Academic journal article ARIEL

Social Non-Conformists in Forster's Italy: Otherness and the Enlightened English Tourist

Academic journal article ARIEL

Social Non-Conformists in Forster's Italy: Otherness and the Enlightened English Tourist

Article excerpt

Abstract: Recent years have seen increasing attention to E. M. Forster's approach to issues of race and ethnicity, including how Forster's oeuvre advances problematic views of foreign cultures. Nevertheless, the criticism on Forster's Italian novels has lagged behind, with readers continuing to emphasize how Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Room with a View (1908) valorize Italian culture and undermine prejudiced assumptions of English cultural superiority. This article considers the portrayal of English social non-conformists in Forster's Italy, individuals whose interactions with Italian people and landscapes inspire them to develop new ways of approaching class and gender as well as nation and ethnicity. I reveal that while the Italian novels use this trope of the non-conformist to stress a foreign culture's power to generate reform at home, they also overemphasize the cultural difference that separates Italy from England, indulging in primitivist, patronizing depictions of Italian spaces and people. The novels also exhibit a problematic narrative impulse to sacrifice their Italian characters for the benefit of their Englishmen and Englishwomen, imagining the lives and especially the deaths of Italians as a tool for enlightening the English tourist. This discontinuity in Forster exemplifies the persistent essentialization of Italy in twentieth-century Anglo-American fiction.

Keywords: E. M. Forster, Italian culture, social non-conformity, ethnicity, tourism

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Attempts to categorize the work of E. M. Forster along ideological lines are inevitably frustrated by contrary inclinations within his oeuvre. There is a persisting--and understandable--temptation to extol Forster as uniquely humanist: as a progressive thinker and talent whose novels project an immanently wise vision of human identity and relationships. This received wisdom may encourage us to overlook the regressive aspects of Forster's approach to racial and class dynamics--or, as David Bradshaw recently phrased it, the reality that Forster "is less enlightened about race and class" than his work might overtly suggest (6). Fortunately, recent years have yielded a greater awareness of these pitfalls of reading Forster, generating critiques that more thoroughly acknowledge these discontinuities in his work. (1) Yet despite the momentum of the more critical discourse surrounding texts like Howards End and A Passage to India, readings of Forster's Italian novels lag behind. While rightfully noting Forster's internationalism and his social progressivism, readers rarely comment on the Italian novels' primitivist understanding of Italy, their dichotomous vision of the national character of England and Italy, or the way that this vision subtly reinforces England's central position within the global order. Meanwhile, particularly in his treatment of English social non-conformists in Italy, which will be my focus here, Forster advances characterizations of Italianness that are remarkably mixed in this way. If we hope to develop a fuller perspective on Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905) and A Room with a View (1908), we must recognize the contradictory valences of the Italian novels: the highly specific, externally shaped vision of difference that these texts project onto Italian spaces and the people who inhabit them, even in asserting the unique value of both.

Among those who actively consider questions of nationality and ethnicity in these texts, Forster's Italian novels are typically understood as a testament to the enlightening influence of the foreign culture of Italy. Forster's Italy, it is suggested, offers a fresh voice of authority that challenges the restrictive, misguided norms and values of the home country, moving Englishmen and Englishwomen to think and act in new and better ways through resistance to ethnic and class hierarchies and possibly even gender stereotypes. We are told that Forster uses his portraits of Italy to raise questions about England's supposed primacy within the global order, subverting the assumptions of a world in which "Latin" nations and ethnic groups are understood as inferior. …

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