brent discusses Forster's use of figurative language in Aspects of the Novel .

As explained in the above entry, an analogy is a use of figurative language in which the writer draws a parallel between a concrete, familiar, or easily understandable object or concept and a more abstract, original, and complex idea for purposes of explanation and clarity. Both metaphor and simile are types of analogies. In a metaphor, the subject under discussion is described in terms of the characteristics it shares with a more concrete image. In a simile, the writer states that his subject is similar to another object or concept. Throughout his series of lectures on seven aspects of the novel, Forster employs the figurative language of analogy, using both metaphor and simile, drawn from such disparate sources as nature, architecture, science, and music.

He often utilizes analogies drawn from nature in order to express his ideas about literature. In the introduction, he describes literature, "a formidable mass," as an "amorphous" body of water, "irrigated by a hundred rills and occasionally degenerating into a swamp," which he contrasts with the sturdy, solid, imposing image of a mountain. Forster is here explaining that the study of literature is made complicated by the fact that its exact definition and boundary lines are unclear, sometimes so much so that it resembles the murky water of a swamp. Claiming that, to his mind, there is no absolute definition of what does or does not constitute literature, Forster ventures, "All we can say of it is that it is bounded by two chains of mountains … Poetry and History" and, on a third side, by the sea. In other words, although it may not be possible to accurately define what literature is, one can at least say that it is not history and that it is not poetry. The sea, of course, is an image that continues the description of literature in terms of water. Forster uses water imagery in a different sense when employing the commonly used metaphor "the stream of time" in order to explain that his discussion of the novel will not be concerned with chronological development and thus will avoid viewing authors or works of literature as objects floating through the "stream of time" but will instead imagine them to have been writing simultaneously. Thus, in his use of metaphors drawn from nature, Forster distinguishes between his vision of literature as an amorphous body of water, whether it be a swamp or the sea, and an image of a stream of water, which implies a clearly-defined direction and flow of events.

What Do I Read Next?

  • Wuthering Heights (1847), by Charlotte Brontë, is an early Gothic novel by one of the four writers Forster deems truly prophetic. It concerns themes of inheritance and legitimacy among the upper classes of the English countryside and includes elements of the supernatural.
  • Moby Dick (1851), by Herman Melville, is considered one of the greatest novels ever written. It narrates one man's obsession with the pursuit of Moby Dick, a great white whale that he is determined to kill. Forster deems this one of the truly prophetic novels ever written.
  • The novel The Brothers Karamazov (1879-1880) is a masterpiece by the Russian writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, whom Forster deemed one of four truly prophetic novelists. It concerns a man accused of the murder of his own father.
  • Howard's End (1910), a novel by Forster and his first major literary success, is concerned with divisions among upper and lower classes in Edwardian England, as expressed by the encounter between members of two different families.
  • The novel Women in Love (1920) is one of the major works by D. H. Lawrence, whom Forster considered the only truly prophetic writer alive at the time of his lecture series in 1927. It concerns the romantic relationship of two sisters, both modern, independent, free-spirited women, in the post-World War I era of England. It is a continuation of the earlier novel The Rainbow, which chronicles three generations of a family from the 1960s up to the years preceding World War I.
  • The novel A Passage to India (1924) is Forster's masterpiece, in which a young girl experiences the clash of cultures between the British and Indians in colonial India.
  • Abinger Harvest (1936) is a collection of about fifty essays by Forster that originally appeared between 1919 and 1935. As in the later collection Two Cheers for Democracy, it includes biographical sketches of other writers, critical discussion of literature, and articulations of his political views as a liberal humanist. This collection includes "Notes on the English Character," one of his best known essays.
  • Two Cheers for Democracy (1951) is a collection of essays by Forster that, like the collection Abinger Harvest, includes biographical sketches of other writers, critical discussion of literature, reviews, and articulations of his liberal humanist political stance. It includes "What I Believe," one of his best known essays.
  • Maurice (1971), a novel finished by Forster in 1914, was published for the first time after Forster's death. It concerns a young man discovering his homosexuality and is generally believed to be autobiographical.
  • E. M. Forster: A Biography (1994), by Nicola Beauman, is one of several recent biographies of Forster.

Forster additionally employs metaphors drawn from nature when he discusses the use of adaptation in the novel. He describes the relationship between the twentieth-century novel Ulysses, by James Joyce, to the ancient Greek mythology of the Odyssey as that of "a bat hanging to a cornice"—the novel, like the bat, has a life of its own yet clings to the original mythological text as an essential means of support. In a further metaphor drawn from the animal world, Forster, speaking again of Ulysses, adds that it is overrun with references to a variety of mythologies, to the extent that "smaller mythologies swarm and pullulate, like vermin between the scales of a poisonous snake." He further makes use of a simile drawn from images of nature in describing the relationship between the literary critic and the subject matter of criticism. Forster questions whether or not he may have gotten too far away from literature itself, in the course of his discussion of the novel, likening the flight of ideas generated by the critic to a bird in flight and the subject matter itself to the shadow of that bird:

Perhaps our subject, namely the books we have read, has stolen away from us while we theorize, like a shadow from an ascending bird. The bird is all right—it climbs, it is consistent and eminent. The shadow is all right—it has flickered across roads and gardens. But the two things resemble one another less and less, they do not touch as they did when the bird rested its toes on the ground.

Forster extends this metaphor in suggesting that the literary critic, pursuing the route of theory, may find himself taking flights of thought into regions of ideas far removed from the works of literature with which he began.

In his discussion of story in the novel, Forster utilizes a curious set of metaphors drawn from biology. He interchangeably describes the function of the story in a novel as either a "backbone" or a "tape worm." He uses the image of a backbone to explain the role of the story as the internal structure that supports all other elements of the novel. However, he suggests the alternative image of a tape-worm in order to express the idea that the beginning and ending of the story in a novel is arbitrary, just as a tapeworm has no specified length and no discernible head or tail. Yet, despite the arbitrary nature of the beginning and end of a story, Forster asserts that it must nonetheless be narrated over a span of time; thus, he states that the author must always "touch the interminable tapeworm." In other words, the novelist must, regardless of where he begins or ends, touch upon a series of events that unfold over a span of time. Forster continues to use metaphors drawn from biology in stating that the story "is the lowest and simplest of literary organisms, yet it is the highest factor common to all the very complicated organisms known as novels." He goes on to imagine the element of story as a "worm," held up for examination on the "forceps" of the literary critic. Through the image of the story and the novel as organisms, Forster puts forth the opinion that the element of story, fundamental to all novels, is, in itself, not especially interesting in comparison to the "very complicated" novel as a whole. He later notes that the plot is, however, a "higher" organism than the story, meaning that it is a more complex and interesting aspect of the novel. Forster observes that the story is a "lower," "simpler" organism also in the sense that it is primitive, a timeless human activity that originated in our primitive cultures.

Later in the introduction, Forster employs metaphors drawn from architecture in order to describe the magnitude of specific novels. He asserts that a number of English novels are "little mansions," meaning they are certainly impressive literary accomplishments but that they are by no means "mighty edifices," of grander significance. Forster compares these English novels to the "colonnades" and "vaults" of the great works of Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky, thus implying that these authors have created majestic, imposing works of immense magnitude and enduring importance, well beyond that of many "great" English novels. Forster later employs a metaphor drawn from architecture when he describes Thomas Hardy's novels as stories in which the plot is the "ground plan," meaning that all other elements of the story are built upon the foundation of a highly structured plot.

"Forster suggests that only one novel, Tolstoy's War and Peace, has successfully achieved the musical brilliance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in which 'great chords of sound' can be heard to emerge from the narrative form."

In a discussion of the relationship between plot and character, Forster uses the metaphor of war. Critical of the overly schematic plot that deadens the life of the characters in a novel, he describes this tension as a "losing battle" at the end of which the novel is "feeble," due to the "cowardly revenge" of the plot upon the characters, as carried out by the inadequacy of most endings. He later uses the metaphor of war and battle in describing the attempts of some modernist writers to abolish the plot from their novels as a "violent onslaught." Compared to the more benign metaphors drawn from nature and science, Forster employs imagery drawn from war in order to express the potentially destructive force of an overly structured plot on the very life of a novel's characters.

Another curious metaphor employed by Forster is that of the circus sideshow to describe the place of the "fantastic" in the novel. He explains that readers who enjoy the element of the fantastic are like the spectators who do not mind paying both the general price of admission to the circus and the additional "sixpence" to see the side show. Readers who do not care for the element of the fantastic in literature—and Forster does not fault these people—are not willing or able to pay the additional fee for the sideshow. Via this analogy, Forster suggests that some readers, while willing to use their imaginations in order to enter the story of a novel, do not possess the imaginative faculty for appreciating the element of the fantastic. Others, however, having entered into the relatively realistic world of the novel (the circus), are eager to make the extra imaginative leap (pay the extra fee) in order to enjoy the elements of the fantastic, which may stretch the boundaries of credibility.

In a very different type of metaphor, Forster describes the elements of fantasy and prophesy in the novel as a "bar of light" that "illumines" other aspects of the novel. In contrast to the more concrete analogies drawn from nature, architecture, and war, the analogy of a bar of light is appropriate to Forster's concern with fantasy and prophesy as more abstract, conceptual, universal, or spiritual elements of the novel. However, light is not in fact an abstract substance, and Forster later suggests that, as there are only a limited number of devices by which the novelist may express the fantastic, this "beam of light can only be manipulated in certain ways." Forster thus implies that these literary devices, like light, have properties and laws of their own, according to which the author is limited in his ability to manipulate them to his will.

In his discussion of prophecy and rhythm in the novel, perhaps the elements that he most values in a great work, Forster makes use of analogies drawn from music. The element of prophecy he describes as a quality of the author's voice akin to that of a song—a song accompanied by "the flutes and saxophones of fantasy." In contrast to the universal, or spiritual (in the broadly defined sense of the term), elements of the novel, as expressed through fantasy and prophecy, Forster describes the element of realism, which he deems as essential to the novel as the interior structure and furnishings are to a house. Forster suggests that there is a degree of conflict between the abstract "music" of fantasy and "song" of prophecy and the concrete realism of dust and furniture in the rooms and hallways of a house; he observes the following regarding the prophetic novelist:

[The prophetic novelist] proposes to sing, and the strangeness of song arising in the halls of fiction is bound to give us a shock. How will song combine with the furniture of common sense? We shall ask ourselves, and shall have to answer "not too well": the singer does not always have room for his gestures, the tables and chairs get broken, and the novel through which bardic influence has passed often has a wrecked air, like a drawing-room after an earthquake or a children's party.

Forster asserts, however, that the value of the chaotic and potentially disruptive nature of the prophetic voice in fiction is worth the risk of wrecking the furniture of realism. He then picks up the metaphor of the fantastic as a beam of light that cuts across the narrative, suggesting that the prophetic song of the novelist may also serve to light up a room, rather than, or in addition to, wrecking it a bit:

Perhaps he will smash or distort, but perhaps he will illumine.… He manipulates a beam of light which occasionally touches the objects so sedulously dusted by the hand of common sense, and renders them more vivid than they can ever be in domesticity.

Having utilized the metaphor of song to illustrate the effect of the prophetic voice, Forster continues to describe another key aspect of the novel in terms of music. His final chapter, "Pattern and Rhythm," dismisses the value of structuring a novel in accordance with the visual metaphor of pattern, such as in a woven fabric. Rather, he argues for the value of an open-ended structure akin to the musical motif in a symphony, or, in a novelistic masterpiece, a symphony in its entirety. Forster states that music is the best analogy for the novel. He uses the example of Remembrance of Things Past, by Marcel Proust, as a novel in which a recurring "musical phrase" provides internal unity throughout an otherwise structurally "messy" story. Unlike the pattern, which Forster deems ultimately too rigid and all encompassing to accommodate the best elements of the novel, the rhythm of a musical motif, which comes and goes throughout the story, can "fill us with surprise and freshness and hope." Forster observes that the musical analogy of rhythm provides the novelist with a narrative form that is expansive and open-ended. Finally, Forster suggests that only one novel, Tolstoy's War and Peace, has successfully achieved the musical brilliance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, in which "great chords of sound" can be heard to emerge from the narrative form.

Throughout his lectures, Forster makes use of a variety of analogies in order to illustrate his central concerns with the novel. He draws imagery from the natural landscape, the animal kingdom, biology, architecture, interior design, war, properties of light, circus entertainments, and music. His use of analogy not only serves the practical purpose of clarifying his meaning but imbues his discussion with a playful, whimsical quality that captures his sense of joy in the creative act of reading and discussing, as well as writing, great literature.


Liz Brent, Critical Essay on Aspects of the Novel, in Nonfiction Classics for Students, The Gale Group, 2001.


Gardner, Philip, "E. M. Forster," in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 98: Modern British Essayists, First Series, edited by Robert Beum, Gale Research, 1990, pp. 123-39.

Moore, Harry T., E. M. Forster, Columbia University Press, 1965, p. 14.

———, Preface to E. M. Forster, by Norman Kelvin, Southern Illinois University Press, 1967, p. 155.

Page, Norman, E. M. Forster, St. Martin's Press, 1987, pp. 1, 11.

Stone, Wilfred, The Cave and the Mountain, Stanford University Press, 1966, p. 110.

Summers, Claude J., E. M. Forster, Ungar, 1983, pp. 1, 295, 305-306, 311, 355.

Trilling, Lionel, E. M. Forster, New Directions, 1943, pp. 166, 168, 172, 181.

Further Reading

Bakshi, Parminder Kaur, Distant Desire: Homoerotic Codes and the Subversion of the English Novel in E. M. Forster's Fiction, P. Lang, 1995.

This is a critical discussion of the homoerotic elements of Forster's novels.

Clarke, Peter, Hope and Glory: Britain, 1900-1990, Penguin, 1996.

Clarke's book is a history of England in the twentieth century.

Ferguson, Niall, The Pity of War: Explaining World War I, Basic Books, 1999.

This social-historical history of World War I, in which Forster served, had a profound affect on the post-War literature of his generation.

Lago, Mary, E. M. Forster: A Literary Life, St. Martin's Press, 1995.

This biography of Forster focuses on the development of his literary career.

Lago, Mary, and P. N. Furbank, eds., Selected Letters of E. M. Forster, 2 Vols., Harvard University Press, 1983, 1985.

This two-volume selection of Forster's correspondence includes the years 1879-1920 in Volume 1, and the years 1921 to the time of his death in 1970 in Volume 2.

Moynahan, Brian, Annabel Merullo, and Sarah Jackson, The British Century: A Photographic History of the Last Hundred Years, Random House, 1997.

This work presents a history of Forster's native Britain in the twentieth century through documentary photographs and text.

Naylor, Gillian, ed., Bloomsbury: Its Artists, Authors, and Designers, Little Brown, 1990.

This history of the Bloomsbury literary and intellectual salon in London, in which Forster was a participant, discusses key figures in the Bloomsbury Group.

Paterson, John, Edwardians: London Life and Letters, 1901-1914, I. R. Dee, 1996.

This is a history of life, society, and culture during the reign of King Edward, during which era Forster was an active participant in the literary culture of London and in which many of his novels take place.

Pugh, Martin, Britain Since 1789: A Concise History, St. Martin's Press, 1999.

This work is a broad-view history of Britain in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during which Forster lived and wrote.