Thursday, 23 August 2012
An Interpretation of E. M. Forster's A Room with a View
by Rob Doll
At the beginning of A Room with a View, when he overhears Lucy Honeychurch and Miss Bartlett complaining that they did not get the rooms with views they had been promised in the Pension Bertolini, another guest interrupts, saying, "I have a view, I have a view. . . . This is my son . . . his name's George. He has a view , too." Mr. Emerson is speaking of their views of the river, but the Forsterian text has a double meaning. The Emersons' view has to do with more than the quality of their accommodations; they have what for Forster is a superior view of life. This philosophical view which the Emersons offer and which Lucy eventually accepts, is implied in the literal view that the Emersons relinquish with their room: It was pleasant .
. . to lean out into sunshine with beautiful hills and trees and marble churches opposite, and, close below, Arno, gurgling against the embankment of the road. Over the river men were at work. . . . Platforms were overflowing with Italians. . . . Then soldiers appeared . . . Beside them walked officers . . . and before them went little boys.
The literal view, then, is of monuments and scenery and of the Italian people who live amidst these things under the Italian sun. The average middle-class English person who looks out this window appreciates the scenery and disdains the people. Only the unconventional Mr. Emerson treats the Italians equally as human beings and sees that they possess the unencumbered emotion, the lack of which makes the English incomplete. In Chapter Five, "Possibilities of a Pleasant Outing," Mr. Eager, the resident English chaplain, praises a view that select Bertolini tourists could see from the hills on the way to Fiesole--a "view that Alessio Baldovinetti is fond of introducing into his pictures." Mr. Eager's connections with the English residential colony also allow the possibility of having tea at a Renaissance villa with one of those Englishmen who, "living in delicate seclusion, . . . read, wrote, studied, and exchanged ideas, thus attaining to that intimate knowledge, or rather perception, of Florence which is denied to all who carry in their pockets the coupons of Cook." Of course, these people do not have an "intimate" perception of Italy at all; for they, like the inferior tourists of the Bertolini, see only a part of what Italy is; their "delicate seclusion" keeps them from the hearty reality of the Italian people. Mr. Eager, commenting on the murder the previous day in the Piazza Signoria, reveals his affinity with these privileged ones:
This very square--so I am told--witnessed yesterday the most sordid of tragedies. To one who loves the Florence of Dante and Savonarola there is something portentous in such desecration--portentous and humiliating.
The irony is obvious. The Italy of Dante and Savonarola was full of passion and murder; the very spirit that engendered Renaissance high culture produced violence like that Mr. Eager deplores. In the novel Italy represents the proper balance between intellect and emotion, between culture and simple humanity. This balance was presented in Where Angels Fear to Tread in the scene at the opera. At one point in A Room with a View Mr. Emerson says that love is "not the body, but of the body." Equally, its culture is not Italy, but of Italy. This is the broader view that Mr. Emerson has and that Lucy eventually acquires. Both of them appreciate the art and the scenery of Italy, but they also love the people and share their emotional life.
In Chapter Six the tourists go on the drive they had planned the day before: "The Reverend Arthur Beebe, . . . [etc.], Drive out in Carriages to See a View: Italians Drive them." They do not, however, go for tea at a villa, because Mr. Eager would be mortified to introduce the improper Emersons to the Florentine elite. When the Italian driver brings his girl along for the ride, the English are confronted with the side of Italy they usually manage to ignore. The two lovers "were sporting disgracefully" behind the backs of Miss Bartlett and Mr. Eager, who is busy pointing out a villa in which some critics believe a scene from The Decameron was set. Of course many of the goings on in Boccaccio's work make the sporting of the driver and his girl friend seem pale. When the driver pays more attention to his girl than to his driving, the carriage lurches forward and Mr. Eager turns to find the Italians kissing. Although Mr. Emerson defends them, Mr. Eager makes the girl get down and declares, "Victory at last." Mr. Emerson, with his comprehensive vision, replies, "It is not victory. . . . It is defeat. You have parted two people who were happy." Lucy remains silent, but she envies the Italians their bliss, for the previous day she had had an experience that began to awaken her to the Emerson view.
The day before, on the way home from a shop where she had bought a photograph of Botticelli's "Birth of Venus," Lucy entered the Piazza Signoria thinking, "Nothing ever happens to me." The Piazza is beautiful in the twilight of evening, but:
Lucy desired more. She fixed her eyes wistfully on the tower of the palace which rose out of the lower darkness like a pillar of roughened gold. It seemed no longer a tower, no longer supported by earth, but some unattainable treasure throbbing in the tranquil sky. Its brightness mesmerized her, still dancing before her eyes when she bent them to the ground and started towards home. Then something did happen.
Lucy wants sexual fulfilment. She has bought the photo of Venus in spite of Charlotte Bartlett's declaring the nakedness a "pity." And with that symbol of the exposed female she walks into the shadow of the male tower. Lucy faints at the sight of the blood splattered about in the stabbing and she awakes in the arms of George Emerson: an Italian dies and English people are born into love. In the course of the murder Lucy's photograph of the naked Venus has been stained with blood; symbolically, Lucy has lost her virginity. Her tourist souvenir--and her socially conditioned response to Italy--have come into contact with the real Italy. This "symbolic moment" does not result in immediate change in Lucy's life, but a seed has been planted. It takes the last three-quarters of the novel to work out in social terms the marriage that has been symbolically consummated here. ...