SEPT / OCT 2014: BY LIANNE M. BERNARDO
The Longest Journey is considered E.M. Forster’s least-known and, according to some, least-liked novel. Indeed, the story sounds simple and straightforward, following Rickie Elliot, an intelligent and sensitive young man whose ideas and dreams are cultivated in Cambridge as he encounters a myriad of challenges moving forward in life. The author himself wrote that it “is the least popular of my five novels but the one I am most glad to have written,” stating how the novel was closer “toward what was in my mind.” Indeed, in closer inspection, it is a deeply personal story about one character’s journey towards a state of self-actualization or revitalization of one’s life.
Scholars, along with E.M. Forster, have thought that the reason why this novel was not as popular as his other titles was because it was considered “dated.” While novels such as A Passage to India and A Room with a View contained themes and issues that were familiar and universal, the very structure of The Longest Journey was of a time period and of a particular English landscape that no longer existed. Coupled with the book’s more aesthetic and philosophical themes, it may seem inaccessible to some readers.
While there have been different analysis about what the book is truly about—from the autobiographical elements related to Forster’s personal life to the greater philosophical ideas discussed—the book can be simply approached as a coming-of-age story. The reader is introduced to Rickie in his Cambridge days, brimming with ideas encouraged by the university environment; he is able to express his ideas with like-minded colleagues and cultivate his love for poetry without feeling out of place. Despite this contentedness, he is also uncertain about the future, something that many young people can relate to.
Upon completion of his program, he sets out from Cambridge with the goal of becoming a writer. But things do not turn out as he planned as no one will publish his writings. Mean-while, he becomes engaged to Agnes Pembrooke, a young woman he knew growing up, and settles in to teaching classics at a school as a means to support their lifestyle. He thinks this new chapter in his life will improve things, that “the crown of life had been attained, the vague yearnings, the misread impulses, had found accomplishment at last” and that “never again must he feel lonely […] to undertake the longest journey.”
But over time, his everyday routine coupled with his wife’s growing insensitivity to his feelings and the losses that he experiences along the way leaves his life empty and mundane. His eventual abandonment of his ambitions to write leaves him feeling like “an outcast and a failure.” But these changes and sacrifices are not enough to change his life: whatever love he and Agnes had for each other fades away, along with his overall perception of his wife, and he finds himself unable to truly express himself because no one around him can understand him and what he’s thinking and feeling. While he “remained conscientious and decent […] the spiritual part of him proceeded to ruin.”
As bleak as his story seems, it is not wholly discouraging as Rickie manages to salvage something for himself despite everything he experienced. In meeting his half-brother, Stephen, he comes to a renewed understanding about life and relationships, and rediscovers a sense of fellowship with other people and with the world around him. It may not be the exact same sense of purpose and understanding he felt when he was in Cambridge, and it comes much later in his life and with a cost, but in the context of his experiences since, it leaves Rickie with a sense of contentedness and renewed purpose.
While sombre in tone, The Longest Journey rejoices in the human ability to find something meaningful despite the stress and discouragements of everyday living. It is a coming-of-age story, but it can also be considered as a cautionary tale about the perils of reconciling dreams with reality, and the challenges of ideas surviving out there in the real world. It also raises the question of whether or not one can ever truly balance the desires of the inner life with that of conventional desires. It is a solitary journey, riddled with challenges, but also with promise. ♥