From an essay of Lionel Trilling’s on E.M. Forster, published in The Kenyon Review (Spring 1942, v.4, no. 2). The whole is only 13 pages and well worth the read.
Forster’s plots are always sharp and definite, for he expresses difference by means of struggle and struggle by means of open conflict so intense as to flare into melodrama and even into physical violence. Across each of his novels runs a barricade; the opposed forces on each side are Good and Evil in the forms of Life and Death, Light and Darkness, Fertility and Sterility, Courage and Respectability, Intelligence and Stupidity-all the great absolutes that are so dull when discussed in themselves. The comic manner, however, will not tolerate absolutes; it stands on the barricades and casts doubt on both sides. The fierce plots move forward to grand simplicities but the comic manner confuses the issue, forcing upon us the difficulties and complications of the moral fact. The plot suggests eternal division, the manner reconciliation; the plot speaks of clear certainties, the manner resolutely insists that nothing can be quite so simple. “Wash ye, make yourselves clean,” says the plot, and the manner murmurs, “If you can find the soap.”
Now, to the simple mind the mention of complication looks like a kind of malice, and to the mind under great stress the suggestion of something “behind” the apparent fact looks like a call to quietism, like mere shilly-shallying. And this is the judgment, I think, that a great many readers of the most enlightened sort are likely to pass on Forster. For he stands in a peculiar relation to what, for want of a better word, we may call the liberal tradition, that loose body of middle-class opinion which includes such ideas as progress, collectivism and humanitarianism. To this tradition Forster himself has long been committed; all his novels are politically and morally tendentious and always in the liberal direction. Yet he is deeply at odds with the liberal mind, and while liberal readers can go a long way with Forster, they can seldom go all the way. They can understand him when he attacks the manners and morals of the British middle class, when he speaks out for spontaneity of feeling, for the virtues of sexual fulfillment, for the values of intelligence; they go along with him when he speaks against the class system, satirizes soldiers and officials, questions the British Empire and attacks business ethics and the public schools. But sooner or later they begin to make reservations and draw back; they suspect that Forster is not quite playing their game, they feel that he is challenging them. And they are right. For all his long commitment to the doctrines of liberalism, Forster is at war with the liberal imagination.