Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Angels. Did you really mean Angels?

After taking so long to read the last book, I was relieved to find it was not a chronic condition as I read this week's book in just three evenings.  The choice this time around?  Where Angels Fear to Tread by E.M. Forster.  What a delightful thing to find quotation marks after an entire novel of dialogue written directly into the text.  How lovely some punctuation marks are!

Where Angels Fear to Tread (Penguin Classics)First observations upon reading this novel.  The dialogue is so much like a play that I could see it being performed upon a stage quite easily (at least the first couple of chapters).  Forster must have felt much the same as he drops hints to playwrights a couple times: "dropping like a curtain on the scene" and a mention of "horrible modern plays where no one is right."  Forster also makes glorious use of adjectival phrases.  He often couples them together in odd ways, creating a poetry-like quality to his prose.  I found myself writing down these couplets often and just thinking about how many authors do not think so much upon their adjectives as Forster must have.  He packed more descriptive dynamite in the short 114 pages than most authors do in 300.  It truly is something to behold.  Here are a few of my favorites:
glorious invariable creature...brief and inevitable tragedy...purple quivering beef...smart and vociferous...grating sprightliness....timorous, scrupulous...burly obtuseness

And to think, he must have accomplished these feats of literary magic without the assistance of a thesaurus. 

The themes of this book are varied and interesting for the period.  The repression of women ( quotes: "as if she could choose what could make her happy!" and "the usual feminine incapacity for grasping philosophy") juxtaposed against the supreme mother rule of  a certain female character over most other players in her game (her son calls himself her "puppet" and does not think of "his own moral or behavior anymore.") is a theme that weaves its way through the entire novel.  As I was reading, it seemed one could make a case that Forster was one of the first feminist authors (sorry to Kate and Virginia).   He appeals to the plight of women, while pointing out their absolute authority over other women and men in certain social circles. 

Another theme picked up and then dropped as the novel progresses is hypocrisy as a social convention.  All the characters float through this world performing for societal acceptance rather than following their own hearts.  They maintain their social status by conforming to what they call "proper behavior."  All the while, their hearts betray them by their very words.  As most of the characters develop, the hypocrisy is not so easily hidden, and thus it becomes less evident.  The climax of the novel finds most of the characters laid bare, unable to hide their inner feelings any longer.  This incisive character study of both men and women by Forster is not just accurate for his day, it is a statement of the human condition for all ages.

The last theme worthy of discussion for this post is the abandonment of all moral strictures when on vacation.  There is something about getting out of one's comfort zone that strips one of all one's closely-held customs.  In the novel, each character that dares leave the comfort of Sawston, finds themselves utterly changed, doing surprising things and exploring feelings they would have never imagined.  Forster uses the change of scenery to depict a literal change in character and then mentions, late in the book, that people are more apt to notice change in others than in themselves who "hold [their own] characters immutable, slow to acknowledge they have changed even for the better."  He also speaks of one of the characters "changing her disposition never and her atmosphere under protest."  This is the one character who rebels the most against the strictures of her societal restraints upon being thrust into the world of Italy.

The last thing I kept track of whilst reading was the mention of angels.  Because I had never read this book before, nor had a read anything about it; I was unaware of the reason for the title.  Thus, I wrote down every mention of angels, thinking it would help me discover the purpose.  Well, for those of you who will in the future read this one, don't bother.  I discovered that the mention of angels is not important.  After reading the book,  I looked it up and found it is a reference to a quote from some other book: "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread." - Alexander Pope.  Don't I feel sheepish?  But, honestly, that fits a lot better than anything I came up with.  Would have been nice to have included this quote in the front page of the novel for us unlearned folk.

Rating:  4.5 out of 7


1 comment:

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