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Reader’s Den

The Reader's Den: "A Room with a View" (Week 2) Discussion Questions

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E.M. Forster's 1908 novel, A Room with a View, is divided in to two parts: the first takes place in Florence, and the second in England. This week's questions will focus on part one, for those who are reading the book for the first time this month. I have read this book several times, and for me, it improves with each reading. Basically, I'm obsessed with both the book and the Merchant Ivory film adaptation, so please excuse my exuberance! I hope you are enjoying it as well, whether it is your first or your tenth read.

  • Several of Forster's works, like Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Passage to India, focus on the English traveling abroad. In reading the first part of A Room with a View, what allure do you think this subject held for Forster? Do you think he found it easier to show the cracks in English social hierarchies by presenting characters out of their elements?
  • Forster reportedly feared that A Room with a View  was overly sweet, and even dated, in 1908. How do you think it holds up in 2011? Do you find it could benefit from a little less positivity and maybe a bit more darkness?
  • The assortment of characters at the Pensione Bertolini have a little bit of everything — Mr. Beebe with his surprising views (for a clergyman), Eleanor Lavish who views herself as a radical who "revels in shaking off the trammels of respectability," and of course the Emersons. Do you think each character is meant to represent something specific in society?

The Ducal Palace, Florence., Digital ID 835835, New York Public Library

  • It is clear that something has passed between Lucy and George after the stabbing in the Piazza della Signoria — "It was not exactly that a man had died; something had happened to the living." Lucy doesn't seem to know exactly what it is, but avoids George until they are thrown together on the day trip to Fiesole and he kisses her. Were Charlotte not with her, how would Lucy have responded to so much intensity? Would she still have needed to escape from George by leaving for Rome or some other destination?

Please respond to these questions in the comments section below! You can also post your own questions or thoughts on characters, themes, or events that I have not touched on here. The next two weeks will have more posts, with more thoughts for discussion about the second section and conclusion of the book.


Comments

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English abroad

>what allure do you think [the English traveling abroad] held for Forster? Do you think he found it easier to show the cracks in English social hierarchies by presenting characters out of their elements?< The English travelers are like animals out of their native forest. All the traits that served to camouflage their social maneuvering suddenly stand out in high relief. This is particularly true of Miss Bartlett and Miss Lavish. Forster lets them expose themselves, standing by listening quietly, occasionally glancing over at one with a half-lifted brow at some particularly striking deformity. It is brilliant, but cruel. Sometimes I would have to put the book down. Forster also gets to be scathingly funny about tourists trying to improve themselves: " . . . Of course, it contained frescoes by Giotto, in the presence of whose tactile values she was capable of feeling what was proper. But who was to tell her which they were? She walked about disdainfully, unwilling to be enthusiastic over monuments of uncertain authorship or date. There was no one even to tell her which, of all the sepulchral slabs that paved the nave and transepts, was the one that was really beautiful, the one that had been most praised by Mr. Ruskin. Then the pernicious charm of Italy worked on her, and, instead of acquiring information, she began to be happy." That last sentence captures what he liked best about setting stories in other countries, I think. He appeared to believe that if people could get away from their native social constraints, they had a chance of spontaneous happiness and genuine personal relationships.

Social Constraints

I agree that Forster pushes the idea of attaining happiness by forgetting social constraints and living freely; It is a theme throughout the book. Eleanor Lavish is an interesting character, because she professes to live in this way, Forster depicts her in an undeniably unpleasant way. I think it is her lack of genuine feelings that causes this. There is something phony about all of her talk of adventures and doing away with Baedeker. Lucy, on the other hand, is phony in the way she hides her feelings for George, but not in her general attitude towards life. She is open, right from the beginning of the book, but she needs to move beyond caring what others expect of her.

Openness

Lucy's openness makes her susceptible to the Emersons, but also to Miss Bartlett and all the forces of convention and repression. The problem with openness is that anyone can get in. >Do you find [the book] could benefit from a little less positivity and maybe a bit more darkness?< Umm, kinda. There is, god knows, enough darkness in literature, and enough writers picking obsessively at sores. It is pleasant and essential to be reminded that the Spring fights back and that love wins some rounds. Forster glosses over a few points, though. First, Italians are not faintly comic nature spirits, and Italy not an Arcadia where love flourishes unfettered. Italian culture has its own set of conventions, some quite constraining. Evidently Edwardian middle-class English people were so ethnocentric that other cultures' rules were invisible to them, so that they felt free anywhere out of their own country. This was no doubt useful, but incorrect. Second, love is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for a good life. Suppose that Lucy wanted serious, engaging work? Suppose, say, she wanted to work at her music, studying and performing in a serious way? There doesn't seem to be any place at all for work in this novel, and the only woman who does work, Miss Lavish, the novelist, is not gently treated. The notion that women might want freedom for purposes other than love is introduced only as part of a disastrous error. But this is to say no more than that this is a love story and a comedy. It ends with a marriage. Forster went on to write Howard's End. He knew perfectly well that marriages aren't endings.

So true, marriages certainly

So true, marriages certainly aren't endings! True, Forster never touches seriously on what Lucy and George's lives and futures will really entail. Have you read "A View without a Room: Old friends fifty years later," a short essay Forster published in 1958? It's available through the New York Times database at the library, and gives a brief, funny description of what happens to the Honeychurches, The Emersons, and Cecil Vyse after the novel ends.

I read it. He cheats on her,

I read it. He cheats on her, the creature. Evidently all that impulsive kissing isn't just about her. It is a charming, slightly bleak, forecast. It could hardly help but be bleak. They had two world wars coming. I am having great trouble with your spam filter. It gives me nonsense phrases to transcribe, and then refuses to believe that I transcribed them. Or possibly I am unknowingly actually a spambot.

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