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E. M. Forster's Maurice: An Interpretation

by Rob Doll

© 2002

 

Dustjacket with title in Forster's handIn his "Terminal Note" to Maurice Forster tells how the novel came to be written:

It was the direct result of a visit to Edward Carpenter at Millthorpe. Carpenter . . . was a socialist who ignored industrialism and a simple-lifer with an independent income and a . . . believer in the love of comrades, whom he sometimes called Uranians. It was this last aspect of him that attracted me in my loneliness. . . .  I approached him . . . as one approaches a savior.  It must have been on my second or third visit to the shrine that the spark was kindled as he and his comrade George Merrill combined to make a profound impression on me and to touch a creative spring. George Merrill also touched my backside—gently and just above the buttocks. . . .  The sensation was unusual and I still remember it. . . .  It was as much psychological as physical. It seemed to go straight through the small of my back into my ideas, without involving my thoughts.

Edward Carpenter by F. Holland DayForster was thirty-five when he visited Edward Carpenter, and had never achieved physical sex. He would have read books such as The Intermediate Sex, for instance, where Carpenter explained and defended homosexuality—albeit in platonic terms—and emphasized "the importance of a bond which by the most passionate and lasting compulsion may draw members of the different classes together, and . . . none the less strongly because they are members of different classes." At the rural retreat of Millthorpe, Forster found Carpenter and George Merrill maintaining a garden and fowl, living a simple Thoreauvian life. Carpenter, educated, poetic, a prolific writer, son of proper and well-to-do parents, lived at Millthorpe with George Merrill, whom he described in his autobiography My Days and Dreams as an "extraordinary fellow."

 

 

I had met him first on the outskirts of Sheffield . . . and had recognized at once a peculiar intimacy and mutual understanding. Bred in the slums quite below civilization, but of healthy parentage of comparatively rustic origin, he had grown so to speak entirely out of his own roots; and a singularly affectionate, humorous, and swiftly intuitive nature had expanded along its own lines--subject of course to some of the surrounding conditions, but utterly untouched by the prevailing conventions and proprieties of the upper world. Always--even in utmost poverty--clean and sweet in person and neat in attire, he was attractive to most people. . . . Yet being by temperament loving and even passionate . . . he remained always fairly assured of himself--with the same sort of unconscious assurance that a plant or an animal may have in its own nature. . . . To George Merrill the arrival at Millthorpe was the fulfillment of a dream.

George MerrillSimilarly, Forster's experience of the menage at Millthorpe must have been the fulfillment of his own dream of personal relations without regard to class, carried out near to nature and the earth. In his earlier novels Forster had dealt in heterosexual terms with the earth-connected, passionate life in its conflict with middle-class society. Forster had now seen realized in homosexual terms a vision of the kind of ideal world seen at the end of The Longest Journey--a vision that led directly to the writing of Maurice, in which Forster traces in more detail than ever before the emergence of the inner life in the face of a hostile society.

Not unlike a young Henry Wilcox, Maurice is, as Forster describes him in the "Terminal Note," "someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, not a bad business man and rather a snob. Into this mixture I dropped an ingredient that puzzles him, wakes him up, torments him and finally saves him." The sense of the word "save" here is that used in Bloomsbury, where the "saved" were those who, along the lines of G. E. Moore, found the basis for ethical and aesthetic judgements in the inner feelings of people. That is to say, that ethical and aesthetic truths could be determined by looking into ones own feelings. Forster will use this sense of salvation in many of his novels, setting up an opposition between false religious salvation and true--as Forster sees it--secular salvation. Here, in the case of Howards End, what Henry Wilcox is saved from is the middle-class society which would suppress his real self; Maurice "connects" in a way Henry Wilcox never could; but Maurice's connection leads to a total rejection of middle-class England, rather than to the compromise that was attempted in Howards End.

One of the dominant ironies of Maurice is that Forster presents his hero as a typical representative of his class. He is not an intellectual aesthete, a type represented in the book by Risley. Maurice is meant to be average, ordinary. When he graduates from public school he wins a prize for his Greek oration. "The school clapped not because Maurice was eminent but because he was average. It could celebrate itself in his image." But Maurice recognizes himself as "nothing but falsities." Society, full of hypocrites like Mr. Ducie, Clive Durham, and others, tries to make a hypocrite out of Maurice, tries to make him assume an exterior that contradicts his inner self. Maurice feels like he is "falsities" until Clive comes into his life, when "one thing in him at last was real." Society admires Maurice for the extent to which he exemplifies its values, and the extent to which he exemplifies its values is the extent to which he belies his own true self.

The emergence of Maurice's real self in the face of an antithetical society is carried out in the novel with a pattern of images of light and dark. In Chapter 27, which is central to an understanding of this pattern, Maurice visits his dying grandfather, Mr. Grace, who has passed the time in his old age by creating a new religious view of the cosmos.

The chief point was that God lives inside the sun, whose bright envelop consists of the spirits of the blessed. Sunspots reveal God to men, so that when they occurred Mr. Grace spent hours at his telescope, noting the interior darkness. The incarnation was a sort of sunspot.

Maurice and Mr. Grace discuss the theory, and at one point Mr. Grace draws a "parallel between God, dark inside the glowing sun, and the soul, invisible inside the visible body. `the power within--the soul: Let it out, but not yet, not till the evening. . . . The light within--'."

As the novel begins Maurice Hall is about to graduate from grammar school. He is nearly fifteen years old, but he is "afraid of the dark." On his last day of school his teacher, Mr. Ducie takes Maurice for a walk on the beach and, with the help of drawings in the sand, reveals sex to Maurice. Mr. Ducie's very name implies doubleness or hypocrisy in the sense of "deuce"; it also seem to pun on "Do see!"--the imperative of the teacher laying down society's rules. The name also recalls Ducie Street, where the Wilcoxes had one of their houses in Howards End. "It all hangs together,: he says, "all--and God's in his heaven, All's right with the world. Male and Female! Ah wonderful!" "I think I shall not marry," replies Maurice. When Mr. Ducie become concerned that the drawings in the sand may be seen by others, Maurice senses the hypocrisy and dismisses his lectures as lies. "The darkness rolled up again, the darkness that is primeval but not eternal, and yields to its own painful dawn." Thus, in the first chapter darkness is established as a symbol of unawakened sexuality and sexual ignorance--a darkness into which Mr. Ducie throws no light but which can be overcome by "the light within."

Maurice attends his father's public school, named ironically "Sunnington," where his darkness is prolonged; and when he arrives at Cambridge, he stands "still in the darkness instead of groping about in it." But in his second year there Maurice begins to move, meeting Risley--a Cambridge homosexual modeled on Lytton Strachey--who calls himself a "child of light." Going one night to visit Risley, Maurice literally gropes through the darkness in the hall and enters the room to find Clive Durham, with whom he becomes infatuated: ". . . His heart had lit never to be quenched again, and one thing in him at last was real." Maurice recognizes the homosexual nature of his attraction and he and Clive manage short of sexual intercourse to have "one long day in the light and the wind." But Clive, who has brought Maurice out of darkness, eventually plunges him back in, for Clive finds that he loves women. The truth finally gets through to Maurice, and as Clive leaves at the end of Part Two, "he heard Maurice turn out the electric light and sit down with a thud." He is back in the darkness.

The end of the three-year platonic affair, which has been the sustaining force in his life, brings Maurice near suicide; but it is at this point in the novel that he visits Mr. Grace. Maurice's momentary fear that his grandfather's silly theory about the sun might be true

started one of those rearrangements that affect the whole character. It left him with the conviction that his grandfather was convinced. One more human being had come alive. He had accomplished an act of creation, and as he did so Death turned her head away.

This passage is a crucial one in the novel. Maurice's realization here keeps him from suicide and preserves his life, which is later fulfilled. These few lines seem to involve Forster's attempt to deal with an apparent problem in his life, a problem which is reflected in a common theme in the previous novels--the theme of heritage and inheritance. All of the first four novels deal to some extent with children and fertility, with the question of whether the life of passion and personal relations attained by the main characters will be passed on and sustained by later generations. Since he was almost obsessed with this idea of continuance in the earlier novels, Forster must have been perplexed and distressed by the necessary reproductive sterility of a homosexual relationship. Previously the desirability of the inner life and the life of personal relations had been symbolically established in terms of their relations to the earth, to fertility and growth. The latent homosexuality of Rickie Elliot has often been noted. Perhaps The Longest Journey was an earlier, less optimistic attempt to deal with homosexuality. In that novel the problem of continuance is dealt with by having Rickie's stories survive and flourish.How can Forster reconcile the homosexual relationship, which he obviously presents as good, with its apparent contradiction of the symbology already established in the earlier novels?

Forster finds a solution by proposing a different kind of creation than procreation. Through a sort of empathetic act, a person can bring life to someone else. Forster's idea seems to resemble what D.H. Lawrence had in mind when he wrote in Lady Chatterley's Lover, "And as his seed sprang in her, his soul sprang towards her too, in the creative act that is far more than procreative." Maurice invests a new kind of life in his grandfather; and by this "act of creation" Maurice affirms life and decides not to kill himself. The importance of this concept in the novel and in Forster's life should perhaps have led him to make it more clear; perhaps his own uncertainty is reflected in the obscurity. On the other hand, since this conception has roots in Plato's Symposium, Forster may have assumed that his readers would be well aware of this ancient and traditional justification of homosexuality. (Herbert Marcuse, in Eros and Civilization summarizes Plato in this regard: "Spiritual 'pro-creation' is just as much the work of Eros as is corporeal procreation.") In any case, Forster proceeds as if the problem were completely resolved, for in the very next chapter he introduces into Maurice's life a dimension that had hitherto been suppressed: direct physical desire. Although Maurice himself is shocked and repelled at first by the emergence of this aspect of his character, Forster presents the event as unambiguously positive in terms of the book's imagery. The young houseguest who is the object of Maurice's desire lies "unashamed, embraced, and penetrated by the sun."

In desperation, thinking he might become like an old man who makes a homosexual advance on the train, Maurice seeks the help of a hypnotist, who--as an enforcer of society's repression--tries to make the room dark and make Maurice see in the darkness the picture of a woman. In effect, the hypnotist is trying to replace with the dream of a woman the dream that Maurice has had several times since his childhood, the dream in which "he scarcely saw a face, scarcely heard a voice say, `That is your friend'." The question of which dream will be reinforced and become the reality of Maurice's life is decided when Maurice goes to bed with Alec Scudder. On his second visit to the hypnotist, after his night with Alec, "the afternoon sun fell through the window upon the roll-top desk. This time Maurice fixed his attention on that." The hypnotist, however cannot put him into a trance, cannot return him to darkness: "Nothing happened." Maurice's inner light is triumphing over the external darkness.

Maurice must resign himself to his "perversion," which he has confirmed by "pleasuring the body"; but as he leaves the hypnotist's office, he realizes that "after all, the forests and the night were on his side." At this point a positive aspect of darkness, which had been implied already in Mr. Grace's strange cosmogony, begins to become clear. There is the inner darkness of sexual ignorance and the outer darkness of social misunderstanding and oppression; but there is also the outer darkness which hides and protects, the darkness of anonymity and escape which allows those such as Maurice to live according to "the light within." Similarly, in the last part of the book light takes on a negative aspect in addition to its positive, standing also for vulnerability to society's strictures.

The happy ending of the novel is achieved in an image which combines the light and dark into one--an image of twilight. Maurice finds Alec at the end lying asleep, "just visible in the last dying of the day." Is this the evening referred to by Mr. Grace when he had said, "The power within--the soul: let it out, but not yet, not till the evening"? In the last chapter Maurice goes up from the boathouse to tell Clive that he loves his gamekeeper. Clive, who cannot see Maurice in the shadows, "felt that his friend . . . was essential night." Clive cannot understand or accept Maurice's love for Alec; it is something dark and obscure. In terms of the positive symbolism of darkness in the novel, however, this "essential night" is the darkness inside the sun, the darkness in which, according to Mr. Grace, God lives.

The portentousness of this outcome of the symbolic pattern of the novel is mitigated by taking into consideration the religious theme which runs through the novel. Forster's use in Maurice of established religion as representative of the inhibitive middle-class values is not unique to this novel. In earlier novels a Christian saint was satirized; Stephen Wonham read atheist tracts and was more concerned with preserving and living fully this life than with speculating about anything beyond; in A Room with a View clergymen, Mr. Eager and Mr. Bebee, display some of the worst humbug and prejudice. In Maurice it is Mr. Ducie, the grammar school teacher, who first formulates the established ethic: "It all hangs together--all--and God's in his heaven, All's right with the world. Male and female! Ah wonderful!" Just as Maurice's sexual life will be shaped according to a different pattern, so will he have to reject society's religion. When as a boy he has his dream "this is your friend," he tries to interpret the friend as Christ, but "as he rose in the school he began to make a religion of some other boy." When he arrived at Cambridge, Maurice "believed that he believed" and as a result he felt, echoing Mr. Ducie, that "the whole show all hangs together." Clive, who has abandoned Christianity for platonic homosexuality, assails Maurice's orthodoxy until he stops taking communion and reflects, ironically, "Did society, while professing to be so moral and sensitive really mind anything?" At Penge, his family home, Clive tells Maurice, "On Sunday, when you haven't been to church they'll pretend afterwards you were there." The hypocrisy Clive sees here in his family is the same kind of hypocrisy and self-delusion that Clive himself practices later when he wants to believe that Maurice is finally being integrated into the heterosexual world that Clive has embraced.

When Alec and Maurice are lying in bed the morning after their night of love in Penge, the parish church bells ring, indicating on a literal level that it is time Alec climbed out the window. But when Maurice says, "Damn the church," Forster means it to apply also to the interference of society in the lives of the men. Before Alec leaves the bed that morning the two men tell each other their dreams of the previous night. Maurice dreamt of Mr. Grace; Alec, that the Reverend Borenious, the local clergyman, was trying to drown him. Throughout the novel Mr. Boreniouis has been concerned with Alec's soul, and near the end of the novel he shows up at Southhampton to see Alec off to Argentina with a "letter of introduction to an Anglican priest in Buenos Aires in the hope that he will get confirmed after landing." Alec, however, does not show up to take the boat with his brother to the job waiting for him, choosing to give up salvation in the economic and religious terms of society for individual salvation in a relationship with Maurice--a secular salvation which is mythologized in Mr. Grace's theory of the sun.

In Maurice, then, Forster deals with a homosexual's coming to self-understanding in conflict with a hostile society. Maurice's struggle is another instance of the general human problem in the earlier novels: the conflict between the inner life--the force which would have a person live his life according to the truth of his own emotions--and the outside forces which seek to define and direct the life of the individual. In Howards End Forster had tried to reconcile the outer life of the middle class, which is changing the world, with the cherished life of personal relations by attempting to have a strong representative of the previously despised consciousness realize his own inner life and see life whole. The attempt was a self-conscious failure. In Maurice Forster turns to a total rejection of the middle-class values by having a character make the connection Henry Wilcox could not. When Maurice connects, however, he finds that in order to live according to his new vision he must live outside society altogether. Having rejected all of the values of his class, Maurice finally relinquishes class itself. This outcome is similar to that of The Longest Journey except that Stephen Wonham does not have to reject the middle class to go live in a rural retreat; he had always existed on the periphery. The middle-class world is reduced at the end of The Longest Journey to the image of a train passing through the countryside: "...A lurid spot passed over the land--passed, and the silence returned." The novel then ends with Stephen and his child ready to spend the night in the field. This affirmation of an earth apart from the middle-class influences is repeated and effectively emblemized by two details in Maurice: the incident with Maurice's motorcycle and the description of Clive Durham's family home, Penge.

Like Charles Wilcox, whose marriage gift was a motorcar--symbol of the alienating colonial spirit--, Maurice was to have his coming of age, his attainment of manhood, commemorated by a motorcycle, given to him by his grandfather in anticipation of his twenty-first birthday. But even before his birthday arrives Maurice drives with Clive into the country, where the machine breaks down, coming "to a standstill among the dark black fields." Undaunted, the young men go on to have "one long day in the light and the wind." In contrast to the usurping motorcars in Howards End, the only motor vehicle in Maurice which is given any attention is stranded in a field; nature is supreme, and human relations triumph.

The house Howards End was co-extensive with nature, representing the traditional land-bound life that fostered emotional truth and personal relations. In Maurice the only house that is described in any detail is Penge, on his first visit to which Maurice has an after dinner conversation with the Durhams and their friends.

It was a suburban evening, but with a difference; these people had the air of settling something: they either just had arranged or soon would rearrange England. Yet the gate posts, the roads--he had noticed them on the way up--were in bad repair, and the timber wasn't kept properly, the windows stuck, the boards creaked. He was less impressed than he had expected with Penge.

Clive, who is running for political office at the end of the novel, is of the class that holds the future of England. However, the dilapidation of his house mirrors the corrupt values of the inhabitants; and, unlike Howards End, whose meadow was being encroached upon by advancing middle-class modernism, Penge cannot even keep the rain out. Later in the novel Maurice finds that England's "air and sky" were his and Alec's, "not the timorous millions' who own stuffy little boxes, but never their own souls." Within their house Clive and his wife Anne live a conventional, constricted life. "They united [sexually] in a world that bore no reference to the daily, and this secrecy drew after it much else of their lives. So much could never be mentioned. He never saw her naked, nor she him." The material, middle-class basis of their life--and the consequent emotional deprivation--is shown further by the fact that, when Clive and Anne had announced their wedding to Maurice over the telephone, their conversation ended with a discussion about investing a hundred pounds of Anne's. Clive and Anne are like Maurice's other customers, who are

drawn from the middle-middle classes, whose highest desire seemed shelter--continuous shelter--not a lair in the darkness to be reached against fear, but shelter everywhere and always, until the existence of earth and sky is forgotten, shelter from poverty and disease and violence and impoliteness; and consequently from joy; God slipped this retribution in. He saw from their faces, as from the faces of his clerks and partners, that they had never known real joy. Society had catered for them too completely. They had never struggled, and only a struggle twists sentimentality and lust together into love.

Maurice goes through this struggle and finds that society can cater to none of his needs. When his sentimentality towards Clive and his lust for the young houseguest have been twisted together into his love for Alec Scudder, Maurice finds that "they must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other until death."

The denouement of the novel and the images of the triumph of nature over the motorcycle and Penge contrast with Forster's vision of the inexorable "Great Wilcox Peril" in Howards End. This does not necessarily mean that Forster has forgotten or ignored the pessimistic vision of the earlier novel; rather he has, in a kind of conscious wish-fulfillment fantasy, envisioned an ideal opposite to the future projected in Howards End. He rejects the future of petrol fumes and alienation in favor of an individual settlement fostered and protected by an undisplaced earth. Forster was aware of the fairy-tale aspect of Maurice. In his "Terminal Note" he says, "I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows, and in this sense Maurice and Alec still roam the greenwood." At one point in the novel Forster uses the language of legend and romance. While Maurice, after having left the hypnotist's office for the last time, is waiting for the King and Queen to pass, he has an internal debate between his old self and his new.

"Very well," said his old self. "Now go home . . . and mind you never turn your head, as I may, towards Sherwood. "I'm not a poet, I'm not that kind of an ass"

But immediately after Maurice's old, socially conditioned self has uttered this last sentence, Forster throws in a paragraph which affirms poetry and romance:

The King and Queen vanished into their palace, the sun fell behind park trees, which melted into one huge creature that had fingers and fists of green.

"The life of the earth, Maurice? Don't you belong to that?"

"Well, what do you call `the life of the earth'--it ought to be the same as my daily life--the same as society. One ought to be built on the other, as Clive once said."

"Quite so. Most unfortunate, that facts pay no attention to Clive."

The ideal is shown as life in legendary Sherwood. "The forests and the night" are on the side of Maurice's inner life and reach out with "fingers and fists of green" to shield and nurture his love for Alec.

When he wrote his "terminal Note" in 1960, Forster found that Maurice "certainly dates" because "it belongs to an England where it was still possible to get lost. It belongs to the last moment of the greenwood. The Longest Journey belongs there too." Between these two novels came Howards End, in which Forster very clearly portrays the impending end of the greenwood. Therefore, even while he was writing Maurice, Forster undoubtedly knew it was a digression from his understanding of the real threat to the life of personal relations posed by a society whose values were inimical and which was eliminating the bond with the earth which symbolized the ideal life. Perhaps in this lies part of the explanation for the fact that Forster did not publish Maurice during his lifetime. Aside from the apparent wish to avoid the publicity and scandal that would have resulted, Forster may have withheld the novel because it in fact did not represent his true feelings about the possibility of a happy homosexual relationship--or, for that matter, of any relationship.

In Howards End Forster had accurately foreseen the possibility of a war with Germany, a war between imperialist powers which would accelerate the processes represented by the motorcars and bring the world towards "cosmopolitanism," a nomadic, alienated way of life under which, "if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth." Forster summarizes the effect of the war in the "Terminal Note" to Maurice:

Our greenwood ended catastrophically and inevitably. Two great wars demanded and bequeathed regimentation which the public services adopted and extended, science lent her aid, and the wildness of our island, never extensive, was stamped upon and built over and patrolled in no time. There is no forest or fell to escape to today, no cave in which to curl up, no deserted valley for those who wish neither to reform nor corrupt society but to be left alone.

By the time Forster was finishing A Passage to India in the first few years after the war, he was living in an England that had changed since he had begun the novel in 1912, after his first trip to India. The potential loss of the greenwood foreseen in Howards End had actually taken place, and Forster seems to have found in India an image of the alienation of man from earth that had come to England. The "fingers and fists of green" that reached out to save Maurice are transformed in A Passage to India into the "fists and fingers" of the Marabar Hills, whose influence is to disrupt human relationships.

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