The Other Boat by E. M. Forster, 1972
THE OTHER BOAT
by E. M. Forster, 1972
E. M. Forster is best known as the author of A Passage to India, but he also wrote five other novels and a number of short stories, two volumes of which, The Celestial Omnibus (1911) and The Eternal Moment (1928), were published, along with The Collected Tales (1947), in his own lifetime. The Life to Come, which appeared posthumously in 1972, comprises all that the editor, Oliver Stallybrass, was able to salvage of the manuscript stories extant at the time of Forster's death in 1970. "The Other Boat" was published in this collection.
The versions of the unpublished stories that Forster left behind him were, as Stallybrass explains in his introduction to the volume, untidy and confused. "The Other Boat" and parts of it exist variously in typescript, manuscript additions, and alterations, and there is a published version of the first part that appeared in The Listener on 23 December 1948 as "Entrance to an Unwritten Novel." The first part of the story dates from about 1913, and the remainder from 1958. The story as it appears in The Life to Come is Stallybrass's attempt to make sense of the various manuscript, typescript, and printed sources and to offer a version as close as possible to what he believed were Forster's "latest intentions."
It is clear why Forster did not attempt to publish "The Other Boat" in its complete form, for its scenes of explicit homosexual lovemaking would not have been acceptable in the prevailing sexual climate of his earlier life. By the time of his death, however, social mores had changed, and first Maurice (1970) and then The Life to Come were published without much sensationalism.
The setting of "The Other Boat" belongs to the days of the British Empire during the earlier part of the twentieth century. The two principal characters are Cocoanut and Lionel March, two boys from different races, of different nationalities, and from widely different social classes. The story takes place on two boats and is divided into five parts. The first part records the events of less than an hour on a journey back from India during Cocoanut and Lionel's childhood, and the incidents in the remaining four parts occur on a single night some years later as the two young men journey to India. Lionel is a captain in the army on a colonial posting, and Cocoanut has a job in shipping.
In the first part Forster sets a social scene familiar to the reader of A Passage to India. The passengers on the boat are divided into two classes, with Mrs. March and her family belonging to the ruling class and Cocoanut to the inferior and subjugated race. The children, however, have few inhibitions, and they play happily together, not noticing that Cocoanut is different from the rest because he has a "touch of the tarbrush." Forster's portrayal of Mrs. March confirms his hostility to the womenfolk of colonial administrators, which he spells out explicitly in A Passage to India. Mrs. March is snobbish, prejudiced, and ill educated. Unwilling to look after her children herself while she can be escorted around the ship by Captain Armstrong, she nevertheless accuses them of selfishness when they demand her attention. It is clear that she is attempting to pass on her prejudices to her children, and the frustration she feels at their constant association with Cocoanut finds voice in her final words to the little boy: "You're a silly idle useless unmanly little boy."
Cocoanut, however, is the center of attention for the children, and Lionel shows a special preference for his company, ominously—in view of the outcome of the story—seeing him as "the only one who falls down when he's killed." At this stage, too, though the March children do not realize it, it is Cocoanut who takes the lead in their games and who dominates their entertainments. While he is flattered by their attention, he shows himself adept at leading them to follow the pursuits he has chosen.
The second part begins with a linguistically revealing letter from Lionel to his mother. "Hullo the Mater!" places the March family accurately and exactly on a social scale that most contemporary readers see as archaic. The letter serves as a reminder of the previous voyage, the words "touch of the tarbrush" are recalled in reference to Cocoanut, and the scene is set for the conclusion of the tale.
Once again it is Cocoanut who takes the lead. Memories of his childhood pleasure in Lionel's attentions have blossomed into love, and he fails to understand the ephemeral nature of a shipboard affair. When he seduces Lionel, he hopes for a lasting partnership, but Lionel's behavior is deeply influenced by his class and race consciousness, so that the affair between him and Cocoanut is a matter of shame that must be hidden from his peers. Moreover, it is Lionel's fear of what his fellow officers and other British people will think that makes him decide, despite his love, that he must repress his natural instincts and leave Cocoanut. The final tragedy, in which Lionel murders Cocoanut during the act of love and then commits suicide by jumping into the sea, is perhaps the only possible end for such a story.
"The Other Boat" contains many of the hallmarks of Forster's fiction: the fatherless family, the dominant and class-conscious mother, the British repression of natural instincts, the intrusion into the story of a lively and life-loving foreigner. Though by no means autobiographical, it also reflects aspects of Forster's own life, suggesting his disillusion with colonial rule and his concern at racial discrimination. In particular, however, it recalls his own love for Mohammed el Adl, a poor Egyptian tram conductor and another man from a subject race. The union between Lionel and Cocoanut no doubt owes much to Forster's memory of the union between himself and el Adl.
—Hilda D. Spear