Ordinary Human Language

by Brian Crane


Maurice was written only twenty-five years after the publication of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Billy Budd, yet its treatment of sexuality feels as if it belongs after the first world war (perhaps after the second as well). Forster claims that little changed in the years between the original drafting and the novel’seventual publication. Perhaps this is true.

First the similarities, all three novels zero in on affective relations between male intimates that might be legitimately named desire. Two explore directly the particular intimacy invoked by the word “friend.” All of them stage at least one instance of desire that transgresses the line distinguishing the sexual from the non-sexual.

Yet, Maurice is distinctive in several ways. First, regarding instances of sexual transgression, Maurice dares to offer two different responses. Most often, the transgressions — first in Clive’s room, later with Alec at Clive’s home, finally with Alec at the boathouse — are treated as moments of liberation or fulfillment. Less often, Maurice recoils in horror (as he does on the subway when approached by another man). When he does, the novel treats his reaction as a failing and not as morality.

Second, the novel uses the language of friendship for explicitly romantic ends rather than as a means to dodge them. What’s more it directly dramatizes the frustrations and inadequacies of the Platonic attachments often signified by the word “friend” and intended as a substitute for unacceptable sexual exchange. In this novel, the Platonist Clive develops alongside Maurice and his commitment to Platonic friendship makes him a worse not better person.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, the novel presents identity as principally a search for authentic sexuality. In fact, there is little to the plot aside from its account of a character’s development of a self by way of his discovery of desire and sexual life.

Interestingly, this struggle for sexual identity fosters a growing attachment to the idea of the “greenwood,” a reference to the merry men of the forest who lived together outside society. In short, Maurice, as he accepts his desire, dreams of a queer return to the garden. He believes intimacy and privacy will be found in the anonymity of public, natural spaces and worries that these spaces are disappearing. (He and Alec disappear into them before they are destroyed by war.)

This “greenwood” is the anti-thesis of Melville’s floating microcosm and Wilde’s network of closed rooms and clubs. It reminds me very much of the park which serves as the principal setting in John Rechey’s Numbers.

Posted February 11, 2016