In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster answers the question: What makes a character real? According to Forster, “it [a character] is real when the novelist knows everything about it” (Forster, pg 77). Esther Waters, the title character in George Moore’s novel, exemplifies a real character in two senses: she meets Forster’s criteria, and more conventionally, her experiences and her growth through them make her realistic.
Regarding the novelist, Forster says, “He may not choose to tell us all he knows – many of the facts, even the kind we call obvious, may be hidden.” (Forster, pg 77) At the very beginning of Esther Waters, Moore hides one of the most crucial facts: the main character’s name. “She stood on the platform watching the receding train.” (Moore, pg 1). This vague wording gives chapters worth of insight into Esther’s character, and establishes her as real. “He will give us the feeling that though the character has not been explained, it is explicable, and we get from this a reality.” (Foster, pg 77) At her core, Esther is a plain, average girl. Especially at the beginning of novel, there is nothing particularly notable about her. Upon coming to Woodview, however, Esther experiences something as realistic as it is extraordinary: love. George Moore describes, “Her 20th year thrilled within her.” (Moore, pg 30). The complex nature of Esther’s first love makes her feel more real. As Forster said, “If you think of a novel in the vague you think of a love interest—of a man and woman who want to be united and perhaps succeed. If you think of your own life in the vague, or of a group of lives, you are left with a very different and a more complex impression” (Forster, pg 66). If one is to think of Esther’s life in the vague, the image is much more likely to align with our own lives than with the life of a character.
Moore does not grace Esther with a simple love, rather one that is much more realistic. Through Esther, Moore exposes the reality seated at the core of humanity: that everyone has a desire to love and be loved. Esther’s first love, William, who makes her dizzy, caused Esther to see the world through rose colored glasses. She illustrates how love can blind all sensible thought, “She could not struggle with him, though she knew that her fate depended upon her resistance, and swooning away she awakened in pain, powerless to free herself.” (Moore, pg 62). Esther, as so many real people do, lets love take hold of her. She becomes blinded by her feelings and then is forced to face the repercussions. “All history, all our experience, teaches us that no human relationship is constant, it is as unstable as the living beings who compose it…” (Forster, pg 68). Esther breaks out of the vice-like grip of Williams love, as “The truth was borne within her.” (Moore, pg 72). Forced to remove the rose-colored glasses William had provided her, Esther is thrust back into reality. In this quick shift, Moore transforms Esther from a character to a person. She, just like anyone else, is constantly subjected to life’s ups and downs.
As Esther is shoved from one job to the next, she encounters both cynical and benevolent employers. In the midst of this, Esther finds a potential companion in Fred Parsons. He seems to be the perfect choice; he is clean cut, religious, and stable. In him, she is assured a constant, reliable partner. But, in the words of Forster, “…if it is constant it is no longer a human relationship but a social habit” (Forster, pg 68) Esther, even if she does not want to admit it, longs for the passionate love that only William can give her. This battle between head and heart further shapes her as a realistic character who faces the harsh, messy struggles of love, practicality, and uncertainty. One of the most realistic things about Esther is the trajectory of her story. Her life, like everyone’s life, is far from linear. “She remembered all the trouble she had had, she wondered how she had come out of it all alive; and now, just as things seemed to be settling, everything was going to be upset again” (Moore, pg 167). Just as Esther seems to find some sense of stability in her life, she is once again jarred into uncertainty. Despite this, Esther does not go through emotional crisis at every calamity she faces. Instead, she remains immovable in a rapidly moving world. According to Forster, “Characters, to be real, ought to run smoothly, but a plot ought to cause surprise.” (Forster, pg 110). Moore exposes the journey of maturity Esther goes through as she faces different adversities in her life. “Incident springs out of character, and having occurred it alters that character.” (Forster, pg 110) The novel Esther Waters ends just as it started: “She stood on the platform watching the receding train.” (Moore, pg 311). The repetition is used to convey that despite all that happened to her, Esther remained unchanged.
On page 80 of Aspects of the Novel, Forster discusses the reason why Jane Austin’s Miss Bates is not a character we can encounter in daily life, explaining, “We cannot tear her away without bringing her mother too, and Jane Fairfax and Frank Churchill, and the whole of Box Hill…” (Forster, pg 80). Unlike Miss Bates, Esther is dependent on nothing and no one. Her story is one of triumph and tragedy, love and loss, but more than anything, it is about survival. For Esther, both as a person going through real life struggles and as a character in a novel, her independence was the key that unlocked the door to her survival.