The Teleology of the Closet: Queer Fantasy in the Fiction of E. M. Forster
Clive sat in the theatre of Dionysus. The stage was empty, as it had been for many centuries, the auditorium empty; the sun had set though the Acropolis behind still radiated heat. He saw barren plains running down to the sea, Salamis, Aegina, mountains, all blended in a violet evening.
—E. M. Forster, Maurice
Maurice is unique among Forster’s novels. Written between 1913 and 1914, it wasn’t published until 1971—a year after Forster’s death. The content of the novel offers the explanation for the stalled publication: it is often recognized as one of the earliest depictions of homosexuality in the novel, and one which doesn’t end in tragedy. Thus, the publication of the novel, and the narrative itself, is surrounded by the pervasive presence of English societal homophobia—particularly following the scandalous trials of Oscar Wilde—wherein the act of homosexual relations is criminal. In one scene, the title character and the novel’s protagonist, Maurice Hall, confesses to a doctor, in seeking sexual conversion therapy, that he’s “an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort.” The ramifications of confessing his sexual orientation prevent it—homosexuality cannot be named, it is “unspeakable,” but can identified through its bearers, Maurice and Oscar Wilde.
The novel is, in essence, a narrative of overcoming these societal constraints of language and sexuality, ending with the coupling of Maurice and the groundskeeper, Alec Scudder. The burden of describing a forbidden sexual identity is at last overcome through the speech act of Maurice’s lover: “‘And now we shan’t be parted no more, and that’s finished,’” Alec says, the double-negative of their inability to be parted emphasizing both his working class background, and the unification of the individuals to conclude, or “finish,” the queer narrative.
Alec Scudder is not Maurice’s only male love interest, however. In fact, he isn’t introduced until the final third of the novel. Rather, the first half of the novel focuses on the relationship between Maurice and the companion he meets in university, the aforementioned Clive Durham. It is through this relationship that Maurice comes to understand his sexuality, beginning with discussions of Plato’s Symposium (based on Clive’s suggestion) and culminating with the sexual liaisons between the two men.
The midpoint of the novel, which sees Clive traveling alone to Greece, fractures this relationship. It is here that Clive sees the “barren[ness]” of the Greek landscape, the ruins of temples and theatres. Suddenly—abruptly—Clive is sexually re-awoken. “There had been no warning—” Forster writes, “just a blind alteration of the life spirit, just an announcement, ‘You who loved men, will henceforward love women [...].’” The shift in Clive’s sexual orientation, particularly in the context of an audience for whom sexuality is static, is perhaps the more jarring—particularly for the contemporary reader of Forster—than anything else in the novel. It occurs in the highly descriptive scene in the “heat” and waning “sun” of the theatre of Dionysus, overlooking a dead civilization. Indeed, in the world novel, this event defies reason: “it was of the nature of death or birth” and thus, is beyond his control.
Where Maurice is unique among Forster’s novels, the short story “The Machine Stops,” originally published in 1909, is distinct among his short fiction. It is a work of speculative fiction, and recognized as one of the earliest works of dystopian fiction. Centered around a subterranean society—sent underground because the “barren plains” that extend before Clive Durham on his journey to Greece now cover an entire barren planet—the story deals with the acquiescence to the title “Machine,” which seemingly satisfies every want and need. Yet, in the vein of the explicit queerness of Maurice, perhaps the most compelling reading of “The Machine Stops” focuses not on the speculative fiction elements of the story’s future-set society, but on a coming out narrative (explicated most thoroughly in “Closet Fantasies and the Future of Desire” by Ralph Pordzik) between the son, Kuno, and his mother, Vashti.
The strained relationship between mother and son in the story is thematically consistent with the rest of Forster’s writing, emphasizing the need for humanist connection over the constraints of technology, religion, the nation, and society. Indeed, after the titular event—the destruction of the “Machine,” which provides and controls all of society—the story closes with the physical connection of the mother and the son through a kiss. Yet, the trappings of the science fiction genre becomes the means through which a queer erotic allegory—in which the son, identified through his innate nonconformity, defies society and his family by venturing above the earth. Thus, the physical and geographical narrative of the short story becomes akin, and indeed analogous to, the expression of one’s (sexual) self in coming out narratives.
If part of the story’s plot centers on the son’s desire to move from the subterranean society to the earth above, his desire is contrasted to the state of societal complacency, rending him unique—queer, even. It is desire itself, however, that becomes the means of self identity; throughout the story, Kuno is the only one to express desire, to “want.” His desire impels him to embark on a mission to visit the earth’s surface, to transition from an interior, closet-like space, to its exterior. Thus, central to the narrative of the story is the figurative and literal “coming out” of Kuno: he moves from inside to outside, while his desires and identification with the outside earth move from private to public knowledge.
Yet, the narrative relief of Kuno’s successful venture to the earth’s surface is abruptly denied. This, Kuno himself reveals as he discusses his visit to his mother: “‘I realized that something evil was at work [...] Out of the shaft—it is too horrible. A worm, a long white worm, had crawled out of the shaft and was gliding over the moonlit grass’” The “white worm”—the image itself laden with potential homoerotic meaning—comes from the earth, later multiplying (one worm becomes many) to drag Kuno back underground. Kuno is returned to the society of the eponymous Machine, his expression of rebellion—his expression of his self—is thwarted.
Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, in her groundbreaking The Epistemology of the Closet, notes that the closet, from which queer individuals must come out, is no singular entity. Rather, the “closet” becomes connected to the various walls that are constructed depending on the context and relationships that a queer individuals has with a person or a group. The closet re-emerges, for example, for the person who comes out to their friends and family, yet refuses to draw attention to their sexuality at work or to random passers-by. Indeed, the closet, to some extent, is never truly extinguished. In “The Machine Stops,” the closet can be understood as the inside of the earth, inhabiting the society of the Machine; while Kuno comes out of the closet, he is also drawn back inside through factors outside of his control.
Yet, the movement from inside to outside the closet, despite being temporary in the story, creates irrevocable consequences. Upon his confession to his mother, Vashti disowns her son; likewise he holds on to the idea of the earth’s surface, and the possibilities life above ground entail. It is the geographic associations of these characters—Vashti, content to live underground, and her son, desiring life above it—that position their desires, their orientations, in relief of each other. Queerness and heterosexuality, both in the story and for Sedgwick, are thus defined in opposition.
According to Sedgwick, this semiotic emergence of “queerness”—a word which, devoid of its sexual context, signifies otherness or peculiarity—and “homosexuality,” which comes out of the 19th century, occurs before, and even creates, the notion of heterosexuality. The language of homosexuality becomes the avenue through which a heterosexual society can define itself, in terms of difference. Yet, the distinction between queer/homosexual and heterosexual—and thus the closet itself—is not a natural distinction; while sexual preferences existed before the 19th century, the codification of the language of sexual orientation as an identity is artificial. Yet, much like the artificial world of the Machine, once codified, the distinction exists: the desires to live above or below ground are distinct, much like queer and heterosexual identities. Both the closet and the Machine, once constructed, are pervasive.
Much like the Machine and the language of sexual identity, Forster, in Maurice, draws immense attention to the construction of economic class for his central characters. Maurice who is initially linked to the capitalist class, is first partnered with Clive, a figure representing the aristocracy, bound to a dying feudal social class. They meet at Cambridge, their families become friends, and Maurice’s sister becomes a potential fiance for Clive after his sexual shift. Simply put: they are both wealthy and elite. This proves a great contrast with Maurice and Alec. Alec works for Clive. Alec is not well educated, he is from a lower class background, and his family life remains alien to the reader. It is the latter relationship which ultimately prevails.
If The Epistemology of the Closet points to the emergence of a homosexual/heterosexual distinction as a non-natural societal occurrence, Maurice (and “The Machine Stops”) emphasizes the historical and economic context of this emergence: capitalism. The class distinctions and similarities between the three characters ultimately underscore the economic structures which create them, while the deferral to and adoration of the Machine, as well as the environmental/resource depletion points to an uncontrolled capitalist progression.
It is in the language of capitalism, borrowing from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, in which the importance of a homosexual/heterosexual dichotomy must be understood. As an economic system, wherein accumulation and production are central, the language of capitalism becomes uniquely tied to the body, with human labour becoming itself a form of capital: “[l]abour therefore, is the real measure of the exchangeable value of all commodities.” It thus follows that, in linking the language of capitalism to the body, and the need for human labour, the production of new bodies through (re)productive sex becomes integral to capitalist survival. The economy demands heterosexual bodily accumulation.
The non-reproductive—and thus economically unproductive—homosexual sex thus becomes associated with “sterility” in Maurice. Yet the charge of sterility is met, by Clive, with the interrogative: “Why children? [...] Why always children?” Here, the notion of capitalist reproduction as self-evidently meritorious is questioned—“Why children?” can be understood as implying “why produce more capital?”
In his book No Future, the queer theorist Lee Edelman introduces the term “sinthomosexual” to describe the notion of a homosexual lack of concern for the future, engaging in non-reproductive relationships, particularly in relief of the image of the child. The homosexual becomes deceptively framed as dangerous next to the child, whose future is symbolically encapsulated not by the body capitalism, which it will inevitably bolster, but by the more nebulous societal fantasy for the future. Of course, the real threat to the child is its capitalist dehumanization, becoming labour in the production of commodity (and thus capital and commodity itself), not the non-reproductive sexual activities of the individuals its image contrasts.
Though deceptive, the notion of the homosexual as an allegedly destructive force—particularly when juxtaposed next to the image of the child—life outside the closet is self-destructive. According to Louis Crompton in Homosexuality and Civilization, coinciding with a proto-capitalist protestant reformation, England introduced the Buggery Act of 1533, which made same-sex activities punishable by death. Thus, the legal ramifications of queerness are linked specifically to reproductive sex in an emerging capitalist economy. As queer sexual activities remain criminal in England—set, again, against the backdrop of Oscar Wilde’s own persecution—the closet becomes a means of safety and survival.
The publication of Maurice, penned by a queer author, affirms this dangerous fact. As Sedgwick notes, closets exist in multitudes. While it’s not entirely clear what Forster’s relationship to the closet was among his private friends and family, it can be assumed he was out to some (indeed, the novel was shared with some of his closest friends) and not out to others; to a broader reading public, all that might have been known of his sexuality was speculation. Yet, where the intimate and personal depictions of queer sexual activities in Maurice could not be published until his death, cloaked in the realm of speculative fiction, Forster could publish “The Machine Stops,” mapping the space of the closet and imagining its destruction.
The parameters of the closet are hazily defined. As the closet multiplies and strengthens within different societal contexts, it becomes part of the social geography of the capitalist economy. Yet, it is in the fiction of E. M. Forster where the possibility of a space outside the closet is realized: in “The Machine Stops,” Kuno clings to the image of people inhabiting the world on the earth’s surface, even as he and his mother witness the total destruction of their society, and die themselves. Likewise, Maurice and Alec end the novel together, inhabiting a space “outside class, without relations to money.” The removal of oneself from the oppressive society becomes the transition out of the closet.
Indeed, the closet exists in more than just a metaphorical sense: in both “The Machine Stops” and Maurice, the closet-society is material. The world of the Machine is a physical prophesy of capitalist progress; the Edwardian society of Maurice more-or-less reflects the capitalist materiality of early 20th century Britain. As a result, the closet exists not just in relation to queer self-identity and identity expression, but as a material confine for both homosexual and heterosexual individuals. If heterosexuality is defined in relation to homosexuality and queerness, so too must it exist within an ever-expanding and unfolding closet-society. The closet—an interior space—is bounded by another interior, both spaces framed and enclosed by the closet’s construction.
The destruction of the “Machine,” then, implies a teleology of the closet: if the closet is ever-expanding and unfolding, the closet will collapse in on itself. “[T]here came a day when, without the slightest warning, without any previous hint of feebleness, the entire communication-system broke down, all over the world, and the world [...] ended,” Forster writes, again creating a moment for the suddenness of destruction. The Machine stops—fulfilling the prophecy of the short story’s title—spelling the end of itself and the society below.
Thus, if operating outside the closet can be self-destructive, remaining within the closet-society—which bounds both the interior of the closet and the interior outside the closet—is self-effacing. Both Kuno and Clive explore—to some extent—a space outside the closet. Both the narratives end, however, with their return inside. Indeed, Kuno and Clive can be understood as analogues of one another, both seeing their journeys beyond the closet frustrated. From a narrative standpoint, Kuno is erased, after his retelling of his foray above the earth, until the final moments of “The Machine Stops,” existing in the story’s periphery as one of the many members of the subterranean society. Likewise, while Clive remains a central character throughout Maurice, the narrative interest in his subjectivity is lost after he returns from Greece, until the final moments of novel—when he sees Maurice for the final time. Both, in the end, are resigned to normative lives within their respective societies, until their societies collapse inward.
Yet the collapse of the Machine, for Kuno, does not spell humanity’s destruction. Where the barrenness of the landscape proves inhospitable for Clive—he fixates on the “dying light” and the “dead land”—this landscape becomes a source of hope for Kuno. As his society is destroyed, Kuno imagines a group of people living beyond the Machine on the surface of the earth: the “[h]omeless,” who are left to survive the Machine’s destruction.
If the teleology of the closet is destruction, then Maurice and Alec become like the “homeless.” At the end of the novel, Maurice and Alec realize how to live together: “[t]hey must live outside class, without relations or money; they must work and stick to each other till death.” Maurice and Alec do not just leave their respective closets, but elope, escaping the economic and social conditions of their closet society all together. Outside the constraints of the body economy and Edwardian social norms, Maurice and Alec can be free to be together.
Both Maurice and “The Machine Stops,” can be seen as the epistemological project of identifying with language the queer erotic self, and identifying the averse society. Yet access to a space beyond the averse closet-society is limited. As Maurice ends, much like the ending of “The Machine Stops,” the central perspective is not from someone outside, but in—yet with the knowledge of that exterior space. “[Clive] waited for a little in the alley, then returned to the house,” Forster writes, as begins the novel’s final sentence. For Clive, the epistemic journey of the novel is complete; the outdoor “stage was empty” and he “saw barren plains.” He remains—denied access beyond—inside the Edwardian economy.
Clive’s narrative is expressed in relief of Maurice and Alec’s. Though Clive never sees Maurice again after the novel ends, Forster offers an outcome to Maurice and Alec’s elopement (told immediately following “[t]hey must live outside class”): “England belonged to them. [...] Her air and sky were theirs.” Much like the “homeless,” who remain after the Machine is destroyed, Maurice and Alec—in stepping out of the rigid, Edwardian body economy and society—inherit England.