E.M. Forster: On the Cusp of Modernity

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Howards End as seen in the 1992 film

Howards End as seen in the 1992 film

Edward Morgan Forster was the premier chronicler of England’s transition out of Victorianism, a time of major social, political and economic change. At the end of a great wave of industrialization, late Victorians were asking themselves: How should we balance money, culture and integrity? Can we stay connected to the natural world? What makes meaningful human relationships possible? Forster’s first big success, Howards End (1910), centres on an inheritance. Wealthy Ruth Wilcox is torn between respecting family ties and leaving her house to her commercially-minded husband, or emphasizing spiritual kinship and leaving it to her cultured friend Margaret Schlegel.

Forster’s complex plotting reflects the ways in which his characters’ situations mirror the larger issue of England’s direction in the new century. A Passage to India (1924) is set during a period of instability for the British Raj, when disagreement within India over what independence should look like is sharpening. The novel focuses on an assault charge brought by a young Englishwoman against an Indian doctor. Because the alleged assault took place during a group excursion, multiple characters must decide whom to believe and how to act in the run-up to the trial. Depicting an atmosphere charged with racial tension, Forster asks how far the values of truthfulness and humanity can extend. Is it possible, in a world full of prejudice and misunderstanding, to build durable bridges between people and cultures?

As we investigate Forster’s responses to the changes and challenges he saw in his time, we will also consider what his novels say about our own families, communities and society.

“Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted…. Live in fragments no longer.”

– from Howards End



Nancy Carr is a writer, editor and discussion leader with many years of experience at the Great Books Foundation. She has a Ph.D. in English from the University of Virginia and especially loves Victorian and 20th-century novels. Nancy is drawn to E.M. Forster for his combination of intellectual acuity and emotional depth.


Use ISBNsearch.org to find the required editions.

Howards End, by E.M. Forster
(Modern Library, 1999)
ISBN-13: 978-0375753763

A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster
(Mariner Books, 1965)
ISBN-13: 978-0156711425

Participants are required to obtain the specified edition to facilitate the group’s ability to find and cite portions of the text during discussion. Details will be provided at registration.

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