Among novels by Forster, The Longest Journey seems to have been the
least written about independently – not as part of the canon. There may be
a number of reasons for this.
Falling between Forster’s two more straightforward ‘Italian’ novels and
with its curious mix of philosophy and pastoral romance, The Longest Jour-
ney may have seemed slightly improbable. On the other hand, by contrast
with Howard’s End, Maurice or A Passage to India, it might have resisted
being fit into a comfortable mould – whether ‘humanist’ or ‘modernist’. It
is really neither, coming across more (in the words of David Medalie) as a
‘straddler of traditions.’
The truth is that The Longest Journey is situated – more significantly than
Where Angels Fear to Tread and A Room with a View – at the ‘fag end of
Victorianism’ and at the threshold of the ‘new’ era. Like To the Lighthouse,
it is humanist in impulse – something that is underscored by its aesthetic
and philosophical concerns – yet modernist in its resignation and despair.
The death of Rickie, like that of Mrs. Ramsay, points, for instance, to a fun-
damental anxiety in Forster’s, as in Woolf’s, text though the latter clearly
makes more of this.
Two critics – Rosenbaum and Forster’s biographer, Furbank – have grap-
pled with Forster’s novel more particularly than others. Unfortunately,
they view it largely as philosophy proper whereas what we seem to be looking
at is a partly Coleridgean theory of the imagination and an attempt to un-
derstand – more so than in Aspects of the Novel – what is entailed by fiction
and especially how, in relation to ‘reality’, fiction seems to work.
From the start, The Longest Journey raises questions about knowledge,
subjectivity and truth, as evinced, for instance, in the creative moment, and
relative to the imagination. We are shown, for example, how fiction has its
own symbolic – and mythical – reality and how that reality eventually takes
over. It is the interplay between that and given reality that makes the novel
as engaging as it actually is.
The narrative opens in the early 1900s to an earnest discussion between
some Cambridge undergraduates on the issue of cognition and reality. In a
smoke-filled room, Ansell is heard to say, ‘The cow is there.’ And a voice –
Tillyard ‘s – petulantly observes, ‘You have not proved it.’
It is almost as if we were witness to a youthful Locke and an equally young
Berkeley (Furbank is quite right about the latter rather than G. E. Moore
being in question) sparring with each other in what turns out to be a fairly
complex philosophical debate. The former believed in a reality independ-
ent of the mind whereas the latter held that a material world did not ex-
ist except subjectively: through individual perception. Locke subscribed
to certain ‘secondary’ qualities which confer autonomy on objects in the
world. Esse est percipi was, on the other hand, the axiom that underlay
The question of the reality of the ‘cow’ remains unresolved till the end of
the novel. From the start, Rickie, the protagonist appears to view it as in-
trinsically ambivalent. If the ‘cow’ is ‘there’, it must also be present to the
‘vitalizing’ imagination. The line between fantasy and reality is, to Rickie,
‘subtler than we admit’. Even in a ‘cowless’ world, one only has to ‘peep
into a field and click!’ And ‘it would become radiant with bovine life.’
The comment is on Rickie – and fiction. Factuality may have its impera-
tives and guests get invited and be left thoughtlessly unmet at a provincial
railway station, but to Rickie, the life of the mind with its imaginary cows
– ‘plashed knee-deep by the brink of impassable rivers’ – takes precedence.
So does poetry, as does the ‘dell’ where he takes his friends and is prevailed
upon to tell them – and us – his ‘history’. It will, he points out, referring to
the ready camaraderie of university life, ‘never come so easy again.’
The question of the ‘cow’ is implicitly visited in Ricky’s account of his
childhood which takes in, with terse irony, his hereditary lameness, his
oedipal love for his mother and revulsion for his father, the incompatibility
of his parents and their almost simultaneous deaths. Death is seen to erase
the fine line between reality and its other. Given the reality of death, how
much, the text seems to ask, can we actually claim to know?
As in A Room with a View, life is seen as tenuous and fragile. It is interfused
with disease and death and is, therefore, at some level, necessarily a fiction.
It is as real – or mythical – as Tillyard’s ‘cow’. Since Berkeley’s percipient
self is there one moment and gone the next, the question of cognition – and,
with it, reality – appears, as in A Passage to India, to be a terrifying enigma.
Our sense of epistemological doubt is intensified when the athletic Gerald,
with his splendid Greek god’s figure, having been glimpsed by Rickie in
an epiphanic, embrace with his fiancée, Agnes, suddenly and inexplicably
dies after a football match.
The event is reported in devastating telegraphese. From this moment on
– one that seems modernist in embodying the idea of to kalon or classical
(‘Praxitelean’) beauty destroyed – Rickie is condemned to be a voyeur.
This is also the position – or so (given Rickie’s involvement with writing)
Forster seems to suggest – of the artist in the late Victorian or Edwardian
era. We find ourselves in face of what Forster refers to in Aspects of the
Novel (quoting from Nietzsche) as one of those ‘formidable erosions of
contour’ or equally pertinently – prior to Joyce – a crisis of meaning.
In a chilling moment, Agnes sits equably, unable to take in quite what has
happened. Persuaded by Rickie to confront the shocking reality of Gerald’s
death, she is reduced to tears – and to kissing Gerald’s ‘footprints’. There
is a further irony along with a redoubled sense of unreality. The ‘footprints’
crumple up and are replaced by the marks of Agnes’s lips. Gerald comes
across as what he really is: somehow de trop or an insubstantial and ex-
expendable character in an otherwise ‘realistic’ fiction.
The line between imagination and reality, fiction and life, is indeed fine.
We sense this in what Rickie says to Agnes about Gerald. ‘He is in heaven.
The greatest thing is over.’ Agnes takes the words literally. She perceives
Gerald as partaking of ‘immortality’ as a sort of transcendent substance.
But for Rickie, it is not quite so simple. ‘Heaven’, to Rickie, has a merely
posterior significance, following in the wake of the great event (as in A
Room with a View) of life. At the same time, it is also partly a place where
humans like Gerald, turned gods – equally resented and glorified – reside.
Oddly ambiguous, the moment is one of confusion and terror, combining
an intuition of both myth and reality. Double entendre and paradox are, of
course, among Forster’s strong points.
To Rickie, ugly as well as lame – like Hephaestus – there is a mysterious
radiance about the former lovers who are momentarily seen as English ver-
sions of Ares and Aphrodite. Discarding the myth of Gerald (or the sense
that ‘just where he began to be beautiful, the clothes started’), Rickie settles
for the more or less desirable reality of Agnes with whom he suddenly, and
voyeuristically, falls in love, not through desire but through the second of
the two ways prescribed: the imagination. She is perceived, though a little
distantly, as beautiful. Over the course of time, that proves to be a delusion.
She turns out, after marriage, to be manipulative and money-minded. Rick-
ie is all but taken over by Agnes and her brother. He fits involuntarily into
their scheme of things, typified by an ‘esprit de corps’, and gradually loses
his grip on ‘reality’. His life as classics teacher at Dunswood is shown to be
somehow literal and humdrum and lacking in meaning. So though we are
not told in so many words, the ‘cow’, with its rich mix of myth and reality,
for a while, disappears.
In other words, to be meaningful and real, life, to Rickie, must possess
some of the qualities of art. It must be lived like – and afford the experience
of – something precisely like a fiction. At times the ‘cow’, which allows for
such an experience, is there though at other times, during certain twilight
intervals, it is mystifyingly absent.
… all that changed was the cloud of unreality, which ever brood-
ed a little more densely than before. He spoke to his wife about
this … and she was alarmed, and wanted him to see a doctor. But
he explained that it was nothing of practical importance … noth-
ing more than a feeling that the cow was not really there.
However, it is present, for instance, when Rickie learns from his aunt, Mrs.
Failing, in a moment of horror and fascination – and truth – that Stephen
Womham is in fact his illegitimate half-brother. Later, quoting Rickie back
to him, Agnes, fearing a loss of control over her lover, says, with character-
istic guile, ‘and by the by, what you call the “symbolic moment” is over.’
Her aim is to ensure that Rickie does not have a life or access to a mean-
ing from which she is excluded. The new dramatic ‘reality’ in the shape of
Stephen, Rickie’s ‘other’, has to be kept at bay. Somewhere the reason is
that Agnes herself stands on the more literal and manageably mundane side
of life. So the ‘symbolic moment’ has to be pre-empted. Myth cannot be
allowed to enter her lover’s world.
She feels threatened by the possibility of poetry or otherness around him.
This, she feels, is his great weakness. It constitutes, in her eyes, a negation
of the male. It is, to her, Rickie’s fatal flaw. It is only later that we discover
that Stephen also represents an obstacle in the way of Agnes’s material ends.
However, Stephen does not let go. He remains part of Rickie’s – and Ag-
nes’s – world. In fact, he forces himself – and his reality – on them, espe-
cially Rickie. But it is Ansell who reveals the actual truth about Stephen
Please correct two slight mistakes: firstly, Stephen is one of the
greatest people I have ever met; secondly, he’s not your father’s
son. He’s the son of your mother.
The brick that comes crashing through the window at Dunwood House is a
metaphor for Stephen’s peculiar reality. The sheer power of what is a sort
of signature compels and will not be brushed aside. It is linked to Rickie’s
memory of his mother and will not allow him to dismiss it – as he earlier
does – imagining Stephen to be his paternal half-brother.
Unlike the thoughtful but malformed Rickie, there is a rough heroic dimen-
sion to Stephen. The product of an illicit union, he belongs to a ‘romantic’
tradition. Brought up in Cadford by Rickie’s eccentric aunt, Mrs. Failing,
he is portrayed as wiflul and slightly wild with – like his farmer-father – a
touch of the fields about him.
‘Get away, bad dog!’ screamed the lady, for he had given him-
self a shake and spattered her dress with water. He was a power-
ful boy of twenty, admirably muscular but rather too broad for
his height. People called him ‘Podge’ until they were dissuaded.
Then they called him ‘Stephen’ or ‘Mr. Womham’. Then he said,
‘You can call me Podge if you like.’
The son of her dead sister-in-law, Stephen has no blood tie with Mrs. Fail-
ing. He has no home: he does not ‘belong’ as such. And, in spite of having
‘a narrow but not uninteresting mind’, he has no education to speak of.
Mrs. Failing sees him as reading ‘like a poor person, with lips apart, and a
finger that followed the print.’
The contrast to the intellectually evolved, short story-writing Rickie is ap-
parent. It is a contrast that is elaborately drawn but largely ignored by crit-
ics. However, it helps us understand the statement the novel seems to be
making. Rickie is anaemic and introspective. Stephen, on the contrary, is
characterized by freedom, physicality and bravado. Unlike Rickie who
is a creature of the indoors, Stephen has something of the picaresque about
him. He is seen as happiest in the open or when with people, whether drink-
ing beer or, for instance, in bouts with Fleance Thomson or a barely known
soldier, though a ‘gentleman’, throwing or being thrown.
Rickie may dabble in fiction but Stephen is straight out of fiction. ‘Reality’
does not unnerve Stephen. As we see, he does not shrink from manual la-
bour when turned out by Mrs. Failing with a few Canadian dollars in hand.
She refers to him as a ‘philosopher’ but in fact – ‘Renan minus the style,
Darwin minus the modesty’ – he has the grit and know-how of a survivor.
One gets a sense that, with Stephen – a doer rather than thinker or the
defiant other of philosophy – fiction in The Longest Journey somehow
suddenly comes into its own. This happens, more notably, when, midway
through the prescribed ride with Rickie, Stephen strikes out on his own to
Salisbury and we see him as not just free of Rickie but equally Mrs. Failing.
For a while, the humanist narrative is seen to break down, giving way to
Stephen’s parallel narrative, making way for what comes across later as a
sort of metafictional switch or exchange.
Rickie, it becomes clear, is not in the heroic tradition. To him, it is ‘Stephen
who could fight till he died.’ It is Stephen who ‘was a hero’. Rickie himself
can never be other than – like Hamlet – a voyeur and anti-hero. Philo-
sophical thought and lyrical dells – or a miserable childhood – are simply
not of the stuff that can properly be associated with a bonfide protagonist.
So there is a curious poetic justice (and a hint of ‘natural selection’) about
the fact that, ‘frank, proud and beautiful’, Stephen should be allowed to live
and that Rickie, on the other hand, should die, while trying to save him,
drunk and sodden, on the ‘Roman crossing’, near Cadover. As at the death
of Gerald, we experience a sense of quiet shock when we learn that the
wheels of the train have passed, with something like the force of destiny,
over Rickie’s knees.
The manoeuvre is dexterously performed. Moments before Rickie’s ac-
cident, we are told, with subtle irony – in words that recall the discrimina-
tions of Mrs. Failing – that he knew the ‘conventions would claim him
soon’. This constitutes, as when Gerald dies, a further modernist moment
albeit characterized by a peculiar apathy. It may not be excessive here to
see a possible echo of Hamlet where, humanism having failed, the time is
seen to have come for a weighing of the odds and the moment of the foils is
at hand. Like the narrative of Hamlet, that of Rickie too can go no further.
Like Hamlet, Rickie is in a state of readiness. There is, as in Shakespeare’s
play, a sense of fate and déjà vu.
At the end of this … detour his wife awaited him, not less surely
because she was only his wife in name. He was too weak. Books
and friends were not enough. Little by little she would claim him
and corrupt him and make him what he had been; and the woman
he loved would die out … She would not continue … The stream
– he was above it now – meant nothing, though it burst from the
pure turf and ran for ever to the sea. The bather, the shoulders of
Orion – they all meant nothing, and were going nowhere. The
whole affair was a ridiculous dream.
However, Rickie is, of course, not Hamlet. He is far too ordinary and non-
descript. He lacks Hamlet’s grandeur but possesses his own poignant aura.
According to Mrs. Failing, in what is a sort of epitaph, Rickie is ‘one who
failed in all he undertook; one of the thousands whose dust returns to the
dust, accomplishing nothing in the interval.’ Having, quasi-heroically,
saved his brother, Rickie is aware that it is ‘also a man’s duty to save his
own life’. He tries but fails and, at the end, in a moment that is pithy and
cryptic and tellingly resists dramatic effect, remarks to Mrs. Failing, ‘You
have been right.’
Meanwhile, there has been a providential ‘switch’. Stephen is seen to be
actively involved in the posthumous publication of Rickie’s work. A new
reality has finally taken over. We are pointed, as later in Joyce and, to some
extent, Woolf, to a novel landmark: the fictionality of fiction.
Though it may lack the timeless sweep of A Passage to India, The Long-
est Journey is still a big moment. Not only does it prefigure Forster’s chef
d’oeuvre but it also alerts us to what Leavis terms his ‘real and very fine
distinction’ and the profound questions about art which, despite being de-
terminedly low-key and urbane, this work raises.