Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Society and Class

By E. M. Forster

Society and Class

She was helpless before such effrontery. What awful thing—what awful person had come to Lilia? "Some one in the hotel." The letter only said that. What kind of person? A gentleman? An Englishman? The letter did not say. (1.76)

Behold Mrs. Herriton flipping out over the news of Lilia's engagement. What's crucial here is that Mrs. Herriton isn't worried about Lilia getting her heart broken. Mrs. Herriton doesn't ask herself, "Is Lilia happy? Does this mysterious man deserve to be with her?" Nope. The only thoughts swirling through her head are questions concerning the social status of this mystery man. Mrs. Herriton is terrified that the family name will be disgraced if Lilia has fallen for a foreigner who doesn't have a respectable position within society—and of course, Mrs. Herriton's worst fears are confirmed.

"If Lilia was determined to disgrace us, she might have found a less repulsive way. A boy of medium height with a pretty face, the son of a dentist at Monteriano. Have I put it correctly? May I surmise that he has not got one penny? May I also surmise that his social position is nil?" (2.61)

In Philip's point of view, Gino is pretty much the worst possible person that Lilia could have fallen for. Let us count the reasons why: 1) he's a "boy," only 22 years old and 10 years younger than Lilia; 2) he's the "son of a dentist," meaning he's part of the poor working class; 3) he's Italian, and not a respectable Englishman; 4) he hasn't got a single penny, so he's totally going after Lilia's money; and 5) he has absolutely no "social position." Like his mother, Philip is very conscious of his position in society and he's not about to let an Italian country boy threaten it.

"Indeed, Philip, you surprise me. I understood you went in for equality and so on." (2.97)

In this scene, Lilia calls Philip out on his hypocrisy—he talks convincingly about the importance of equality between social classes, but it's all just a lot of hot air. When faced with the prospect of having a poor working-class Italian as a brother-in-law, Philip is quick to take back his words. It's pretty obvious to us that Philip thinks he's superior to Gino.

"For the moment, Lilia, he has taken you in, but you will find him out soon. It is not possible that you, a lady, accustomed to ladies and gentlemen, will tolerate a man whose position is—well, not equal to the son of the servants' dentist in Coronation Place. I am not blaming you now. But I blame the glamour of Italy." (2.104)

Philip thinks that Lilia has been looking through rose-colored glasses, but does he actually know what will make her happy? He keeps insisting that Lilia is used to a certain kind of lifestyle and that she'll be in for a rude awakening once she sees Gino's true colors. But is Philip right in thinking that class differences will lead to unhappiness? Is Philip justified in assuming that Lilia and Gino have nothing in common?

"I have come to prevent you marrying Mrs. Herriton, because I see you will both be unhappy together. She is English, you are Italian; she is accustomed to one thing, you to another. And—pardon me if I say it—she is rich and you are poor." (2.119)

Philip is very upfront with Gino about his reasons against their marriage. It comes down to a question of class, nationality, and money. Lilia is a wealthy, upper-class English woman, whereas Gino is a poor, working-class Italian. In Philip's opinion (and the opinion of stuffy ol' England) these two circles aren't supposed to mix. There's not so much an "opposites attract" mentality.

She always treated him as a boy, which he was, and as a fool, which he was not, thinking herself so immeasurably superior to him that she neglected opportunity after opportunity of establishing her rule. (3.10)

After Lilia marries Gino, she unconsciously falls back on the same hypocritical behavior that she had criticized Philip for. She starts flaunting her superiority by treating Gino like a boy who doesn't know what's good for him. Even though Lilia believes that she loves Gino, she acts as if she's better than him while also expecting her husband to adopt her English values. C'mon, Lilia: you left England to get away from stuffy Edwardianism! You're better than this!

"They are not for you. Many of them are in trade, and even we are little more; you should have gentlefolk and nobility for your friends." "Poor fellow," thought Lilia. "It is sad for him to discover that his people are vulgar." (3.27)

Gino recognizes that his friends, who are members of the poor working class, would not be suitable company for his wife, who should only be surrounded by "gentlefolk and nobility." Even though Lilia agrees that her husband's friends are "vulgar," she still expects their Italian neighbors to attend the English tea parties she wants to host. And the clash of cultures here is what Forster highlights so masterfully.

"But, Gino dear, if they're low class, why did you talk to them? Don't you care about your position?" (3.49)

Psst: Edwardian thinking was just like Mean Girls. Lilia would like to think that she has overcome social class differences when she married Gino, but she still acknowledges that social status is important. She thinks that Gino shouldn't associate with people of "low class" if he cares about his position in society, but if that's her line of reasoning, then didn't she "lower" her own status in society by marrying a penniless Italian?

Lilia had no religion in her; but for hours at a time she would be seized with a vulgar fear that she was not "married properly," and that her social position in the next world might be as obscure as it was in this. (4.3)

As her marriage starts to crumble, Lilia becomes more aware of how far down she has fallen on the social ladder. Yeah, Lilia is so obsessed with social class that she thinks that heaven will having a social pecking order. Yuck.

And his own social position was uncertain. Even in England a dentist is a troublesome creature, whom careful people find difficult to class. He hovers between the professions and the trades; he may be only a little lower than the doctors, or he may be down among the chemists, or even beneath them. The son of the Italian dentist felt this too. (4.20)

Notice how stratified class and social positions are in this novel. Even within the working class, there are subtle distinctions between social positions depending on your profession: a dentist isn't as high on the pecking order as doctors, and even chemists are a foot above dentists. Gino recognizes his lowly social status, but he's definitely not as concerned about it as Lilia and her in-laws. Because it would be almost impossible to be that concerned.

The social ideals of North and South had had their brief contention, and this time the South had won. (4.20)

In this quote, the North refers to England, and the South refers to Italy. When Lilia and Gino get married, the different social customs of England and Italy come into contact and, more often than not, lead to tense debates. The most heated argument between the couple centers on the issue of Lilia being allowed to take walks by herself. Gino forbids her to traipse around without a companion (something which isn't permitted in Italy), but Lilia argues that she had the freedom to take walks alone in England.

"All that winter I seemed to be waking up to beauty and splendour and I don't know what; and when the spring came, I wanted to fight against the things I hated—mediocrity and dullness and spitefulness and society. I actually hated society for a day or two at Monteriano. I didn't see that all these things are invincible, and that if we go against them they will break us to pieces." (5.72)

Miss Abbott explains to Philip that she initially went to Italy in order to escape the monotony and hypocrisy of English society. The "splendour" of Italy seemed like a breath of fresh air compared to the stifling rules of life in Sawston. But after Lilia's marriage to Gino, Miss Abbott is horrified by her involvement and realizes that society is "invincible."

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