” The sense of purity is a puzzling and at times a fearful thing. It seems so noble, and it starts as one with morality. But it is a dangerous guide, and can lead us away not only from what is gracious, but also from what is good. ” (15:149)
The Longest Journey, perhaps Forster’s most dramatic and passionate novel, follows the lame Rickie Elliot from Cambridge to a career as a struggling writer and then to a post as a schoolmaster, married to the unappetizing Agnes Pembroke. Born out of parents who were stuck in a loveless marriage, Rickie never fancies marrying. His physical deformity also adds to his qualm. Bookish and sensitive, and given to philosophical enthusiasm, Rickie is made for a life at Cambridge and eventually intelligentia—until he becomes entangled with Agnes, whom he consoles after her fiancé’s sudden death. Rickie’s abrupt engagement to Agnes marks the downfall of his idealism.
He is, of course, absurdly young—not twenty-one—and he will be engaged to be married at twenty-three. He has no knowledge of the world; for example, he thinks that if you do not want money you can give it to friends who do. He believes in humanity because he knows a dozen decent people. He believes in women because he had loved his mother. (7:66)
So naive and ignorant is Rickie, who takes a modest view of life and assumes the best of people. In Agnes he believes too hastily. From the comforts of Cambridge Rickie is dragged into the petty intrigues of Sawston, where Agnes’ brother, Herbert, has received an offer to be the head of a dormitory. He can only fill the post if Agnes and Rickie marry quickly and join him. So gone is Rickie’s ambition to become a writer, as he is suppressed by the dreary regimen of teaching. When his aunt lets slip the secret of a half-brother, Stephen Wonham, an illegitimate son of his mother and a man devoid of delicacy, manipulative Agnes tries to buy Stephen’s silence by giving him money. She contrives to shun the existence of Rickie’s brother, considering him something to be deeply ashamed of. In ridding him she is safe with the aunt’s inheritance. But her conventional hypocrisy has been more detrimental and far-reaching: she lies and abets Rickie to lie, she keeps him from the work that suits him, from his friends and from his brother. His moral sense is suffocated by her influence.
He moved forward—into what? He pretended to himself he would rather see his father before he answered; that it was easier to acknowledge him thus. But at the back of his soul he knew that the woman had conquered, and that he was moving forward to acknowledge her. (14:148)
In The Longest Journey, Forster, most stylistically daring ever, wields together words with such eloquence and wit. But the clarity of the story is never compromised. The narrative voice and Rickie’s voice are almost interchangeable, except that Rickie can only reflect and acquiesce on how he was better off to be left alone in his idealism. The novel, therefore, is one in which the protagonist is wiser at the start and degenerates from there, until he sees what he has lost, both as a writer and a man of refinement and sensitivity. The longest journey, of course, is the span of one’s life, or, in a metaphoric sense, the development, the enlightening, into one’s true self. For Rickie, it’s a success that he receives his vindication by arriving at moral clarity, but at the expense of his life.
309 pp. Vintage International Paperback. [Read/
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