E.M. Forster on the Novel and Why Aristotle Was Wrong About Character

“Character,” says Aristotle, gives us qualities, but it is in actions—what we do—that we are happy or the reverse.” We have already decided that Aristotle is wrong and now we must face the consequences of disagreeing with him. “All human happiness and misery,” says Aristotle, “take the form of action.” We know better. We believe that happiness and misery exist in the secret life, which each of us leads privately and to which (in his characters) the novelist has access. And by the secret life we mean the life for which there is no external evidence, not, as is vulgarly supposed, that which is revealed by a chance word or sigh. A chance word or sigh are just as much evidence as a speech or a murder: the life they reveal ceases to be secret and enters the realm of action.

There is, however, no occasion to be hard on Aristotle. He had read few novels and no modern ones—the Odyssey but not Ulysses—he was by temperament apathetic to secrecy, and indeed regarded the human mind as a sort of tub from which everything can finally be extracted; and when he wrote the words quoted above he had in view the drama, where no doubt they hold true. In the drama all human happiness and misery does and must take the form of action. Otherwise its existence remains unknown, and this is the great difference between the drama and the novel.

The specialty of the novel is that the writer can talk about his characters as well as through them or can arrange for us to listen when they talk to themselves. He has access to self-communings, and from that level he can descend even deeper and peer into the subconscious. A man does not talk to himself quite truly—not even to himself; the happiness or misery that he secretly feels proceeds 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.

E.M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel. Forster’s magnificent treatise on the novel was published in 1927 and is compiled from a series of lectures he gave at Cambridge University.

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