Sunday, March 7, 2010

An Interpretation of the “Greenwood”: A Social and Economic Utopia

E.M. Forster’s revolutionary novel, Maurice, was started in 1913, and the masterpiece was completed a year later in 1914. Being “dedicated to a happier year”, the novel was not published until after Forster’s death in 1971. With homosexuality being classified by many as a disease, crime, and/or a congenital variation, Forster pushed the envelope by developing a novel in which same-sex love resulted in a happy ending. Today, the novel is still regarded as one of the first reverse discourses on homosexuality in which same-sex love was portrayed in a positive light. Since homosexual relations were considered unlawful and taboo in British society at this time, the novel concludes with Maurice and Alec retreating into the “greenwood,” where they could finally escape the homophobic restrictions of society. Forster created these characters after the real -life couple of Edward Carpenter and George Merrill, who also retreated into a rural area in order to live a life without societal constraints. Many critics of Forster’s work argue that homophobia caused Maurice and Alec to retreat into the “greenwood.” However, by taking into account the social class tensions displayed throughout the novel, it is easy to see that the “greenwood” not only ended social pressures (i.e. homosexual restrictions), but it also served as a economic utopia in which the rigid class structure of British society vanished. Ultimately, the rigid class lines, as well as the homophobic social order, cause both of these “couples” to move into the “greenwood” in order to break free of civilization and truly live without feeling restricted because of the judgment of others. The role of class-consciousness in this text as well as sexual “norms” are used as a way to depict the pressures of British society; this immensely impacts their decisions to create a new life outside of British society’s boundaries. The significance of social class structure can be seen throughout the novel in various, subtle forms.

Maurice’s social class identity can be seen in assorted aspects of his life, and this is important to focus on since these small clues will later infer the reasons for why he chooses to escape to the “greenwood.” In the novel, Maurice attends preparatory school, and he is given private “life” lessons by his teachers outside of the classroom. For instance, after Mr. Ducie explains sex to him, Maurice responds by saying, “I think I shall not marry” (Forster 15). The fact that he attends private schools and has individual interaction with his teacher indicates his middle-class status. Due to his economic upbringing and preparatory schooling, Maurice believes his homosexual attractions are rare and unique only to him since the hierarchical society seems to silence others with these tendencies (Harned 59). This later foreshadows the idea that if society silences homosexuals, the only way to be yourself is by leaving these rigidly- constructed preconditions behind. Also, Forster describes Maurice’s home as “a comfortable villa among some pines” (16). This is another line of the novel that paints a picture of a privileged and comfortable life. Similarly, the interactions with Dr. Barry show that the Hall family presides in the same neighborhood as highly educated and presumably wealthy individuals. Dr. Barry also presents the clue that Maurice’s deceased father worked in the Stock Exchange hinting to the family’s economic status (Forster 26). Another important point to identify is that after arriving home, Maurice questions where George, the Hall’s young servant, went (Forster 17). Later while thinking of George’s departure, Maurice refers to him as “just a common servant” in which he deemed his family as far more important (Forster 20). This statement illustrates that since George was of a lower class his presence is missed, but he is easily disposed of because of societal norms. However, his sexual attraction to George reemerges in a dream Maurice has while attending Sunnington (Forster 22). This dream demonstrates that Maurice continues to long for George in a sexual way, and he may be willing to break free from society in order to make this dream a reality. This is an early link to Maurice and Alec’s relationship of pursing their homosexual fantasies in a safe-space away from societal concerns about same-sex love and social statues. After graduation, Maurice went on to study at Cambridge in which prestige and social class could be seen in their clearest form. At this time, his homosexual feelings are reciprocated by his schoolmate, Clive Durham. In terms of class consciousness, Clive represents an elite branch of society in which group acceptance is typically more important than happiness. At the end of the novel, when Maurice informs Clive about his relationship with Alec, Clive becomes angry and wants to respond violently. However, Clive refrains from the use of violence because he considers them “Cambridge men…pillars of society”; it would be “wrong” for him to respond in such a manner (Forster 243). These subtle clues found intertwined in the text expose the reality that class issues are important to note as a reason for Alec and Maurice’s departure into their own equalitarian society.

From the beginning of their relationship, it is evident that class distinction would try to separate Maurice and Alec since they belonged to two different strata in the social sphere. Later, they would have to flee from not only homophobia, but they would also have to escape rigid class barriers in order for their relationship to flourish. Maurice meets Alec while visiting Clive’s home in Penge, and he works for the Durham family as their gamekeeper. Forster intentionally refers to Alec as “Scudder,” his last name, until Maurice finally asks him his “other” name after their first night of passion (195). By referring to Maurice and Clive by their first names and Alec by his last name only, Forster emphasizes the differences in their social statuses. Not only would the homosexuality challenge society’s conception of if they belonged together, but Alec and Maurice would also have to break through the social astrosphere in which their class differences also opposed the normality of most class structured relationships. Another significant scene shows Maurice starting to feel guilty over having to pay for Alec’s affection (Harned 64). This is a normal interaction since Alec is of working class, and Maurice is an affluent guest of the elite Durhams. However, this is a complication that class distinction facilitates in their relationship. This also leads to Maurice becoming paranoid as he begins to question Alec’s intention because of the economic element of mistrust (Centola 60-61). Would Alec expose Maurice’s homosexual tendencies in order to blackmail him for a monetary subsidy? This paranoia does not persist, but it does create some tension due to British society’s constructed roles of working class and educated, middle class individuals. In relation to class importance, critics claim that Alec is “fighting against the forces of the bourgeois conformity for Maurice’s very soul” (Quince 110). Not only was Alec fighting homophobia, but he was also trying to free Maurice from the class sanctions on their relationship. Thus, it is evident that these underlying class issues plague Maurice and Alec’s relationship without even mention of their homosexuality.

With the significance of class consciousness throughout the text noted previously, it is important now to see why economic constructs along with social structures provide the foundation for why Alec and Maurice and their real life counterparts Edward Carpenter and George Merrill choose to life outside of society’s norms. According to critic Don Gorton, the quote “outside class and without relations or money” was used as a way to show how the real-life relationship of Edward Carpenter and George Merrill succeeded in the rural Derbyshire (20). Carpenter was a “proto gay activist” and his partner, George Merrill, was part of Britain’s working class, and they were the inspiration for the characters of Maurice and Alec (Gorton 20). Thus, it is imperative for Alec and Maurice to overcome their class differences in order for their relationship to thrive. This was difficult due to the “suffocating English class system” in which homosexuality provided an escape to happiness (Gorton 20). As Carpenter and Merrill decided to live in the rural Derbyshire where class distinctions did not affect their love for one another, Forster portrayed these realistic events in the end of the novel. Maurice and Alec leave their former lives behind in order to retreat into the “greenwood” in which their physical and emotional relationship could not be bothered by what society deemed as “normal”. Therefore, Carpenter and Merrill’s relationship illustrates that a major reason to live outside of society’s pressures was due to the rigid class structure in Great Britain. Forster uses their experience as a way to end the novel in a happy way suggesting that Maurice and Alec were able to leave behind the binding and hierarchal structure of civilization. Not only were these couples escaping homophobic tendencies, but also, they yearned for a socialist atmosphere in which equality prevailed.

On the surface, as many critics discuss, the reason for Alec and Maurice’s retreat into the “greenwood” is not just due to the homophobia of society. Another underlying issue in the text is the class-consciousness seen in every aspect of the book. From the notoriety of a prestigious Cambridge education to the intentional usage of “Scudder” when referring to Alec, E.M. Forster provides a strong undercurrent of clues supporting the idea that the rigid economic structure of British society was a key reason causing the men to give up everything in order to find happiness in each other. Forster used Edward Carpenter and George Merrill’s relationship as a template for which to provide a happy ending to the novel. This real life couple lived a rural area in order to avoid societal concerns about inter-class love as well as homosexuality. This successful precedent allowed Forster to depict Maurice and Alec retreating into the “greenwood.” As the text shows, class is a very important element that shapes their decision to leave everything behind for happiness. It is not enough to say that homosexuality is the sole cause for their departure, but yet class- consciousness is another reason for them to create their social and economic utopia in the “greenwood.” This was a place where socialism prevailed and differences vanished. Their decision to retreat into the “greenwood” is limited without taking note of the economic pressures presented when they decide to cross class lines.

**Works Cited available upon request!
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