E.M. Forster: Aspects of the Novel

“Books have to be read (worse luck, for it takes a long time); it is the only way of discovering what they contain.” E. M. Forster, Introductory, Aspects of the Novel

“We have visualized the novelists of the last two centuries all writing together in one room, subject to the same emotions and putting the accidents of their age into the cricible of inspiration, adn whatever our results, our method has been sound–sound for an assemblage of pseudo-scholars like ourselves. But we must visualize the novelists of the next two hundred years as also writing in the room. The change in their subject matter will be enormous; they will not change. We may harness the atom, we may land on the moon, we may abolish or intensify warfare, the mental proceses of animals may be understood; but these are all trifles, they belong to history, not to art.” E.M. Forster, conclusion, Aspects of the Novel

Novelist E.M. Forster gave a series of lectures at Trinity College in the early 1920s which resulted in the influential book Aspects of the Novel which I first read as part of an independent study on the novel back when I was at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA.

For the class, I read one of the novels he discusses in each of his chapters so I would understand his examples better. I learned a lot about Aspects as well as the craft of the novel, both as a writer and as a reader. And I read a lot of great novels which I found necessary to really understand what he was saying. I find the more novels I read, the more examples I have, and the better I can apply his ideas.

When at Y2K there was a flurry of “best” lists, I was not surprised to find Aspects of the Novel on the list as it was the first real book of literary study. It’s insightful and written in an easy to read style giving it a balance between accessibility and complexity. Forster writes with ease and humor; we learn about teh novel, yes, but also about human nature.

While nothing gives you the same experience of reading the book as reading the book, below are some of the main points of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel as I see them.

In essence, Forster defines the novel as telling a STORY about PEOPLE who do something for a reason aka PLOT which we understand the implications of through the use of FANTASY, PROPHECY, PATTERN and RHYTHM.

STORY What happens: and then, and then, and then. The king dies, then the queen dies.

PLOT Why what happens: cause. The king died then the queen died of grief. It requires memory and intelligence from the reader.

PEOPLE What happens to who: the characters who do something. We should believe their actions yet somehow they must be capable of surprising us. In order to bring a novel to conclusion, sometimes a character is stretched to its limits.

FANTASY Asks the readers to give something extra, and “implies the supernatural but need not express it” (112).

PROPHECY A tone of voice; what is implied is more important than what is said


I’ll add more to this, including some key quotes from the text, when I get a chance!

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