“Aspects of the Novel” by E.M. Forster

I read this book a couple of years ago now, before I had this blog. As I was clearing out stuff this weekend I came across my handwritten notes, stuffed into the bottom of a box where I would never have read them again. This is why I started blogging. I’m typing the notes up so that I have a record of the book that I can access easily, and so that I have one less piece of paper cluttering up my flat. It’s not going to be a well-shaped review – these are just notes on what I found interesting or useful as I was reading through.

Forster proposes that chronology is irrelevant in literature; he prefers to think of novelists from all periods sitting in a room with pen in hand all writing simultaneously. I suppose the idea of that is to get away from focusing on the trends and styles of particular periods and look instead at the underlying commonalities, the vital “aspects of the novel” that are shared by almost all novels in different places and times.

First is what he calls the “primitive” aspect of the story moving forward in time: “and then this happened, and then that happened.” I seem to remember he used the example of cavemen telling stories around the fire. A good novel has to have more than this, but all novels have a good basic story at the centre, something to get the reader’s attention and keep them following along.

The second aspect is people, but people in novels are not like those in real life. We can see their inner life if the novelist chooses to show us, and so we can know them better than we know anyone in real life. Even people we are intimate with we know only by external signs – what they say or do, the expressions on their face. In a novel we can go inside their head, know everything about them and their life history. It gives us a certainty or perfection that we never have in real life. Forster says it gives us solace, making humans seem more understandable. Fictional characters also tend to be more sensitive than people in real life, and more attention is given to things like love than to the other basic facts of life – birth, food, sleep and death.

Fictional characters can be flat or round. Flat characters are ‘types’ or caricatures, people who can be summed up in a phrase. They have one function in the book and consistently perform that function exactly as expected. This can sometimes be effective – they are recognisable and consistent; most of Dickens’s characters are flat and yet he is one of the best novelists. In general, though, flat characters are best for a limited or comic role – tragic figures must be round.

The test of a flat character is whether it is capable of surprising in a convincing way. If it never surprises, it is flat. If it does not convince, it is a flat pretending to be round.

Forster doesn’t like writers who betray too much interest in their own method, or “draws readers into his confidence” by showing them how the novel works. This was in 1927, long before the flourishing of postmodern metafictional writing – Forster would probably hate a lot of today’s most admired literary novelists.

The novelist who betrays too much interest in his own method can never be more than interesting; he has given up the creation of character and has summoned us to help analyse his own mind, and a heavy drop in the emotional thermometer results.

The next aspect of the novel is the plot. This is a higher form than the story, because it deals with causality:

“The king died and then the queen died” is a story. “The queen died and no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king” is a plot.

The reader in this case must have not mere animal curiosity about “what happened next” but memory and intelligence, to be able to fit together facts from different parts of the novel and see how they all connect by the end. Plot and character can often be at war, particularly towards the end of a novel, when the writer is trying to pull the plot together into a suitable denouement, and sometimes characters who would have developed in another direction have to be corralled into serving the purpose of the plot. In a good plot, everything happens for a reason. It can have mysteries, but not mislead.

The plot maker expects us to remember; we expect him to leave no loose ends.

Sometimes characters have to be subservient to the plot, for example we don’t see a character developing for a while, until suddenly they do something unexpected and we realise they’ve changed while we weren’t looking. It’s less faithful to character, but better for the plot to have a surprise element rather than revealing things gradually.

8 thoughts on ““Aspects of the Novel” by E.M. Forster

  1. Would Charlotte Bronte count, in Jane Eyre? With all the “Dear Readers” and satirical references to the genre of gothic romance?

  2. Hi Andrew! Sorry to be delving back into your archives here…but saw this on your ‘read’ list and I am quite curious about this book. (I appreciate the good selection of books on writing you have reviewed. Thanks!)

    I am having trouble wrapping my head around “Forster proposes that chronology is irrelevant in literature…” I mean, I understand the idea but I suppose the trouble stems in trying to fully accept the concept. I totally think there is merit in the idea but I also think looking at literature at given times in our history helps round out our chronology and give a fuller idea of an era. Or something. Haha.

    1. Hi Jennifer

      Don’t apologise – I love it when people read my old posts. I hate to think of them sitting there on the web all lonely 🙂

      I know what you mean about chronology. Often we can get a deeper understanding of a writer and their aims by looking at the times in which they lived. I think Forster wants to take literature out of history and have it be a separate, pure discipline. I love the image of all the writers sitting in a room communicating with each other across space and time, but you make a good point about understanding an era through literature (and vice versa).

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