Thursday, June 11, 2009

91. Where Angels Fear to Tread – E.M. Forster

History: Published in 1905, The title comes from a line in Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism: "For fools rush in where angels fear to tread".
Plot: On a journey to Tuscany with her young friend and traveling companion Caroline Abbott, widowed Lilia Herriton falls in love with both Italy and a handsome Italian much younger than herself, and decides to stay. Furious, her dead husband's family send Lilia's brother-in-law to Italy to prevent a misalliance, but he arrives too late. Lilia had already married the Italian and in due course becomes pregnant again. When she dies giving birth to a son, the Herritons learn that Lilia's one-time traveling companion, Caroline Abbott, wishes to travel to Italy once again, this time to save the infant boy from an uncivilized life. Not wanting to be outdone -- or considered any less moral or concerned than Caroline for the child's welfare-- Lilia's in-laws try to take the lead in traveling to Italy. In the public eye, they make it known that it is both their right and their duty to travel to Monteriano to obtain custody of the infant so that he can be raised as an Englishman. Secretly, though, they have no regard for the child; only public appearances.
This tragic ending,the accidental death of Lilia's child, spurs a series of drastic changes within the story. Gino's physical outburst toward Philip in response to the news makes Philip realize what it is like to truly be alive. The guilt felt by Harriet causes her to lose her mind. Finally, Philip realizes that he is in love with Caroline Abbott but that he can never have her, because she admits to being in love with Gino.
Review: Where Angels Fear to Tread is not at all the kind of book that its title suggests. It is not mawkish or sentimental or commonplace. The motive of the story, the contest over the possession of a child between the parent who survives and the relatives of a parent who is dead, is familiar and ordinary enough, but the setting and treatment of this motive are almost startlingly original.
EM Forster writes in a persistent vein of cynicism which is apt to repel, but the cynicism is not deep-seated. It is a protest against the worship of conventionalities, and especially against the conventionalities of "refinement" and "respectability"; it takes the form of a sordid comedy culminating, unexpectedly and with a real dramatic force, in a grotesque tragedy.
There are half-a-dozen characters in the book which count, and two of them - Mrs. Herriton, the incarnation of spotless insincerity, and Harriet, purblind, heartless, and wholly bereft of the faculty of sympathy - are altogether repellent and hence not altogether real. The other four, whatever else they may be - and they are all more or less unpleasant - are undeniably and convincingly real. It is a trick of Fortune in her most freakish mood that brings about the union of Lilis, the vulgar, shallow Englishwoman, and Gino, the courteous, shallow, and discreditable Italian.
Opening Line: “They were all at Charing Cross to see Lilia off – Phillip, Harriet, Irma, Mrs. Herriten herself.”
Closing Line: “They hurried back to the carriage to close the windows lest the smuts should get into Harriet’s eyes.”
Quotes: A wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and — by some sad, strange irony — it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy
Rating: Good

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