Becoming Gay in E.M. Forster's 'Maurice.'

Article excerpt

The term "homosexuality" appears only twice in Maurice, both times in pronouncements by the psychiatrist Dr. Lasker Jones. Otherwise when the narrative requires that Maurice's sexual orientation be designated in some way, terminology from another, older discourse about sexuality is used, that of ecclesiastical and civil law, as when Maurice describes himself to Dr. Barry as "an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort" (159), a confession that Dr. Barry could discount because he "had read no scientific works on Maurice's subject" and thus believed that "only the most depraved could glance at Sodom" (160). Were Dr. Barry familiar enough with the contemporary medical/psychiatric literature to have known the term "homosexual," which had been introduced into English in 1892 through a translation of Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia sexualis (1887), he might have regarded Maurice's disclosure in another light, for "sodomy" designated acts that any sinner might commit from time to time, whereas in the voluminous scientific writing on sexual abnormalities in the nineteenth century, the "homosexual" had become a species of people (Foucault 43). By the time Maurice was composed, the creation of a new discourse about the "homosexual" had also brushed aside the nineteenth-century term "sexual inversion," which selected a reversal of gender roles as the defining feature of sexual pathology, and thus even more firmly established sexual preference as an identity - an identity, according to David M. Halperin, "polarized around a central opposition rigidly defined by the binary play of sameness and difference in the sexes of the sexual partners; people henceforward belonged to one or the other of two exclusive categories" (16).

This immensely influential reconceptualization also gave rise to "reverse" discourses, as Michel Foucault has called them (101), and to an extent Maurice is such a creation, a plea for the acceptance of homosexual desire as a "natural" condition. It is important to note, however, that unlike many "reverse" discourses, the novel does not fall into the trap of confirming the very legitimacy of the normative medical/psychiatric discourse that stigmatized homosexuals. Some of its characters prefer sex with partners of the same sex and some with partners of the opposite sex, but it does not represent homosexual desire as the essence of a timeless identity or homosexuality as one of two mutually exclusive sexual categories. Clive Durham accepts the first of these premises and most of the characters the latter, but Forster was too shrewd a psychologist not to recognize the inextricability of the two categories and his novel insistently undermines their opposition.

One challenge to the new taxonomy of sexual orientation emerges from the bits and pieces of information we are given about the relationship between Maurice and his father. In the first chapter the elder Hall is said to have "recently died of pneumonia" (11) when Maurice is fourteen and graduates from the same preparatory school that his father had attended twenty-five years before. Maurice's father must thus have become fatally ill at the relatively young age of thirty-nine or forty. In the next chapter we learn that at about the same time as his father's death Maurice experiences homoerotic longings for the garden boy, George. Forster does not explicitly advance a theory to explain why Maurice becomes homosexual, and one cannot plausibly invoke the misogynistic and homophobic cliche of post-world War II American psychiatry that he is the victim of an overly devoted mother and an absent father, for Maurice is not portrayed as a "mama's boy," emotionally close though he is to her as an adolescent. On the contrary, the novel emphasizes his masculinity - his fondness for sports, his indifference to aesthetics, his likeness to his father in manner as well as appearance. Indeed, the close temporal connection implied between the death of the elder Hall and Maurice's first inklings of his homosexuality suggests that Maurice might best be understood symbolically as his father's repressed Other, the sign of a fracture within the father that results in his illness and early demise. …