Study Guide

Where Angels Fear to Tread Passivity

By E. M. Forster

Passivity

Passivity in Where Angels Fear To Tread is generally associated with the upper classes. The richer you are, the less you have to do (because, you know, you can just hire servants to do things for you). Idleness is seen as a sign of wealth. But what happens with the idle rich are forced into situations that require action—situations where they can't just sit around and do nothing? Is it better to take action but do something bad, or to be passive but fail to commit to anything? Yup: you just stumbled on to one of the big-deal questions of this novel.

Questions About Passivity

  1. Why is idleness a sign of wealth?
  2. Early in the novel, Miss Abbott shows a great deal of respect for Philip, but after they meet Gino's baby, she becomes much more critical of Philip's behavior. What causes Miss Abbott to accuse Philip of inaction? Why does she feel so strongly now (and not before Lilia's death) that passivity is worse than making a wrong decision?
  3. What does Philip think about his own passivity? Is he okay with it, or does he wish he could be more decisive? How does he justify his idleness to Miss Abbott?

Chew on This

Philip's passivity is a sign of cowardice; his failure to act shows a weakness in his moral character.

Forster uses Harriet as an example of the dangers of action when it is performed rashly and without forethought.

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