Commentary: The Longest Journey

Posted 5 May, 2012 by Li in Books / 0 Comments

The Longest Journey
By: E.M. Forster

Rickie Elliot, a sensitive and intelligent young man with an intense imagination and a certain amount of literary talent, sets out from Cambridge full of hopes to become a writer. But when his stories are not successful he decides instead to marry the beautiful but shallow Agnes, agreeing to abandon his writing and become a schoolmaster at a second-rate public school. Giving up his hopes and values for those of the conventional world, he sinks into a world of petty conformity and bitter disappointments.

I first read E.M. Forster’s The Longest Journey a few years ago amidst crazy papers, applications and tests. Before that, I had been eyeing this book for a long time; can’t remember exactly how I came across this title (apparently it’s the least-known of his novels yet his personal favourite) but the plot intrigued me. Because I never wrote a review post about this novel the first time around, the following entry is a mix of a review and a personal commentary about the book. So without further ado, contains some spoilers ahead!

This novel is about 200-something pages long, so it’s fairly short. The pivotal point of the novel focuses on Rickie and the journey that his character makes over the course of how many years. I think it’s a journey that many of us–if not all of us–can relate to in some degree, the idea that at the start the possibilities and the future are bright and hopeful. At the beginning of the novel we find that although Rickie is not a great orator or much of a talker (he was more of the quiet student in a seminar class), he felt at home in Cambridge. He could not imagine himself anywhere else; in such an environment he was able to flourish and express his love for poetry and art without feeling out of place. Yet undergrad does not last forever and early on the reader gains a glimpse of Rickie’s uncertainty of the future and what profession he plans on taking. In the end, he settles on writing as he was not a philosopher like his friend Mr. Ansell.

However things does not pan out for Rickie. No one would publish his writings and after becoming engaged to Agnes Pembroke, he settles to teaching classics at a school. The everyday routine coupled with Agnes’ growing insensitivity to his personal desires and insufferable mundane-ness forces Rickie to abandon his dreams and ambitions of writing and of his former life at Cambridge. To add to the injury, Rickie is acutely aware of his situation, of how life has lulled to a series of moment, of efforts to merely pass the time. Whatever love he and Agnes had for each other had faded away, his ideal vision of her fading away thanks to his acquaintance to the reality of his wife’s character, accentuating the dullness of his present life and his friend Mr. Ansell refuses to even write back to him. It’s sad to watch Rickie float along with the rest of Society, doing things because it was expected of him and being unable to truly express himself because no one around him can understand him. He feels locked in his situation with no alternative to fall back on, especially as he was now a married man and as a result of these decisions, Rickie effectively becomes a shadow of his former self. These are themes that have personally struck a chord with me, especially within the past few months, about leaving an institution you feel safe and free in and facing the harsh realities of life outside. Granted, the society in which Rickie lived in was far more strict on what was expected of him and what options were really available to him but it’s interesting to see that these themes of self and discovering one’s purpose in life is universal and applicable to anyone in any decade.

I’ve always enjoyed this novel more for Rickie’s personal journey and the themes that came along with it–harsh as they were–moreso than for the family drama storyline. That secondary storyline with Stephen always felt (to me) a bit more like a tack-on to prompt Rickie’s storyline along, which is weird because I think that was the original premise that was in Forster’s mind when he started writing this novel. It also moves a bit slower than the earlier segments of the novel, in part because Agnes’ insipidness would slip in. But this story about Stephen not only reflected the attitudes of the day about illegitimate children but also how far removed Rickie had become from his former self that he’s adopted some of the same attitudes as his wife and his brother-in-law. At the same time, this storyline works into Rickie’s redemption and the recapturing of some of his former spark so I guess I must overcome my initial feelings towards this storyline and accept it as part of the overall narrative =P

I should note that upon reading it the second time around, I realised that there’s no really sympathetic female character present in the novel. Mrs. Failing likes to troll people for entertainment purposes while Agnes ends up rather one-dimensional. The latter was especially strange because I never got a sense of any redeeming qualities on her part even after her marriage to Rickie becomes a one-note. In fact, I never quite understood why she accepted Rickie to begin with; early in the novel she merely thought of Rickie in terms of a child but then Forster enforces a time jump whereby the somehow grew closer after Gerald’s sudden death (in the typical Forster fashion). She seemed to have tried to accept Rickie’s unique personality and view on the world but in the end falls back on insipidness and shallowness; everyone who meets her also notes on her meanness and says nothing positive about her. In fact, a lot of the secondary characters remain rather one-note, symbolising a particular idea (in the case of Mr. Ansell), but otherwise reflecting no sense of complexity or other facets to their respective personalities. Since I was invested in Rickie’s story, I suppose I didn’t mind it so much; after all, Forster is big on symbolism in his novels.

Overall, The Longest Journey is a fascinating read and quite universal in some of the themes that it explores. It’s a pity that this novel is often overlooked because it’s just as observant and reflective as any of Forster’s other, more popular works. Granted, it can feel a little dreary at times because it looks at the sad and harsh realities of life and work and how easily it is to lose oneself along the way. If anything, Rickie’s journey serves as a reminder to never give up on your dreams and to never let anyone or Society dictate how you should view the world.

Finally, I do apologise if this entry seemed a little all over the place or sounded rather vague; I have far too many thoughts about this novel that it leaves me quite scatter-brained, jumping from one thought to the next =P

Rating: ★★★★½

Read E.M. Forster’s biography on Wikipedia || Order this book from the Book Depository

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