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literature

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Forster, E. M. (1879-1970)  
 
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The Achievement of Maurice

Forster's most concentrated novel, Maurice dramatizes in deeply felt human terms the most important recent conclusions of sexologists and psychologists--that homosexuality is a set of feelings, involving the connection and commitment one individual makes with another, and that such feelings predate sexual expression, sometimes by years--while placing this understanding in the concrete context of Edwardian England.

The social setting is important, for the novel explores the impact of self-awareness on social attitudes. As always in Forster, individual growth is measured in terms of sharpened insight into the nature of convention and repression.

Sponsor Message.

The first masterpiece of the early gay liberation movement, Maurice not only articulates the ideology of Uranianism but also mirrors a significant debate within the movement, enacting, as Robert K. Martin has demonstrated, a dialectic between the ideas and styles of Carpenter and Symonds.

Both disciples of Whitman, the two men equally deserve credit as pioneers in sexual reform, but their styles were quite different, and Maurice pivots on the contrast between them.

Symonds, who tended to be evasive and apologetic, implied the superiority of homosexuality to heterosexuality on the grounds that it was more spiritual; Carpenter, on the other hand, was more open and visionary, and insisted on the equality of the two emotions, considering neither to be more or less spiritual than the other.

And while Symonds isolated homosexuality as a private experience and minimized physical passion, Carpenter discreetly acknowledged the physical and linked homosexual emancipation with feminism, labor reform, and social democracy.

Rather than contrasting homosexuality and heterosexuality, Maurice juxtaposes these two conceptions of homosexuality.

Using a "double structure," the novel divides into two parallel sections, the action of each half mirroring the other with significant differences.

The first half (Parts One and Two) is devoted to the relationship between Maurice and Clive, his Cambridge classmate who initiates him into an elitist homosexuality based on distrust of the body and on a bookish Hellenism. This part of the novel traces a false vision of "superior" homosexuality that is platonized and sublimated in the manner of Symonds.

The second half of the novel (Parts Three and Four) is devoted to Maurice's alliance with Alec, the undergamekeeper on Clive's country estate. It tracks Maurice's salvation through a Carpenterian homosexuality that includes physical love and that leads Maurice to reject class barriers and social conventions.

Maurice's relationship with Clive, who is probably based on Forster's first love, H. O. Meredith, is fascinating and beautifully detailed, but it is only a necessary preliminary to the fuller relationship he ultimately achieves with Alec. Maurice finally comes to embrace the political consequences of homosexuality and to adopt the radical perspective on society conferred by the outlaw status of the homosexual in 1913.

Appropriately, the most significant literary influence on Forster's novel is the work of Oscar Wilde, England's most famous homosexual outlaw. More specifically, Wilde's letter from Reading Gaol, De Profundis, informs Maurice at every turn. The frequent echoes of Wilde's letter serve to incorporate it into the very texture of Forster's novel and to establish Wilde's martyrdom as the historical reality that all considerations of the social and political consequences of homosexuality must confront.

Wilde's insistence in De Profundis on the transcendent value of self-realization and on the redemptive potentiality of suffering shapes the development of Forster's protagonist. Moreover, Wilde's rejection of society and his expectation of solace in nature help explicate the retreat into the greenwood at the end of Maurice.

Like Wilde, Forster has little faith in social reform. Hence, at the end of the novel Maurice and Alec must utterly reject society, whose injustices they perceive as a result of their homosexuality.

But unlike Wilde's bitter pessimism, Forster's attitude is tempered by an optimistic belief in the value of personal relations. Maurice and Alec together accept England's air and sky as their birthright, facing the world unafraid, showing that "when two are gathered together majorities shall not triumph."

Their escape into the greenwood thus simultaneously renders a summary judgment against society and endorses the possibility of the flesh's educating the spirit, even in the midst of repression. The communion of flesh and spirit finally achieved by Alec and Maurice promises help in a universe in which "man has been created to feel pain and loneliness without help from heaven."

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