They Ran, They Bathed, They Played: A Watery Freedom in A Room with a View’s “Twelfth Chapter”
E. M. Forster’s A Room with a View contains two curiously named chapters: “Fourth Chapter” and “Twelfth Chapter.” Every other chapter in this early 20th century novel has a descriptive, often humorous title. For example, the chapter that follows “Twelfth Chapter” is entitled “How Miss Bartlett’s Boiler Was So Tiresome.” From this obvious distinction, one can surmise that something important will take place in each of these strangely named sections of the book. In “Fourth Chapter,” Lucy has a highly pivotal encounter with George that makes her question her own emotions and upbringing. However, this paper will focus on a passage from “Twelfth Chapter,” which describes Freddy, George, and Mr. Beebe’s nude romp in the pond behind the Honeychurch’s home. The following passage from this chapter reveals the strict constraints that govern English society and the sense of freedom and interpersonal connection that accompanies an escape from these conventions–a theme that pervades not only this chapter, but the novel as a whole.
“They ran to get dry, they bathed to get cool, they played at being Indians in the willow-herbs and in the bracken, they bathed to get clean. And all the time three little bundles lay discreetly on the sward, proclaiming: ‘No. We are what matters. Without us shall no enterprise begin. To us all flesh turn in the end.’” (150).
The beginning of this passage describes Freddy, George, and Mr. Beebe’s actions in the pond before they are accidentally happened upon by Lucy, Cecil, and Mrs. Honeychurch. This passage accurately displays the evolution that has taken place in these characters over the course of “Twelfth Chapter.” Throughout first few pages of the chapter, when the party of three initially reconvenes, they are extremely aloof toward one another–despite Mr. Beebe’s best efforts to make conversation. It is stated that Freddy is “never amused” by “his fellow-creatures” and did not even want to pay a visit to the Emersons–he only tags along because Mr. Beebe persuades him to do so (142). Once the party begins walking through the woods toward the pond, the awkward silences remain–though one might have thought that being out of doors, in nature, would open the characters up. But, much to Mr. Beebe’s chagrin, though he is “compelled to chatter,” “neither of his companions would utter a word,” (146). And when George does finally deign to speak, he only does so “gravely” and without “enthusiasm” (146, 147). It is only once they have removed all of their clothing and submerged themselves in the pond that the men begin to interact in an unrestrained manner.
Ergo, it seems that clothing, in this passage, serves as a metaphor for the strict societal conventions of 20th century Britain. While fully clothed, the three men are unable to make a meaningful connection, but once their garments are removed, they enjoy each other’s company and seem to have the time of their young (and old) lives. In the first part of the selected passage, Forster exemplifies this connection by using repetition to add emphasis to the characters’ actions: “[t]hey ran…they bathed…they played…they bathed…” (150, emphasis added.) The subject is a unified “they,” which reveals how this deviation from traditional convention has brought the men together where mere conversation could not. The repetition in this passage also suggests that they spent quite a bit of time frolicking in and by the pond, as they continue the cycle of playing, getting dirty, cleansing themselves, and playing once again. One gets the sense that the men have lost track of time, and could continue in their revelry for much, much longer–if not interrupted by Lucy and company, who, as they are clothed, represent English society at large.
The mention of “bath[ing] to get clean” seems to suggest that this time spent frolicking in the pond is in some way purifying for the three participants (150). Here, society’s conventions can be seen as pollutants because such conventions seem to stifle human connection, freedom, and happiness. The playful debauchery that these men engage in can be seen as the solvent in which these “pollutants” are dissolved. Unbound by social restriction, they are able to come clean by washing off the false image of themselves that society has imposed upon them and be their true, instinctual selves.
This passage, with its focus on the men submerging and cleansing themselves in the water, could also evoke the religious imagery of a baptism. Many Christian baptisms–including that of Jesus himself, by John the Baptist–used to be (and sometimes still are) carried out in open, natural bodies of water, like the Honeychurch pond, rather than in a cistern in a chapel. It is also not uncommon for men of Freddy and George or even Mr. Beebe’s age to be baptized late, after a conversion or because they simply were not baptized as children. The religious implication is furthered when one considers that Mr. Beebe is a clergyman himself. However, it seems that rather than being indoctrinated into a Christian tradition by Mr. Beebe, the boys are the ones submerging him in the carefree customs of youth and freedom. So it seems that, here, Forster is utilizing religious imagery to convey a decidedly non-religious–but nevertheless important–message.
Mr. Beebe is the most reluctant to go in the water, only declaring that he “‘may as well wash too’” after the boys have already been in the pond for several minutes (149). But, as mentioned earlier, once he strips out of his clothes and steps into the water, he too becomes part of the unified “they” that swims and plays together, despite his advanced years and superior role as a clergyman. Thus, the water and removal of clothing manages not only to erase societal convention, but also to destroy the boundaries of class, profession, and age that lie between the boys and Mr. Beebe.
In the second half of this passage, Forster personifies the articles of clothing that the men have cast aside and tossed about by giving them a voice. Continuing the previously mentioned metaphor, the clothing speaks for British society, aghast at the freedom the men are currently experiencing. It tries to warn them that they are essentially nothing without clothing–i.e. the restraints that society imposes–by declaring, “[w]e are what matters. Without us shall no enterprise begin. To us all flesh turn in the end” (150). But, despite these grandiose proclamations, the clothing is described as “three little bundles” that “lay discreetly on the sward” (150, emphasis added). Thus, it seems that this message is in itself small, discreet, and unimportant; an empty threat that is easily drowned out by the shouts, splashes, and laughter of the three jubilant men. So, the men are able to ignore this preemptive warning and continue to enjoy themselves, even kicking and playing with the clothing, which further exemplifies their freedom. Here, through metaphor, they are not just abandoning societal conventions, but effectively kicking them to the side.
It is also important to note the personified clothing’s reference to the amateur inscription on the piece of furniture in the Emersons’ home, as presented earlier in the chapter. The “cornice of the wardrobe” reads “‘[m]istrust all enterprises that require new clothes’” (143). This is a variation of a quote from the first chapter of 19th century transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, which states, “I say, beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.” This quote encourages one to be wary of changing one’s outer appearance merely to fit in with society at large, a notion that the George and his father certainly believe in. It also speaks to the personal harm that can be caused by conforming to a rigid society. The clothing’s statements attempt to enact a reversal of this quote, but ultimately fail to do so when the men pay no attention to them.
This theme of breaking from tradition and convention to find happiness resonates also in the novel’s main plot line–the romance between Lucy and George. Though it would certainly be more proper for Lucy to marry Cecil, who is older, wealthier, and much more established than George, it would bring her no happiness to do so. So, after much “muddle,” Lucy finally follows her heart and marries George, and is extremely pleased by this choice–just as the men are by frolicking in the lake. Even though the rules of English society are indeed highly strict, this novel suggests that those who break them can reap clear rewards.
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