In deciding which book to blog about first, there really was no need for any sort of mental gymnastics to come to a determination. For some 20 years now one book has remained in the forefront as a core-shaker—a literary touchstone—for this wayward bibliophile–Maurice by E. M. Forster.
Waxing nostalgic, I am flooded with the fondest memories of sitting in a college student union in South Texas, compulsively smoking Marlboro Lights and downing Coke by the gallon, as I ferociously finger page after page of J. D. Salinger, Raymond Carver, and Milan Kundera to the tune of The Counting Crows’ “She Talks to Angels”. At the pinnacle of my career, as budding English major, I was knocking out 2-3 novels a week: an ambitious demonstration of intent I must say. Living as a gay man in a rather small and conservative town in South Texas, the idea of being reflected in any literary figure—large or small—was too fantastical for me to even dream to be true. Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City series got me through some rough times; however, it smacked more of pop culture to me and—if anything—celebrated a lifestyle that was in no shape, way, or form a reflection of my own reality .
I believe it was my friend Betty, the vegetarian, alterno-goth, bisexual, that introduced me to E. M. Forster (well, the Merchant Ivory films anyway), though if I remember correctly the motivation behind her tutelage had more to do with her obsessive love for Helena Bonham Carter, rather than anything having to do with literary relevance. Pity. I want to say our first cinematic jaunt into the Edwardian era was “A Room with a View.” Apart from my developing HUGE craving for a Julian Sands and Rupert Graves “sandwich”, I found Forster’s social satire and perspective on elitism intriguing. This, of course, prompted an immediate pilgrimage to my local Waldenbooks (the only bookstore in a 30 mile area) to do some private investigation of my own. Upon working my way through a very limited fiction section (70% of new titles were burnt upon arrival), I came across Forster’s works and proceeded to look through the titles, hoping to be inspired. It was then that I came across Maurice. It was an odd name for a book, at least in comparison to the other titles on the shelf. Looking at the back cover, I came to realize that the main character—the book’s namesake—was a gay man and the story was indeed about him and his struggle to find happiness. Having embarked on a similar journey—usually with the assistance of alcohol—I was compelled to make an immediate purchase. I ran to the checkout counter, threw down $5.95 plus tax (remember when books were $5.95?) and sped home for some immediate alone time with Maurice.
Maurice took about two days to read (not shabby given the fact that the English don’t speak American…damn it!). Needless to say, I was done for! I was beyond hooked. Forster’s use of characterization and allusion ensnared me, initially: the latter playing a vital role in my interpretation of this work. Like a mad man, I devoured page after page in a frenzied dash to the last, breaking only to buy cigarettes and underline relevant passages (in pencil), while simultaneously jotting down corresponding page numbers on the inside of the front book cover for later reference: a habit that—sadly—I abandoned years ago.
As I mentioned, Forster’s use of allusion connected me to his work at the time—and still to this day. I was mad for anything Classical. From blatant references to Latin and Greek language, architecture, and geography to thinly veiled references to culture (i.e. “the unspeakable vice of the Greeks” = homosexuality) and mythology, Forster added relevance and validity to the work with the precision of a true marksman and solidified the viability and fidelity of the characters as concrete, while tending to the intellectual needs of his audience. The characterization found, therein, was equally notable, especially as seen with our main characters Maurice and his paramour, Clive. Through these two, Forster captures the kind of splintering of self so common among those who are grappling with internal sexual conflict. Forster not only captured, splendidly, the crippling confusion of coming to terms with one’s own “deviant” internal desires and drives (undoubtedly based upon his personal struggles as a gay man in an overtly oppressive society), but the self-loathing that always seems to follow in all too close proximity. It is, perhaps, through this hatred “turned inward” that we come vis-à-vis with the “uglier sides” of Maurice and Clive, making otherwise potentially pleasant characters unlikable in the shadow of their own pathos.
So, how many times have I read Maurice? I would have to estimate somewhere between 10 and 15 times over the past 20 years, though a more pertinent question may be, “Why do I keep reading it?” Well, that is simple enough: the story is never ever quite the same upon each revisit (maybe this is true of any truly fine literary work). Maurice has a story to tell that only lets you in “just so far” until you are ready for it to envelop you further. The key to unlocking its occult meaning lies in one’s ability to connect the dots between all of one’s previous understandings of the work, all previous literary readings, and all of one’s life experiences: a complicated process, true, but well worth the effort. If it weren’t we would just be dealing with words on a page, after all. Regardless, that is what my 20 yr love affair with Maurice has been like. Exquisitely complicated.
It wasn’t until my last perusal through the book’s pages that the story literally “opened up” like a slumbering lotus, exposing—at least for now—its hidden truth. Maurice isn’t as narrative a story as we might think, but one that is—at its core—allegorical in nature (much due to Forster’s clever use of classical allusion). Taking all this into consideration, along with my penchant for Early American Literature (and respective themes—namely alienation and isolation), and my “train wreck” of a love life, I came to understand the book’s message a bit more intimately. Maurice isn’t just about a lovelorn gay boy’s journey of self-discovery or even a search for true happiness. It is about the alienation and desolation of gay men—or anyone who dares to rail against the constraints of social conformity—that forever sets them apart from society.
Utilizing “the ultimate alienation” of death, through symbolism and imagery, Forster takes us—like Charon, the ferryman—on a expedition through a necropolis within the Asphodel Meadows, a region within Hades where your “everyday” shade walks about in eternal indifference (under the clever guise of Edwardian London and its citizens). Cambridge takes on a mausoleum-like countenance with its deathly quiet halls and somber masonry, while buildings and character’s homes—the true centers of civilization—are represented as almost crypt-like with a sufficient amount of decay and ruin to drive the idea home for even the most devout naysayer. Two instances come to mind that support this assessment, being the skull-like figures cast upon Maurice’s bedroom walls by the moonlight reflecting from his mirror in Chapter 2; and the imagery of Clive’s mother “floating” about the bottom floor of her decrepit estate without an ounce of human expression or warmth, save the instant she perceives Maurice is watching her, resulting in a creepily insincere smile. Such ghostly apparitions and macabre settings can only serve to reinforce the idea of a death of self—and society— through conforming to popular norms and morays. In truth, London (and beyond)
become a sort of land of the dead where we encounter the pallid remains (shells) of individuals and the tombs that encase them. I am reminded of Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”. It is through this gloomy landscape that we see the correlation of a gay man’s life, as a journey through the Afterlife (a life apart from the norm), though not one of a Christian making; but that of the Greeks: a place that serves to separate—not necessarily as a punishment—the worlds of the living and the dead (those who belong and those who are outcast), as well as the shades who inhabit it.
At one point we see the introduction of Dickie, the nephew of Dr. Barry, who is temporarily staying at Maurice’s home. Compared to “Ganymede,” a mortal boy from Greek mythology, who possessed unearthly beauty, we see a momentary stay in Maurice’s mourning for his failed love affair with Clive, resulting from his voluntary surrender to a societally-imposed death of self. Through this encounter, Forster suggests the navigation—symbolically— of two Stygian bodies of water: Lethe, the River of Forgetfulness, and its counterpart, Mnemosyne, the Pool of Memory. The waters of Lethe (oblivion) erase all traces of mortal pain (and joy): an act necessary to endure a permanent “life apart” in the Undergloom. However, just as one may forget all worldly memory through Lethe’s waters, one can restore what was lost through drinking the waters of Mnemosyne. This obscure allusion is a complex
representation of Maurice’s internal conflict, which also serves as a turning point for the character, foreshadowing events to come. Through his desired love-making with Dickie, Maurice seeks to forget his pain over the loss of Clive, while simultaneously remembering the vitality of life through submitting to his baser passions. We also see here that Maurice’s transition into his self-imposed death is not as far gone as he would like to think: a spark of life (passion) remains within him that promises to save him from a hellish existence in the Undergloom.
As Maurice’s desire to conform rages on, we see a gradual transformation from life to death (symbolically). Though there is no significant discovery of physical changes during this process, Forster does punctuate the unnaturalness of his desire to belong (i.e. embracing heterosexuality) with a certain characteristics of physical vileness. In Maurice’s attempts to seduce Ms. Gladys Olcott, we see he is quickly thwarted, as the target of his false affections is repulsed by his pallor and cold, clammy hand (suggesting it be similar to that of a corpse). Moreover, as his appearance—while always athletic and healthy—does change from one reflecting the vigor and ruddiness of his pastoral origins to one that is sharp and refined like one of a city-dweller. Such a transformation
enlightens the reader that he has traversed from one part of Hades’ landscape to another. Though Maurice’s hometown is not immune to the social norms of the time, its rural environment is quite indicative of the internal qualities of its inhabitants: those of Nature, God, and goodness. Any deviation from this would indicate a swing in ones innate moral direction. No, the transformations that we see are primarily mental—spiritually, dare I say—as we see our main character rely less and less upon his desires and passions to live his life, deferring—instead—to the expectations of his station, which were set forth by family and society. This is best exemplified in his attempts to restructure his life after Clive by introducing a strict regimen of exercise and social appointments. We see less of Maurice in these soulless machinations than we do an animated corpse that acts without thought or reason, programmed by a force greater than him that operates outside the realm of his own spirit.
Transformations aren’t limited to those that are ultimately morbid. The introduction of Scutter into the plot, the Durham’s gamekeeper, heralds a re-kindling of passion (life) within Maurice. Though not evident at first, we are given a glimpse as to the potential of this relationship when we find Maurice and Scutter walking through the gardens of Penge, the Durham’s estate. Normally, a stretch of land that leans more towards decay and fruitlessness, we now see a verdant expanse of fertile abundance, punctuated by the overt symbolism of male sexuality—pollen— present in the air and on Maurice’s hair and clothes.
Through his love affair with Scutter, Maurice comes to grips with is internal conflict and self-loathing, realizing that he wants to feel and think independently from society’s dictates and live life, sexually and emotionally. Having tasted death and then life, again, his spirit is reawakened and is brought to place of reconciliation that prevents it from ever returning to the desolation of his past, regardless of the sacrifices that will be demanded. No longer wishing to live a life of indifference and quiet submission (in the Asphodel Meadows) nor one of torture and unnatural assimilation (in Tartarus), Maurice chooses happiness (in the Elysian Fields) through choosing freedom. Though this point in the plot would normally suggest a conclusion, we actually see a new level of alienation happening between Maurice (a gay man) and Clive (a—socially—straight man). Though there had always been distance between these two characters throughout their relationship (mostly due to Clive’s self-hatred) we now see a chasm formed by Maurice’s declaration of love for Scutter. Before, no matter how distant, these two were always comrades. Now, we see them speaking to each other from different planes of existence: Maurice from the verdant green of the Durham’s lawn (Heaven) and Clive from the cold stone balcony of his estate (Hell). This assumption is well supported in the original epilogue of the novel that never made the final publication of the book (but can be found in some modern editions), where we see Ada riding along a road with her husband. She sees two men in the woods, cutting lumber, feeling a familiarity with one but being unable to recognize it. In truth, she is looking upon Maurice (with Scutter); however, she cannot see clearly through the veils that separate their two worlds, indifference and happiness. Despite this “happy ending,” we are faced with an irony that brings the Forster’s message “full circle”. Even in the happiest of circumstances, where outcasts find fulfillment in life and love, they will remain eternally separated from the living (society) by a veil of alienation that can never be crossed: an underworld of society’s making (some might even say sanctioned by God). Ironically, “the living” are in some ways less alive—mentally and/or emotionally—than our main character is—socially. In a nutshell, life is Hell. Where one chooses to reside within its murky depths is entirely up to the individual.
So, Maurice remains—and always will—a piece of literature that I will always return to for personal nourishment. This book has captivated me for the singular reason that its soul—imbued by Forster’s own—speaks to mine. It is a rare occurrence, but there are times when spirits reach across time, speaking the same language, and connect. I see myself—or parts of myself, at least—between the book’s covers, understanding my aspects more and more—year after year—with the flip of every page.