Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Introduction

By E. M. Forster

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Where Angels Fear to Tread Introduction

In a small, hazelnut-sized shell: Don't kidnap infants.

In a medium, walnut-sized shell: Don't think you can solve everything by running away, but don't stay stuck at home, either. Both options are bad.

In a large, coconut-sized shell: Italy is so dang pretty and so full of delicious non-English foods (no offense, English foods like "boiled baby") that it's basically impossible not to fall in love with it. That's cool. Just don't get your Colonialism on and think you can mold the country to fit your English specifications.

At the same time, don't get your Colonialism on back home in England and dismiss everything Italian as either "quaint" or "dangerous." Remember, you live in the country that invented boiled baby.

Where Angels Fear To Tread follows Lilia Herriton as she flees repressive Edwardian England (a phrase as redundant as "delicious chocolate cake") to Italy. She marries a hawt Italian guy; her family back home clutches its collective pearls. She has a baby, and dies in childbirth, and her in-laws and a family friend journey to Italy to buy back her child so they can raise it on Proper English Soil. Mayhem ensues, and the baby ends up dead (don't worry—no one boils it). Sadness follows, and more pearls are clutched.

E.M. Forster—the literary mastermind behind scathing anti-Colonialist novels as A Passage To India and England-is-messed-up-on-the-home-front novels as Howard's End—cut his teeth with Where Angels Fear To Tread in 1905. It's his first novel, and although it still kind of has its training wheels on (the symbolism is sometimes too on point), it's full of all the stuff that makes E.M. Forster great:

Wit. Social commentary. Political commentary. Complicated characters. Gorgeous prose. Difficult questions.

E.M. Forster is an important guy to read. Fully half of the novels he wrote are on the Modern Library's 100 Best Novel's list. He's also a totally entertaining guy to read: all but one of his novels have been adapted into award-winning films, which goes to show that his plots are taut and his characters are dynamic.

So if you're ready to be entertained by scathing wit, made uncomfortable by Forster's social and political commentary, fall in love (and hate) with well-rounded characters, and ponder the stickier questions of what it means to be a citizen of the world, read Where Angels Fear To Tread.

Just don't get down on yourself if you end up buying a one-way ticket to Tuscany, canceling the ticket, buying the ticket again, and then canceling it again. After all, you're only human. And there's no one that understands fickle, flawed humanity like E.M. Forster.

What is Where Angels Fear to Tread About and Why Should I Care?

We're willing to bet you a few thousand Italian lire that at some point in your life you've been a tourist. Maybe you didn't go all the way to Tuscany; maybe you just went to Hawaii, or Yellowstone, or even a cute historical small town two hours away from home.

And maybe, even if you didn't decide to stay there and get married to a local, you had a few fleeting fantasies about how magical the place was. "Gosh," you thought. "The flowers in Oahu smell sweeter than they do in Oakland/Omaha/Oklahoma City. The sunshine seems brighter. The people seem cooler."

And maybe, even if you didn't abandon your entire family (including your young daughter) to live there, you thought, "Wow. I can see myself living here. Forever. I would be an infinitely better person, in this infinitely better place. All my troubles would be solved."

E.M. Forster knows this feeling. And so do Lilia Herriton, Philip Herriton and Caroline Abbott. They all understand the siren song of the beautiful tourist destination: how life just seems sweeter when you're away from the problems of home.

Lilia goes to Tuscany, marries a (very handsome) Italian named Gino, prepares to live happily ever after… and proceeds to find herself in a stifling situation very much like the one she left behind in good ol' England.

Philip thinks that Italy is transfiguring. It's everything that England is not. It's awesome! So awesome, in fact, that he doesn't feel any pressing need to shape his life in England whatsoever. It's enough for him to know that Italy is out there, doing it's whole being-magical thing.

Caroline fights the idea of Italy tooth and nail, but ends up succumbing to its charms. She falls as hard for Italy (and the idea of Italy) as anyone else in the novel.

Don't worry—Where Angels Fear To Tread isn't just an anti-tourism PSA, or a fable about how life is always greener on the other side of the Chunnel. E.M. Forster's way too cool for those shenanigans. For one thing, he paints life in England as truly dreary and claustrophobic. No wonder Italy looks awesome to the characters in this novel. For another, E.M. understands (and loves) the sensation of falling in love with a place.

Our man E.M. pretty much corners the literary market on English tourists being overwhelmed by the dream of another country… and what happens when that dream clashes against reality. In Where Angels Fear To Tread (spoiler alert) that clash ain't pretty. What it is, however, is witty, emotional, and makes you think—sometimes uncomfortably—about what it means to be a tourist, and what it means to put stock in the dream of another place.

Where Angels Fear to Tread Resources


All Things Forster
Everything you wanted to know about E. M. Forster in one handy-dandy German website.

One Stop Forster Shopping
Here you go: have at seven E.M. Forster titles on Project Gutenberg. You're welcome.


Where Angels Fear to Tread (1991)
Director Charles Sturridge adapts Forster's novel onto the big screen, and the star-studded cast includes Rupert Graves, Helen Mirren, and Helena Bonham Carter. Definitely a must-see.


In Forster's own words…
The Paris Review gives us an awesomesauce interview with E. M. Forster himself.

E. M. Forster and his "wondrous muddle"
For decades, Forster was involved in a love triangle between his wife and a policeman named Bob Buckingham. Juicy stuff!

More Forster Gossip…
This Slate article talks about "how to keep Forster's sex life from eclipsing his sentences." As if anything could eclipse Forster's kick-butt sentences.


Forster: Through The Years
A small gallery of Forster as a child and a moustache-wearing adult.

"Only one thing could come between Lilia and her Italian lover …"
"… her in-laws." Yes, that really is the selling point of the film adaptation of Where Angels Fear to Tread. Check out the poster for yourself:

Where Angels Fear To Tread (in 1905)
This is the copy you'd have picked up if you had been a bookworm in the Edwardian Era.

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