annotation by Wendy Dutwin
Originally a series of lectures that E.M. Forster gave at Trinity College, Cambridge, Aspects of the Novel opens and concludes with a central theme that Forster asserts: all novels and novelists transcend history and time because all writing is done in accordance to certain aspects of creativity. Forster uses the image of all novelists from all points of time in history, gathered together in a room, writing side by side as his central analogy that opens and concludes his series of lectures. And while the tone is very conversational and informal, given that these were originally presented as public talks, the structure of the conversations are very organized. Every aspect supports Forster’s argument that historical or cultural context are not relevant in the discussion of the novel, an assertion Francine Prose would echo many years later in her book Reading Like A Writer. Forster uses many examples of literary works that span historical periods in order to ultimately claim that it is the universal qualities of humanity that matter most in the novel. He breaks seven of these down: story, characters, plot, fantasy, prophecy, pattern and rhythm.
Forster believes that the novel’s basic definition is to tell a story, answering the question “what happens next?” and that story is a narrative of events arranged in their time sequence, but that a sense of value must also be attached.
During the discussion of characters, Forster introduces his now famous “round” and “flat” characters, claiming each has their function in the novel but that “round” characters are more complicated and nuanced. He also addresses point of view in this section and surprised me with his belief abut shifting POV.
“A novelist can shift his view-point if it comes off…Indeed this power to expand and contract perception (of which the shifting view-point is a symptom), this right to intermittent knowledge:- I find it one of the great advantages of the novel-form, and it has a parallel in our perception of life.”(81)
That said, he uses incredible authors like Dickens and Tolstoy to illustrate a shifting POV in Bleak House and War and Peace, respectively, to reinforce that it must be done right. Reading James Wood’s How Fiction Works on my own at the same time as I read Aspects of the Novel provided an interesting contrast for me, since Wood disagrees with a lot of what Forster claims about “round” and “flat” characters. Wood asserts that Forster has no respect for “flat” characters, preferring “round” characters. Wood defends “flat” characters, stating that their function is to illuminate specific human traits. He says the problem in modern literature is the constant quest to develop “round characters, which is impossible since they are not real people.” He prefers “transparencies” and “opacities” to “roundness” and “flatness.” While I appreciate what Wood is saying, I didn’t agree with his claim that Forster dismisses “flat” characters. Forster discusses Dickens as an example of a writer whose characters are almost all “flat” but still manage to create a human identification with the reader.
Moving onto plot, Forster takes the narrative of events over time from his story section and adds the element of causality. As story asks “What next?” the plot asks “Why?” New learning occurred for me during his discussion of what the reader must have in order to understand plot- intelligence and memory. I was able to distinguish once and for all the difference between story and plot, especially when Forster discussed the problems with plot, that many novels struggle at the end because plot requires a resolution and this is often done through death or marriage and at the expense of the characters because they are forced to fit the plot.
Forster then moves into Fantasy and Prophecy, two sections of his discussion he says are important aspects of the novel and both of which contain elements of mythology. Having just read Haruki Murakami’s collection of stories The Elephant Vanishes, I saw many of these supernatural forces that Forster talks about at work. Forster then talks about Prophecy in a way I wasn’t expecting, calling it the “tone of voice” of the novel and a “song” of the author where his or her “theme is the universe.” As in plot, the reader is required to possess two things when appreciating the aspect of prophecy- humility and a suspension of one’s sense of humor. Humility is so that the reader can hear the prophetic elements and suspending sense of humor is that the reader won’t be tempted to mock it. He then contrasts George Eliot and Fyodor Dostoevsky to illustrate the difference between preaching and prophecy, even though both writers have the universal at play in both their works. In this section, Forster is really bringing his argument of the universal to the surface as the most fundamental aspect of the novel.
Moving into Pattern and Rhythm, Forster seems to prefer Rhythm, pointing out problems with pattern in novels. He uses two examples in literary fiction, Anatole France’s Thais and Percy Lubbock’s Roman Pictures to show different patterns emerging, an hourglass for France and a chain for Lubbock. He feels pattern ultimate constrains the novel, “shutting the door on life” and that rhythm is better suited for the novel because its more open narrative structure won’t suffocate the characters.
Forster concludes his argument with the claim that “history develops, art stands still.” After using side by side analysis of different works of fiction from different periods of time to support his central analogy, he says we must continue to view future writers in the same manner, all side by side, writing in the same room. What Forster is really saying in a profound, well supported and solidly structured series of talks is this- history doesn’t dictate art, humanity does. By focusing on the universal qualities of all writers, we are identifying with our common humanity. Forster transcended the discussion of the novel by claiming the human nature doesn’t change and therefore the novel won’t change. Developing the novel stems from the development of humanity in Forster’s eyes and that as critics of literature, we ultimately must judge a novel by our hearts.