Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Duty

By E. M. Forster

Duty

Mrs. Herriton did not believe in romance nor in transfiguration, nor in parallels from history, nor in anything else that may disturb domestic life. (1.36)

Mrs. Herriton thinks that love, excitement and mystery are only things that "disturb" the peace and stability of domestic life. She leads a very regulated life and never strays from what she thinks is her duty to society. Wow. We bet Mrs. Herriton's Saturday nights are bleak.

Mrs. Herriton took the opportunity of speaking more seriously about the duties of widowhood and motherhood than she had ever done before. But somehow things never went easily after. Lilia would not settle down in her place among Sawston matrons. (1.39)

Mrs. Herriton expects Lilia to conform to the duties of being a widow and mother, but Lilia can never quite remember all the rules and regulation of polite English society. We feel you, Lilia. We're just as confused as Lilia by the seemingly arbitrary system of expectations that Mrs. Herriton imposes on her.

"The man may be a duke or he may be an organ-grinder. That is not the point. If Lilia marries him she insults the memory of Charles, she insults Irma, she insults us. Therefore I forbid her, and if she disobeys we have done with her for ever." (1.87)

As a widow, Lilia is expected to follow a certain set of rules, the most important of which is honoring the memory of her deceased husband… forever. Mrs. Herriton will not tolerate the idea of Lilia re-marrying. Mrs. Herriton thinks that it's Lilia's duty to play the role of the devoted widow who only loves Charles (and could never even contemplate a second marriage). But Lilia has a mind of her own, and as readers, we're rooting for her to get out from under Mrs. Herriton's overbearing thumb.

"Think of your life at home—think of Irma! And I'll also say think of us; for you know, Lilia, that we count you more than a relation." (2.105)

Philip pleads with Lilia to think of her responsibilities to Irma, and how her marriage to Gino would threaten her domestic life. But he's only pressuring Lilia to be a dutiful mother in order to protect the Herriton name. This is a great example of how Forster shows the hypocrisy behind characters who use the call of "duty" as a way to bully and guilt-trip.

"For once in my life I'll thank you to leave me alone. I'll thank your mother too. For twelve years you've trained me and tortured me, and I'll stand it no more. Do you think I'm a fool? Do you think I never felt? Ah! when I came to your house a poor young bride, how you all looked me over—never a kind word—and discussed me, and thought I might just do; and your mother corrected me, and your sister snubbed me, and you said funny things about me to show how clever you were! And when Charles died I was still to run in strings for the honour of your beastly family, and I was to be cooped up at Sawston and learn to keep house, and all my chances spoilt of marrying again. No, thank you!" (2.109)

We want to throw Lilia a party for finally standing up to Philip in this scene. She totally puts Philip in his place when she says she's sick of being forced to uphold her duty as a widow by "keeping house" and being "cooped up" for the rest of her life. For once, Lilia is taking her happiness in her own hands and doing what she wants.

"Yes; we counted on you," said Philip, with sudden sharpness. (5.45)

Philip tells off Miss Abbott for her failure to keep the Herritons in the loop about Lilia's engagement. The whole point of having Miss Abbott accompany Lilia to Italy was so that the Herritons would have eyes and ears on Lilia at all times. But in Philip's point of view, Caroline fails to do her duty by keeping silent until it was too late.

"If they wanted to marry, why shouldn't they do so? Why shouldn't she break with the deadening life where she had got into a groove, and would go on in it, getting more and more—worse than unhappy—apathetic till she died? Of course I was wrong. She only changed one groove for another—a worse groove." (5.68)

In an attempt to defend her actions to Philip, Miss Abbott explains that she thought Lilia had every right to rebel against the dull, conventional life she had led in Sawston. But in the same breath, Caroline also admits that she was wrong, that Lilia hadn't found real happiness after all. On the one hand, Forster seems to applaud Lilia for rejecting the arbitrary duties of widowhood. But on the other hand, we see that Lilia doesn't find what she was looking for in her new marriage to Gino.

"The child came into the world through my negligence," replied Miss Abbott. "It is natural I should take an interest in it." "My dear Caroline," said Mrs. Herriton, "you must not brood over the thing. Let bygones be bygones. The child should worry you even less than it worries us. We never even mention it. It belongs to another world." (5.133)

Miss Abbott is convinced that it's her duty to help the baby, since he was born in part due to her own involvement in Lilia's marriage. But where's the separation between duty and just plain meddling? Is Miss Abbott simply trying to ease her own guilty conscience?

"None the less she is showing me my duty. If I can rescue poor Lilia's baby from that horrible man, who will bring it up either as Papist or infidel—who will certainly bring it up to be vicious—I shall do it." (5.152)

This quote is a great example of the merging of two major themes in the novel, hypocrisy and duty. Mrs. Herriton is being completely hypocritical when she claims that she's doing her duty in rescuing the baby, but she doesn't care in the least about the baby's welfare. Her motives here are morally questionable, at best, and Malificient-caliber at worst.

The child's welfare was a sacred duty to her, not a matter of pride or even of sentiment. (5.159)

Miss Abbott is convinced that it's her duty to rescue the baby, and now it's the only thing she has her heart set on. But is Miss Abbott's sense of duty in this case more morally commendable than Mrs. Herriton's? Does Miss Abbot really have the child's interests in mind or is she only secretly trying to ease her own guilty conscience?

"It upsets one's plans terribly," she remarked, as she squeezed out her sponges, "but obviously it is my duty." (6.2)

Like her mother, Harriet adheres very strictly to what she thinks is a moral code of duty. In a way, we have to give Harriet credit for her steely determination not to break this code. But what if Harriet's so-called "duty" in rescuing the baby isn't actually the right thing to do… for anyone involved?

Philip acknowledged her reproof to be true. He did not care about the baby one straw. Nevertheless, he meant to do his duty, and he was fairly confident of success. If Gino would have sold his wife for a thousand lire, for how much less would he not sell his child? It was just a commercial transaction. Why should it interfere with other things? (6.48)

The Herriton clan can't see where duty ends and meddling jerkdom begins. Philip, like his mother and sister, blindly sticks to an arbitrary code of duty that he thinks is ethical. But is it ethical to think about a baby in terms of a "commercial transaction," as something that can be bought and sold?

It was her duty to rescue the baby, to save it from contagion, and she still meant to do her duty. But the comfortable sense of virtue left her. She was in the presence of something greater than right or wrong. (7.93)

This is the first time that Miss Abbott is finally forced to face the cold, hard possibility that her "duty" might not be in line with morality. Notice the narrator's word choice in the phrase "comfortable sense of virtue." Not only is Caroline realizing that her actions might not be at all virtuous, but the word "comfortable" raises the issue that Caroline was just trying to make herself feel better and didn't really have the baby's best interests at heart.

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