E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel is a collection of lectures he held at Trinity College in 1927. This book comprises of the author’s note, an introduction, a chapter on the story, two on characters, one on plot, fantasy, prophecy, patterns and rhythm and a conclusion.
In the Introduction, Forster defines the novel and its length, then, he compares famous English novels with masterpieces of French and Russian literature and states that “No English novelist is as great as Tolstoy” because “No English novelist has explored man’s soul as deeply as Dostoyevsky. And no novelist anywhere has analysed the modern consciousness as successfully as Marcel Proust.” (p. 7)
Through the image of all the novelists writing in the same room, at the same table, Forster wants to demonstrate that each great novel is valuable due to its literary merits and not by scholarly periodisation. By pairing writers from different time periods and comparing their works, Forster shows the similarities between them even when more than a century separates the novels from one another. For example, he pairs Samuel Richardson with Henry James, H.G. Wells with Charles Dickens or Laurence Stern with Virginia Woolf. Through these examples, Forster illustrates that chronology is not that important.
In the first chapter of the book, we learn that the basis of every novel is the story because our curiosity to know what happens next is ingrained in our being from prehistoric times; The suspense keeps the listeners attentive and sometimes story-telling may save lives if we think about Scheherazade’s stories which delayed her fate. Though story and plot seem similar, they are actually not and Forster explains why is it so in the fourth chapter.
The second and third chapter revolve around characters. Unlike real people who have private thoughts and secrets, characters’ hidden side can be revealed for a better understanding of their actions, if the author chooses to do so. However, some of the five basic elements of ordinary life (birth, food, sleep, love and death) rarely appear in novels because a work of fiction has its own set of rules and eating or sleeping may not be relevant to the story.
Later on, Forster makes an important distinction between flat and round characters. Flat characters are one-dimensional, easy to recognise and don’t surprise the reader. Well written flat characters appear in Dickens’s novels and Forster considers Pip and David Copperfield as being flat characters who attempt to become round. On the opposite side of the spectrum are the round characters who grow throughout the novel and surprise the reader. Round characters appear in Jane Austen’s novels and Forster praises her for being a “miniaturist” because all her characters are rounded and can adapt to a more complex plot. Other round characters populate all of Tolstoy’s and Dostoyevsky’s novels.
The fourth chapter focuses on the plot, which is “also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality.” (p. 86) The story only fulfils the reader’s curiosity, while the plot forces them to use their intellect and memory to put together each piece of the puzzle the writer provides. The intelligent or ideal reader doesn’t expect to understand everything at once, they have the patience to read until the end to discover the mystery, which is essential to the plot.
The following chapters are about fantasy and prophecy. For Forster, fantastic stories have supernatural elements, whether they are obvious or subtle. Here, he considers fantastic the stories that deal with the unfamiliar or the uncanny, which wouldn’t make sense in real life. Prophecy, on the other hand, is linked to the tone of a novel that sends powerful and profound messages of faith, love, humanity and so on. The best examples of prophetic writers are Dostoevsky, Melville, Emily Bronte and D. H. Lawrence.
The last two aspects of the novel are pattern and rhythm which are strongly linked to the plot. The pattern has an aesthetic function in the novel, while. rhythm is a recurring phrase or theme, which, according to Forster, is similar to a motif in a symphony.
Though the book is a bit dry and Forster talks in metaphors, it was an informative read for me because I recalled what I learned in college about the novel and its essential building blocks. I see the importance of reading Forster’s lectures if someone studies literature or the craft of writing.
- Paperback: 208 pages
- Publisher: Penguin; 1 edition (16 September 2005)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 9780141441696
- ISBN-13: 978-0141441696
- ASIN: 0141441690
- Product Dimensions: 12.8 x 1.3 x 19.8 cm
- Boxed-product Weight: 168 g
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- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 100,053 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)