Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Visions of Italy

By E. M. Forster

Visions of Italy

"It is only by going off the track that you get to know the country. See the little towns—Gubbio, Pienza, Cortona, San Gemignano, Monteriano. And don't, let me beg you, go with that awful tourist idea that Italy's only a museum of antiquities and art. Love and understand the Italians, for the people are more marvellous than the land." (1.3)

Philip is an Italophile and thinks of himself as an expert on All Things Italian. So when Lilia heads off to visit Italy, Philip is full of helpful travel tips. His advice to go off the beaten track is all well and good, but little does he know that Lilia will take his advice literally when she falls for an Italian country boy.

"I admit she is a Philistine, appallingly ignorant, and her taste in art is false. Still, to have any taste at all is something. And I do believe that Italy really purifies and ennobles all who visit her. She is the school as well as the playground of the world. It is really to Lilia's credit that she wants to go there." (1.33)

Philip praises Italy's ability to transform all those who visit her, even someone as unsophisticated as Lilia. Do you think that it takes a certain kind of person to be transformed by a new culture? Or can a culture change you in ways you never anticipated and thought would never happen?

"No, mother; no. She was really keen on Italy. This travel is quite a crisis for her." He found the situation full of whimsical romance: there was something half attractive, half repellent in the thought of this vulgar woman journeying to places he loved and revered. Why should she not be transfigured? (1.35)

Forster portrays Italy as a country of romance and adventure, an escape from the dull, conventional life in Sawston. Philip is convinced that Italy will be transformative for Lilia and that she'll come back a changed person. Even though Philip is well-traveled, Forster seems to suggest that Philip isn't as open-minded as he pretends to be. Philip's admiration for Italy depends on certain conditions: Italy is great as an idealized experience of passion and art, but things go terribly wrong when Italian values mix with English values.

"In a place like this," she wrote, "one really does feel in the heart of things, and off the beaten track." (1.41)

In a letter home to Irma and her in-laws, Lilia gushes about the beauty of Italy. Why does going off the beaten track seem to encourage characters to experience a new culture more fully? What are the advantages of putting away your tourist guidebook and taking the road less traveled?

But as they climbed higher the country opened out, and there appeared, high on a hill to the right, Monteriano. The hazy green of the olives rose up to its walls, and it seemed to float in isolation between trees and sky, like some fantastic ship city of a dream. (2.65)

This is one of Forster's most striking descriptions of Monteriano. The image of the floating ship perfectly captures the magical and romantic atmosphere of Italy. The English characters who visit Italy frequently describe being transported, as if in a dream, to a land of magnificent beauty.

Italy, Philip had always maintained, is only her true self in the height of the summer, when the tourists have left her, and her soul awakes under the beams of a vertical sun. (6.1)

In yet another romanticized image of Italy, Forster describes the country's "true" essence as a soul. But funnily enough, this humanizing of Italy (it has a soul!) doesn't make Forster's characters respect Italy. It merely helps them fetishize it further.

They travelled for thirteen hours downhill, whilst the streams broadened and the mountains shrank, and the vegetation changed, and the people ceased being ugly and drinking beer, and began instead to drink wine and to be beautiful. And the train which had picked them at sunrise out of a waste of glaciers and hotels was waltzing at sunset round the walls of Verona. (6.9)

This passage is a great example of Forster's ability to paint a picturesque image of Italy. As Philip and Harriet travel deeper into the Italian countryside, the scenery becomes increasingly beautiful. Forster seems to suggest that there's something irresistible about the country, something that England (and Sawston, in particular) lacks.

Italy was beastly, and Florence station is the centre of beastly Italy. But he had a strange feeling that he was to blame for it all; that a little influx into him of virtue would make the whole land not beastly but amusing. For there was enchantment, he was sure of that; solid enchantment, which lay behind the porters and the screaming and the dust. (6.20)

Philip's initial arrival into Florence isn't ideal: it's dirty, noisy, and hectic. But Philip suspects that his bad mood is partly to blame—he'd prefer to be traveling to Italy for pleasure, but instead he's here on the request of his mother to bring home Lilia's baby. Philip acknowledges that under better circumstances, he'd probably be able to appreciate the city more fully. Notice the phrase "solid enchantment." Doesn't this sound somewhat like an oxymoron? "Enchantment" is usually something intangible—magical and often indescribable. The narrator's choice of words here seems to suggest that Italy's charm is so palpable and all-encompassing that it's almost as solid as a rock.

There is something majestic in the bad taste of Italy; it is not the bad taste of a country which knows no better; it has not the nervous vulgarity of England, or the blinded vulgarity of Germany. It observes beauty, and chooses to pass it by. But it attains to beauty's confidence. (6.189)

We know this passage is full of contradictions, but that's sort of the point. Italy is a country of wonderful contradictions. But how can "bad taste" be "majestic," you ask? Well, what makes Italy unique is that it knows what beauty is, but "chooses to pass it by." In other words Italians simply don't care if they're being beautiful or vulgar. They just do what they please and embrace their preferences, good or bad. Unlike the English, Italians aren't afraid to be themselves.

She had thought so much about this baby, of its welfare, its soul, its morals, its probable defects. But, like most unmarried people, she had only thought of it as a word—just as the healthy man only thinks of the word death, not of death itself. The real thing, lying asleep on a dirty rug, disconcerted her. It did not stand for a principle any longer. It was so much flesh and blood, so many inches and ounces of life—a glorious, unquestionable fact, which a man and another woman had given to the world. (7.31)

Okay, so this passage doesn't describe Italy the country, but it does shed light on how Miss Abbott's English values are challenged when she come face to face with a new culture. In this scene, we see how Miss Abbott has been treating the baby as a "word", a "principle," an abstract idea. But when Miss Abbott meets the child, she realizes that the baby is a "real thing" of "flesh and blood," full of "life." The fact that she encounters the baby on Italian soil is important. Forster portrays Italy as more substantial, more real than England— Italians are somehow more human and compassionate in their relationships.

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