Selected E. M. Forster quotations


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The following quotes are categorized by book, and sub-categorized, if applicable, by essay or story title. I am always adding new selections, so check back every few months. When the list gets too long, I'll figure out another way to sort the quotes.

Sources: So far I've included all of the EMF quotes in The International Thesaurus of Quotations, compiled by Rhoda Thomas Tripp, copyright © 1970 under the Perennial Library name from then-Harper & Row, Publishers. I've added a few more from other compilations and my personal favorites (mostly from Howards End and the other novels). If you have a favorite Forster quote that isn't here, feel free to suggest it. I'll credit you for your contribution.

Abinger Harvest (1936)

"The Consolations of History"

"It is pleasant to be transferred from an office where one is afraid of a sergeant-major into an office where one can intimidate generals, and perhaps this is why History is so attractive to the more timid among us. We can recover self-confidence by snubbing the dead."

"My Wood"

"Our life on earth is, and ought to be, material and carnal. But we have not yet learned to manage our materialism and carnality properly; they are still entangled with the desire for ownership."

"Roger Fry"

"Intuition attracts those who wish to be spiritual without any bother because it promises a heaven where the intuitions of others can be ignored."

"Joseph Conrad: A Note"

"Truth is a flower in whose neighbourhood others must wither."

"Our Diversions"

"Failure or success seem to have been allotted to men by their stars. But they retain the power of wriggling, of fighting with their star or against it, and in the whole universe the only really interesting movement is this wriggle."

"Liberty in England"

"The hungry and the homeless don't care about liberty any more than they care about cultural heritage. To pretend that they do care is cant."

"Notes on the English Character" (1920)

"The emotions may be endless. The more we express them, the more we may have to express."

"It is not that the Englishman can't feel -- it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even open his mouth too wide when he talks -- his pipe might fall out if he did."

"The Germans are called brutal, the Spanish cruel, the Americans superficial, and so on; but we are perfide Albion, the island of hypocrites, the people who have built up an Empire with a Bible in one hand, a pistol in the other, and financial concessions in both pockets. Is the charge true? I think it is."

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Aspects of the Novel (1927)

Chapter I: "Introductory"

"The final test for a novel will be our affection for it, as it is the test of our friends, and of anything else which we cannot define."

Chapter III: "People"

"Since the novelist is himself a human being, there is an affinity between him and his subject matter which is absent in many other forms of art. The historian is also linked, though, as we shall see, less intimately. The painter and sculptor need not be linked: that is to say they need not represent human beings unless they wish, no more need the poet, while the musician cannot represent them even if he wishes, without the help of a programme."

"The novelist, unlike many of his colleagues, makes up a number of word-masses roughly describing himself (roughly: niceties shall come later), gives them names and sex, assigns them plausible gestures, and causes them to speak by the use of inverted commas, and perhaps to behave consistently. These word-masses are his characters. They do not come thus coldly to his mind, they may be created in delirious excitement, still, their nature is conditioned by what he guesses about other people, and about himself, and is further modified by the other aspects of his work."

"Our final experience, like our first, is conjectural. We move between two darknesses."

Chapter V: "The Plot"

"A man does not talk to himself quite truly -- not even to himself; the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceed from causes that he cannot quite explain, because as soon as he raises them to the level of the explicable they lose their native quality."

"Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. 'The king died and then the queen died,' is a story. 'The king died, and then the queen died of grief' is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: 'The queen died, no one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.' This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story we say: 'And then?' If it is in a plot we ask: 'Why?' That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by 'And then--and then----' They can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also."
(Thanks to Octavia Randolph for suggesting this quote.)

"... beauty ought to look a little surprised: it is the emotion that best suits her face, as Botticelli knew when he painted her risen from the waves, between the winds and the flowers. The beauty who does not look surprised, who accepts her position as her due -- she reminds us too much of a prima donna."

"Another distinguished critic has agreed with [novelist André] Gide -- that old lady in the anecdote who was accused by her nieces of being illogical. For some time she could not be brought to understand what logic was, and when she grasped its true nature she was not so much angry as contemptuous. 'Logic! Good gracious! What rubbish!' she exclaimed. 'How can I tell what I think till I see what I say?' Her nieces, educated young women, thought she was passée; she was really more up to date than they were."

Chapter VI: "Fantasy"

"Ulysses ... is a dogged attempt to cover the universe with mud, an inverted Victorianism, an attempt to make crossness and dirt succeed where sweetness and light failed, a simplification of the human character in the interests of Hell."
-- Ulysses, of course, meaning James Joyce's novel.

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The Celestial Omnibus & Other Stories (1911)

"The Celestial Omnibus"

"I am the means and not the end. I am the food and not the life. Stand by yourself, as that boy has stood. I cannot save you. For poetry is a spirit; and they that would worship it must worship in spirit and in truth."

(Thanks to Partholon MacPharlain for submitting this quote.)

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Commonplace Book (1987 ed.)

"Dickens' characters are types, but his vitality causes them to vibrate a little, so that they borrow his life and appear to live their own. Mr Micawber, Pickwick, Mrs Jellaby, live, but not in the sense that we can turn them around and see new aspects."
-- From a 1926 entry. This idea appears later in chapter IV of Aspects of the Novel (1927).

"When one takes someone one loves to pay a call, one assumes that a great impression will be made for good or bad. It is surprising to learn from a fourth party that the visit was scarcely noticed."
-- From a 1932 entry.

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Howards End (1910)

"Railway termini ... are our gates to the glorious and the unknown. Through them we pass out into adventure and sunshine, to them, alas! we return."
-- Chapter 2.

"'Esprit de classe' -- if one may coin the phrase -- was strong in Mrs Munt. She sat quivering while a member of the lower orders deposited a metal funnel, a saucepan and a garden squirt beside the roll of oilcloth."
-- Chapter 3. This takes place during Aunt Juley's disastrous motor trip to Howards End with Charles.

" 'I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness.' "
-- Chapter 4. Helen recalling her stay at Howards End. Also, this marks the introduction of the recurring theme/phrase of "panic and emptiness."
(Thanks to Sarah Whittaker for suggesting this quote.)

"It will be generally admitted that Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man. All sorts and conditions are satisfied by it ..."
-- Chapter 5. This is the opening paragraph of the chapter, but for space's sake I won't type out the whole thing. It goes on and is a wonderful example of EMF's narrative skills; I'd say it's my absolute favorite EMF passage.

"Was Mrs Wilcox one of the unsatisfactory people -- there are many of them -- who dangle intimacy and then withdraw it? They evoke our interests and affections, and keep the life of the spirit dawdling round them. Then they withdraw. When physical passion is involved, there is a definite name for such behaviour -- flirting -- and if carried far enough it is punishable by law. But no law -- not public opinion even -- punishes those who coquette with friendship, thought the dull ache that they inflict, the sense of misdirected effort and exhaustion, may be as intolerable. Was she one of these?"
-- Chapter 10.

"A certain austerity of demeanour was best, and she added: 'I don't really want a Yuletide gift, though. In fact, I'd rather not. [...] Because I have odd ideas about Christmas. Because I have all that money can buy. I want more people, but no more things.'"
-- Chapter 10. Margaret replying to Mrs Wilcox.

"London was beginning to illuminate herself against the night. Electric lights sizzled and jagged in the main thoroughfares, gas lamps in the side-streets glimmered a canary gold or green. The sky was a crimson battlefield of spring, but London was not afraid. Her smoke mitigated the splendour, and the clouds down Oxford Street were a delicately painted ceiling, which adorned while it did not distract. She has never known the clear-cut armies of the purer air."
-- Chapter 14.

"I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It's one of the curses of London. I quite expect to end my life caring most for a place."
- Chapter 15. Margaret.

"Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him to the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion. Without it we are meaningless fragments, half monks, half beasts, unconnected arches that have never joined into a man. With it love is born, and alights on the highest curve, glowing against the gray, sober against the fire."
-- Chapter 22. "He" is Henry, "she" is Margaret.

"Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die."
-- Chapter 22. The "her" is Margaret. The "beast and the monk" refers to the text mentioned just above.

"There is certainly no rest for us on the earth. But there is happiness, and as Margaret descended the mound on her lover's arm she felt that she was having her share."
-- Chapter 26.

"In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect -- connect without bitterness until all men are brothers."
-- Chapter 33. Some of Margaret's ponderings.

"The present flowed by them like a stream. The tree rustled. It had made music before they were born, and would continue after their deaths, but its song was of the moment. The moment had passed. The tree rustled again. Their senses were sharpened, and they seemed to apprehend life. Life passed. The tree rustled again."
-- Chapter 41. "They" refers to Margaret and Helen; the scene takes place during what is supposed to be the final night they spent at Howards End. Aside from the more "famous" ones, this also ranks high on my list of favorite quotes from the novel.

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A Passage to India (1924)

"Ideas are fatal to caste."

"We must exclude someone from our gathering, or we shall be left with nothing."

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A Room with a View (1908)

"It is so difficult -- at least, I find it difficult -- to understand people who speak the truth."
-- Chapter 1. Mr Beebe.

"Over such trivialities as these many a valuable hour may slip away, and the traveller who has gone to Italy to study the tactile values of Giotto, or the corruption of the Papacy, may return remembering nothing but the blue sky and the men and women who live under it."
-- Chapter 2: "In Santa Croce with No Baedeker"

"It so happened that Lucy, who found daily life rather chaotic, entered a more solid world when she opened the piano. She was then no longer either deferential or patronizing; no longer either a rebel or a slave. The kingdom of music is not the kingdom of this world; it will accept those whom breeding and intellect and culture have alike rejected. The commonplace person begins to play, and shoots into the empyrean without effort, whilst we look up, marvelling how he has escaped us, and thinking how we could worship him and love him, would he but translate his visions into human words, and his experiences into human actions. Perhaps he cannot; certainly he does not, or does so very seldom."
-- Chapter 3: "Music, Violets, and the Letter 'S' "

" 'If Miss Honeychurch ever takes to live as she plays, it will be very exciting -- both for us and for her.' "
-- Chapter 3. Mr. Beebe's reaction to Lucy playing the piano.

" 'We cast a shadow on something wherever we stand.' "
-- Chapter 15. George Emerson.

" ' ''Life" wrote a friend of mine, "is a public performance on the violin, in which you must learn the instrument as you go along."' "
-- Chapter 19. Mr. Emerson (George's father).
(Thanks to Roy Sargeant for suggesting this quote.)

"He had a theory that musicians are incredibly complex, and know far less than other artists what they want and what they are; that they puzzle themselves as well as their friends; that their psychology is a modern development, and has not yet been understood."
-- Chapter 18: "Lying to Mr. Beebe, Mrs. Honeychurch, Freddy, and the Servants." The theory here belongs to Mr. Beebe.

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Two Cheers for Democracy (1951)


"[Tolerance] is just a makeshift, suitable for an overcrowded and overheated planet. It carries on when love gives out, and love generally gives out as soon as we move away from our home and our friends."

"Love is a great force in private life; it is indeed the greatest of all things; but love in public affairs does not work."


"Hardship is vanishing, but so is style, and the two are more closely connected than the present generation supposes."

"Anonymity: An Enquiry"

"A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself."

"What is wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse."

"The Raison d'Etre of Criticism in the Arts"

"Think before you speak is criticism's motto; speak before you think is creation's."

"The Tercentenary of the 'Areopagitica'"

"We are willing enough to praise freedom when she is safely tucked away in the past and cannot be a nuisance. In the present, amidst dangers whose outcome we cannot foresee, we get nervous about her, and admit censorship."

"A Book That Influenced Me"

"To make us feel small in the right way is a function of art; men can only make us feel small in the wrong way."

"The only books that influence us are those for which we are ready, and which have gone a little farther down our particular path than we have yet got ourselves."

"George and Gide"

"A humanist has four leading characteristics -- curiosity, a free mind, belief in good taste, and belief in the human race."

"What I Believe"

"Two Cheers for Democracy: one because it admits variety and two because it permits criticism. Two cheers are quite enough: there is no occasion to give three."

"There lies at the back of every creed something terrible and hard for which the worshipper may one day be required to suffer."

"An efficiency-regime cannot be run without a few heroes stuck about it to carry off the dullness -- much as plums have to be put into bad pudding to make it palatable."

"I distrust Great Men. They produce a desert of uniformity around them and often a pool of blood too, and I always feel a little man's pleasure when they come a cropper."

"Faith, to my mind, is a stiffening process, a sort of mental starch, which ought to be applied as sparingly as possible."

"Naked I came into this world, naked I shall go out of it. And a very good thing too, for it reminds me that I am naked under my shirt, whatever its colour."

"The people I respect most behave as if they were immortal and as if society was eternal."

"If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."

"One must be fond of people and trust them if one is not to make a mess of life."


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Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905)

"Mrs. Herriton did not proceed. She was not one to detect the hidden charms of Baedeker. Some of the information seemed to her unnecessary, all of it was dull. Whereas Philip could never read 'The view from the Rocca (small gratuity) is finest at sunset' without a catching at the heart."
-- Chapter 1. Forster explaining two attitudes toward reading Baedeker's "Central Italy" guide.

"Romance only dies with life. No pair of pincers will ever pull it out of us. But there is a spurious sentiment which cannot resist the unexpected and the incongruous and the grotesque. A touch will loosen it, and the sooner it goes from us the better."
-- Chapter 2.

"For a wonderful physical tie binds the parents to the children; and -- by some sad, strange irony -- it does not bind us children to our parents. For if it did, if we could answer their love not with gratitude but with equal love, life would lose much of its pathos and much of its squalor, and we might be wonderfully happy."
-- Chapter 7.

"Miss Abbott, don't worry over me. Some people are born not to do things. I'm one of them; I never did anything at school or at the Bar. [...] I never expect anything to happen now, and so I am never disappointed. You would be surprised to know what my great events are. Going to the theatre yesterday, talking to you now -- I don't suppose I shall ever meet anything greater. I seem fated to pass through the world without colliding with it or moving it -- and I'm sure I can't tell you whether the fate's good or evil. I don't die -- I don't fall in love. And if other people die or fall in love they always do it when I'm just not there. You are quite right; life to me is just a spectacle, which -- thank God, and thank Italy, and thank you -- is now more beautiful and heartening than it has ever been before."
-- Chapter 8. Philip.
(Thanks to E. I. Jenson for submitting this quote.)

" 'Gino is not ashamed of inconsistency. It is one of the many things I like him for.' "
-- Chapter 10. Philip Herriton's statement.

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