A Room With A View, 1907, E.M Forster, British

A Room With A View may not be quite as heavy as many books on this list in terms of plunging the depths of human misery. Some characters are undoubtedly miserable, but Forster does not dwell upon the nature and characteristics of this misery. Plus, the protagonists come to a happy ending. It can perhaps thus be read as a cautionary tale: follow love or end up with repression, a harbinger of misery. I found it to be a keen look into the complexity of social relationships, interpersonal communication, elitism, unconventionality, and human psychology, and a glimpse into the Edwardian middle class and the thawing of frigid Victorian values into the new social liberalism.

It’s quite a fun read, as Forster masterfully creates vivid dialogue, amusing situations, fairly deep characters, a handful of exciting scenes, and an engaging story overall.

Some notes on narration

When I read A Room With A View, it took me a bit to get used to the narrative style: the narrator is either floating in a balloon high, high above the characters, or traveling around their brains in a miniaturized exploration pod giving his interpretation of their thoughts. Therefore the novel implies correct behavior both by depicting interactions between characters–through description and dialogue–and also with interjected omniscient opinions and insights into the inner states of some of the characters. So the narrative style can be sort of off-putting; sometimes it is as if you’re being preached to by the author–not the narrator, so it might be difficult for some to overlook. Luckily, I found the lessons and insights to be mostly agreeable, and the tone amusing, and so I did not overly resent the presence.

Still, it can be difficult to figure out the role of the narrator. The narrator glides between roles. It provides bite size nuggets of (often fairly profound) wisdom. For instance: “Secrecy has this disadvantage: we lose the sense of proportion; we cannot tell whether our secret is important or not” (Chap. XI). Were this a first-person narrator, we could understand from whence the perspective emerged, but here–who is it and where did he come from? It intrudes into the narration: “People congratulated Mrs. Honeychurch [for Lucy’s engagement], which is, I believe, a social blunder, but it pleased her.” What’s the deal? The answer is, Forster’s narrator is reading the text with us…the narrator is not him (the author) nor is it a party to the story…the narrator is neither fixed or omniscient; this anticipates my later revelation

The unfortunate thing about writing my reaction so long after I have been finished with the novel is that I have altered my opinion on Forster’s narrative style substantially during the course of this project (i.e. I am not able to accurately convey how I felt about it during the time I was reading it). While I was reading two other E.M. Forster novels (Howards End and A Passage to India), I had similar questions, until I read a bit of literary criticism on Passage that completely changed the way I viewed the narrative style of Forster, for the better. So, as I write this criticism, it will be nigh impossible for me to pretend as if I’m approaching the novel as I did back in November. The last sentence in the previous paragraph approaches what the change in perspective was, and I will explicate it later when I discuss Passage to India.

Lying to yourself, or Love is Liberation

“But this time I’m not to blame; I want you to believe that. I simply slipped into those violets. No, I want to be really truthful. I am a little to blame.”

-Lucy Honeychurch

At its essence, the novel impels one to trust one’s true impulses towards love, and the raw experience of life, rather than continually tailoring one’s behavior to be in conformity with social convention, which itself is generally out of step with what is important. Following convention generally leads to falsity and discomfiture with life, whilst following one’s way from the being level leads to truth and self-assuredness.

The most discontent people in the novel are also the biggest slaves to convention. Examples include:

  • Miss Bartlett nearly turning down the opportunity to stay in a room with a Florentine view, owing to some snobbish worry of being indebted to the less-than-prestigious Emersons
  • Miss Bartlett falling over herself to sustain Lucy’s propriety–whilst inwardly torn to pieces over her own failure to attain true love earlier in her youth, owing to the same worthless false morality. Glimpse Miss Bartlett’s ravaged perspective on the world, which she is trying to imbue unto Lucy:

…at the end there was presented to the girl the complete picture of a cheerless, loveless world in which the young rush to destruction until they learn better–a shamefaced world of precautions and barriers which may avert evil, but which do not seem to bring good, if we may judge from those who have used them most (Chap. VII).

  • Mr. Eager tying himself in knots over the expression of love between two young Italians, ordering them to “disentangle themselves.”
  • Lucy refusing to pursue or even acknowledge her feelings for George

This last point is the general focus of this write-up: Lucy lied to herself. What does it mean to lie to oneself? Rather than use a psychoanalytic perspective–examining why one represses or obscures an unconscious truth from conscious acknowledgement–I will continue in the same vein as The Way of All Flesh, and use more of a sociological perspective.

After the event in Florence with George, Lucy confided to Miss Bartlett that “I want to be truthful…it is so hard to be absolutely truthful.” It may have been easier for Lucy to be “absolutely” (i.e. honestly) truthful if she had a friend or family member with her who was a bit more sympathetic to and/or knowledgeable about human nature, and who could perhaps draw out of Lucy her true feelings. Instead, she had Miss Bartlett, who labelled George’s behavior as “thoroughly unrefined” and closed the gates to a real conversation. So Lucy could not face her feelings, even if she were inclined, because of her fear of rocking some imaginary boat. All paths leading to sincere disclosure are blocked, unless she can summon some serious courage to go against the grain of her family and culture. Here’s the crux of the problem: human beings have an innate, natural disinclination to confront our fears, but we may also have social pressures on us to fear our own impulses, which makes us afraid to be truthful.

So it is fear that stops us from embracing our personal truths. This fear is implanted heavily in us when we are surrounded by overly self-conscious people (such as the middle class in Edwardian England or superficially-puritanical middle class American suburbs). Conscious of our role, our class, of superiority, of etiquette, of what we’re supposed to do; conscious of the dangers lurking behind every corner when we live life with few restraints.

So when our impulses run counter to our social training, there is disruption. As Lucy broke free from Cecil, she thought she had “deliberately warped the brain,” and could not return home to Windy Corner, where her family still “lived and thought straight.” In fact it was she who was finally thinking straight, as she was finally being honest with herself.

“You’ve got rid of Cecil…But why not announce it?”

It was quite easy to say, “Because George Emerson has been bothering me, and if he hears I’ve given up Cecil may begin again”–quite easy, and it had the incidental advantage of being true. But she could not say it. She disliked confidences, for they might lead to self-knowledge and to that king of terrors–Light. Ever since that last evening at Florence she had deemed it unwise to reveal her soul. (Chap. XIX).

While it was “true” that Lucy ostensibly wanted George not to bother her, it was true only on the surface. But she was right: admitting this partial truth would increase the probability of admitting deeper truths. Shedding a bit of light on the matter could force her to reveal more of her soul than she is ready, and turn her family against her. And her fears are founded: when she elopes with George, her mother is upset with her.

Upon her return from Italy, Lucy defended the Emersons from Mr. Eager’s slander, and meantime lies about their surname so as to shield herself from feelings that would inevitably arise upon the utterance of the word “Emerson.” Later, when forced to reckon with her lie, she finds, “Hitherto truth had come to her naturally. She saw that for the future she must be more vigilant, and be–absolutely truthful? Well, at all events, she must not tell lies” (Chap. X). What do we make of Forster’s question mark/Lucy’s hesitation? Naturally, she is not nearly ready to face the truth of her connection with George, as it is still forbidden. Lucy is caught in a familiar battle for independence, but for her, independence is freedom to love freely: “she tried to remember her emotions in Florence: those had been sincere and passionate, and had suggested beauty rather than short skirts and latch-keys [i.e. work]. But independence was certainly her cue.” Imbued with something of a suffragette spirit (borrowed in part from George’s admonitions to her), Lucy denies to Mr. Emerson that it is love that pulls her away from Cecil (“Oh, how like a man!–I mean, to suppose that a woman is always thinking about a man.”). But it was true.

The novel explores the pathological obsession Edwardians had–as a hangover from Victorianism–of pretending all is well outwardly, whilst inwardly there is much amiss: “The contest lay not between love and duty. Perhaps there never is such a contest. It lay between the real and the pretended, and Lucy’s first aim was to defeat herself” (Chap. XVI). Lucy set out to convince herself that her feelings were false, and her obligations were real. This outward posturing is a major theme of The Good Soldier–and was perhaps the zeitgeist of pre-WWI Europe, where indeed the innards were rotting and devolving whilst the continent boasted of nearly a century of peace and a stature as the most civilized continent in history.

Along those same lines, it was in part this falsity and discomfiture that was holding Europe from modernity. George is a man who wants to “know one intimately” (Chap. XVI)–not the superficial facade put on for the benefit of society, but one deep down, beyond all that. Cecil’s inability to know other people at the being level is a symptom of the disease which has “kept Europe back for a thousand years” (Chap. XVI). Europe and the United States began to break free of all of that during the 1960s and 1970s, although it seems lately as if we’re putting the lid back on it.

Well how do we break free from these fears? Of course, courage; but we must first be inspired somehow to be courageous. Mr. Emerson provides that service to Lucy–preparing to run away from her fears– by confronting her with blunt assessment: “You’re shocked, but I mean to shock you. It’s the only hope at times.” “Ah! for a little directness to liberate the soul!” Indeed!

Tom Campbell has stated that the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is fear. It is fear that keeps Lucy from defying social convention–and in the same way people like Miss Bartlett and Mrs. Honeychurch feed those fears in her because they have them themselves. Likewise George is in some way fearful of the world, stuck in existential dread, but is nonetheless courageous in his pursuit of Lucy. So when Lucy and George decide to trust in love, the fear dissipates and their bliss is evident in the final chapter.

Linked to that–when one loves, there is largely an absence of intellectual rationalization. One simple loves. Love emanates from the being level, not the intellectual level. So as George opens himself to love, he acts spontaneously and kisses Lucy in the violets. Contrast this with Cecil’s ungainly, overintellectualized, “self conscious” kiss. In the realm of love there is verily little space for logic and rationalization. Marriage, oddly, is, on the other hand, held together by it.

It is not just love, but sex and the human body also must be trusted. Mr. Emerson: “The Garden of Eden…which you place in the past, is really yet to come. We shall enter it when we no longer despise our bodies” (Chap. XII) and “love is of the body; not the body, but of the body. Ah! the misery that would be saved if we confessed that!” Sex is of course a raw component of natural and liberated living.

Sadly, judging by the acuteness with which Forster described repressive atmospheres, it seems like the life of repression and lies is one that Forster was utterly and completely familiar with–perhaps even more so than the one of unbridled enjoyment of life. As he was a closeted homosexual for the bulk of his life, afraid to come out due to his fear of upsetting his mother (Corbman), this is not altogether surprising.

Jeffrey Heath quotes Forster’s explication of upper and lower selves: the upper self is the “conscious and alert” self, as opposed to the lower self which resides “in the obscure recesses of our being,”  near the “gates of the Divine.” Heath concludes that in A Room With A View, “Forster has positioned us in the unstable and oscillating cell of the upper self: the “room” of self denied and thwarted through muddle and monotony, and self exaggerated through the imperialism of the ego. He has done so because he wants us to experience a world in which things don’t fit.” The world of the repressive and the false. Indeed, we catch mere glimpses of the luxuries of liberation and truth–the young Italian driver & his lover, the bathing scene with George and Mr. Beebe and Freddy, the final chapter. Though the Emersons represent the fearless embrace of life, they are the only two main characters to whose inner selves we have no access, thus thwarting our quest to explore: if not repression/convention, then what?

Didn’t we face the same vexation at the end of The Way of All Flesh? Samuel Butler, too, was apparently a homosexual. Perhaps we can conjecture that these authors could not provide a complete picture of the liberated lifestyle because they were both, in the end, thwarted by a closed-minded society? The novel depicting the liberation of the homosexual could not be written until the 1980s (and even then, tentatively); but judging by the heated environment surrounding the issue (e.g. this, this, this) representing the cultural thaw, it will be easier to write it in the 2020s.

Personal Reaction

If the last chapter of this book does not make you examine your own relationship to see if you’ve that much passion, you aren’t reading the book right. At last George and Lucy are free to love, and all else it utterly insignificant. Ah, the liberating power of love, it’s like being doused with cool, crisp water over your grease-covered, mud flaked skin. Certainly I am so lucky to have felt it with my love, and we continue to feel it 8 years later. It is hard to describe how truly liberating it is to love someone so much, and to be loved so much, and to be free to simply be with one another.

Too this book hits close to home in the realm of social convention foisted upon one, as my middle class suburban upbringing clamped a few fears of breaking convention upon myself.

I have been trying to disentangle what “one’s self” is in this context. When are you not being the “real you?” When I was drinking and partying constantly, a large part of that was due to peer pressure and my insecure need to be cool. So if there is a core “self” beyond the need to impress others, we assume that you can strip away those behaviors and be left with the real “self.” Like, underneath actions taken to impress others (ego) the true self resides. But, we can strip away the behaviors, and we still have an insecure, ego-riven, fear-based self there–so that is the real you. You are always the real you, you cannot be anything other than the real you.

But that’s not quite right. For most of us, we have an internal nag pushing us to do better for ourselves. It’s not exactly our conscience; it is our link to the larger consciousness system pushing us to evolve–face our fears and diminish the hold our ego has over our actions. So I must interject my metaphysical beliefs: you are more than this brain, this life. The real “you” is an individuated unit of consciousness which is temporarily experiencing this life in order to grow towards love and away from fear. That true self enters our head when we are open to it–we often call it “intuition” or “gut” or “following our heart.” When in love, that voice speaks loudly and it is hard to ignore. Our IUOC, as well as the larger consciousness system which is us, encourages us (via intuition & feedback) to move towards less entropic (more loving) states. So when we are in a situation in which our peers/parents/society are giving fear-based recommendations, and we have an impulse to resist those for love, chances are we are becoming more in alignment with our “true” selves. Miss Bartlett’s urging Lucy away from George is a manifestation of her own fears, and if Lucy follows those advices, she is moving towards fear and away from love, hence her confusion and angst.

Bibliography

Corbman, Sandra. “Freudian Psychoanalytic Criticism and the Representation of the Mother in the Novels of EM Forster.” MA Thesis. Web. <http://www.pauls.mistral.co.uk/emforster.html&gt;

Heath, Jeffrey. “Kissing And Telling: Turning Round In A Room With A View.” Twentieth Century Literature
40.4 (1994): 393. Academic Search Complete. Web. 16 July 2012.

Holt, Lee. “EM Forster and Samuel Butler.” PMLA 61.3 (1946): 804-819. JSTOR. Web.

Hubbell, Jeremy W. “Critical Essay on ‘A Room with a View’.” Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2012. Literature Resource Center. Web. 16 July 2012.

McDowell, Frederick. “The Italian Novels and the Early Short Stories.” E. M. Forster. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. 18-45. Twayne’s English Authors Series 89. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Web. 7 Aug. 2012.

SparkNotes Editors. “SparkNote on A Room with a View.” SparkNotes.com. SparkNotes LLC. n.d.. Web. 10 Jul. 2012.

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