Study Guide

Miss Caroline Abbott in Where Angels Fear to Tread

By E. M. Forster

Miss Caroline Abbott

Playing It Safe

When we first meet Miss Caroline Abbott, there's nothing remarkable about her. She's traveling with Lilia during her tour of Italy, and the narrator describes Miss Abbott as:

[…] good, quiet, dull, and amiable, and young only because she was twenty-three: there was nothing in her appearance or manner to suggest the fire of youth. All her life had been spent at Sawston with a dull and amiable father, and her pleasant, pallid face, bent on some respectable charity, was a familiar object of the Sawston streets. (2.3)

This is the narrator's polite way of saying that Miss Abbott is ordinary and, let's face it, boring. She's a respectable member of the Sawston community, and she never takes any risks. But after a few weeks with Lilia in the open atmosphere of Italy, Miss Abbott's formerly stable, conventional view of the world begins to change; she starts feeling resentful towards the stuffy hypocrisy of English society.

When Lilia falls in love with Gino, Miss Abbott impulsively encourages her to marry, but just when we want to hug Caroline for telling Lilia to fight for her happiness, Caroline takes everything back and decides not to go against societal expectations. Better to play it safe than to rock the boat, thinks Miss Abbott.

Taking Risks

After Lilia's death, Miss Abbott takes over as our heroine, and the question that the novel really wants us to answer is whether or not Caroline will ever break free of the pressures of being a sweet young thing in Edwardian England. When Lilia's baby son comes into the picture, Caroline is given a second chance to decide for herself what side of the Sawston-Monteriano battle she will fight for. Miss Abbott can choose either to perform her social duty by bringing the baby back to England, or she can choose to disappoint her friends' expectations of her by refusing to separate a father from his son. Tough choice.

In the end, Caroline picks—awesomely—not to separate father and son. Her decision to side with Gino shows that she has grown into a more open-minded and emotionally mature young woman: one who's willing to take risks. By going against Mrs. Herriton, Caroline proves that she's strong enough to fight for what she believes in, even if it means defying society. Get it, gurl.

Even Philip starts to pick up a thing or two from Caroline's compassionate nature. In fact, when Philip watches Caroline comforting Gino after his son's death, he experiences a spiritual awakening:

He [Philip] was happy; he was assured that there was greatness in the world. There came to him an earnest desire to be good through the example of this good woman. He would try henceforward to be worthy of the things she had revealed. Quietly, without hysterical prayers or banging of drums, he underwent conversion. He was saved. (9.55)

We thought that spineless Philip was beyond saving, but Caroline's moral goodness is contagious. If her kindness can inspire someone as stubborn and self-centered as Philip to try harder to be a good person, then Forster does offer us some hope, after all. Even though at the end of the novel, Miss Abbott has to go back to the claustrophobic atmosphere of Sawston, we're hoping that she keeps fighting the good fight against the evils of Society.

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