Maurice is said to be Forster’s homage to same-sex love. It is so. Belonging to the same lot, Forster must have felt a strong need to express himself through fiction. When he wrote it in the early part of the 20th century, the time was not ripe for its publication. Same-sex love was an offense in England, in which criminal charges can be brought, so Forster had to wait till a better time. It never came during his lifetime, although homosexuality was legalized in England by the end of the 1960s. And though the book was published posthumously, Maurice will remain an important work of Forster and gay literature.
The novel isn’t autobiographical. Forster stresses that. He says that he wanted to make his main character, Maurice, so unlike him – “someone handsome, healthy, bodily attractive, mentally torpid, … and rather a snob”. But the emotions are his. You can feel that in every sentence.
The story is focused on Maurice and his awakening to his own sexuality. Maurice doesn’t understand his own nature until he was “shocked” into finding the truth about him through his Cambridge friend, Clive. Theirs was a platonic relationship, however, and this continues for few years. But even during this time, they both are aware of their precarious situation. Both young men, out of Cambridge, are expected to carry on the torch that is handed over to them. They are expected to marry and contribute to the next generation. Forster writes about Maurice: “The thought that he was sterile weighed on the young man with a sudden shame”. Maurice knows that he is physically alright, but he is mentally impeded and cannot carry on the duties expected of him. The matter is made worse by the knowledge that he cannot live by the accepted notions of society. Although he keeps the knowledge a secret from it, deep down he knows that he is a “social outcast”. But the crisis isn’t that. It is yet to come to Maurice in the form of a moral blow, mentally agonizing himself to the point of suicide. This is when Clive becomes “normal” (in which it is to be understood that he was becoming attracted to women) and decides to end their “friendship”. Now Clive can carry the torch, whereas Maurice had to burn in its flames. The agony that Maurice goes through amounting to utter madness is heartbreaking. Forster’s portrayal of Maurice in his crisis is sincere and touching. “I swear from the bottom of heart I want to be healed. I want to be like other men, not this outcast whom nobody wants” is his soul’s outcry. But Forster offers Maurice a chance of heeling through Alec Scudder, a man of a lower class than him. Through his relationship with Alec, Maurice experiences a full sexual awakening which helps him ultimately to defy the barriers of class, conventions, and normality to finally find his true self and with it, happiness.
Forster confesses he wanted to write a happy ending for Maurice. Perhaps, he wanted to see people like him having happier futures like other men in their own choosing. To be a homosexual or heterosexual is not a choice. We don’t “choose” to be one or the other. It’s part of our human nature. It’s beyond our doing and cannot be controlled by us. The English lack of understanding of this simple truth comes under severe criticism from Forster when he says that “England has always been disinclined to accept human nature”. During Forster’s life several attempts were made to legalize homosexuality although not successful till towards the end of 1960s. However, although couldn’t be legalized, these legal manoeuvers should have brought social knowledge and through knowledge, sympathy, understanding, and acceptance. But to Forster’s utter dismay, none came. When Maurice goes to consult a doctor to find whether he could be “healed” of his homosexuality, he daren’t utter the word. Instead, he says “I am an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort!” Imagine how one would feel if one cannot express his own true nature even to a doctor. Forster wants to bring to light through Maurice this unfair social prejudice against a section of men who in return had to suffer “hell” in enduring it.
The centerpiece of the novel is Maurice’s story, yet, Forster doesn’t abandon Clive. Due to some physiological change, he becomes what we call today a bisexual, and Forster shows us that he has no easy time either. Clive’s relationship with his wife is mostly platonic. He suffers from belonging to two different worlds and is desperately trying to find some ground through politics. Through all these expositions, Forster, quite honestly, shows the true side of human nature. He seems to say that being muddled is part of human nature and that it’s quite alright. And he invites social sympathy and understanding to heal these confused sufferers.
The story of Maurice is nothing much. And the personalities of the characters make them quite aloof. But Forster catches the attention of the readers with his beautiful, thought-provoking, and emotional awakening writing. He makes us question whether much has changed from his time. We are now in the 21st century, yet, even at present, we can see enough Maurices being persecuted socially. Although in many countries homosexuality is legally accepted, this hasn’t completely altered their situation as social outcasts. Some cultures still look at homosexuals with disgust. Legality cannot bring acceptance, only human sympathy and understanding can. And that is what we must thrive to achieve as Forster dreamt in his Maurice.