Bernadette is a proofreader, online blogger, and freelance writer. She graduated from Franciscan University with a B.A. in Literature.
Forster’s Two Realities
E.M. Forster’s “The Story of the Siren” is about two irreconcilable realities: the realm of magic—a reality that Forster suggests is rarely perceived, but a reality nonetheless—and the world in which we all live, the world of routine and logical categorization.
There has always been metaphysical facet to humanity; we are constantly searching for something outside of ourselves and we all react to this longing in different ways. Some study the wonders of nature; others examine the convoluted realm of psychology; still others turn to the world of abstraction and morality through theology and philosophy.
While Sebold illustrated the beauty of this world, Forster illustrates the exact opposite. He explores the dangers and horrors that can arise from our desire to crash into a world that may not be all that great. In fact, it may turn out to be the very tool that breaks our humanity and sanity.
The tale begins with a rather unusual setup. The unnamed narrator is on a boat with a group of acquaintances and at some point drops his notebook in the ocean. (Note: I’ll be using the masculine pronoun from here on out to encompass “mankind,” or the entirety of humanity, since this is grammatically acceptable though perhaps societally outdated.
Besides, it’s more likely the narrator is a dude anyway due to the time period in which Forster was writing.
Okay, okay, I’m just damn lazy and defaulting to the masculine pronoun saves time. It’s awkward to write “his or her” or “he or she” every time I want to talk about this character. Just work with me here.)
One of the passengers dives overboard without warning to retrieve it and the narrator, feeling obligated to follow, does so, agreeing with the others that the two of them will get the notebook and then wait in a grove nearby for the ship to turn around and fetch them.
While they are waiting for the ship, the stranger tells the narrator about the time his brother, Giuseppe, saw a Siren and how the experience caused him to go mad. The narrator listens with interest but initially only seems to be humoring the strange fellow. But as the story progresses, he begins to take the idea seriously, and he comes close to brushing against the tantalizing world of legend and of breaking down the thin wall that exists between magic and reality.
Forster’s Magical Sea
The descriptions employed by Forster are telling, particularly the striking similarities in the descriptions of the notebook and the stranger swimming when both are in the sea. When he drops his notebook, for example, the narrator states:
“It dived, like a piece of black slate, but opened soon, disclosing leaves of pale green, which quivered into blue. Now it had vanished, now it was a piece of magical india-rubber stretching out to infinity…it grew more fantastic as it reached the bottom…lying decently open on its back, while unseen fingers fidgeted among its leaves.” (Randall Jarrell’s Book of Stories, “The Story of the Siren,” 191)
Now consider the description of the stranger:
“If the book was wonderful, the man is past all description. His effect was that of a silver statue, alive beneath the sea, through whom life throbbed in blue and green. Something infinitely happy, infinitely wise” (192).
Notice the otherworldly description given to each as soon as they are in the water. On land they are nothing but ordinary participants in everyday monotony. But when immersed in the sea, they become eerie and unreal. The sea is the door to the magical. Within it anything may—and, as the reader discovers, does—happen.
Myth and Insanity
This realm of mystery is the home of the siren, who represents exposure to the world that we often refuse to see but that merely encompasses a different sort of reality. The stranger states that Giuseppe looked “like any one who has seen the Siren…Unhappy, unhappy because he knew everything. Every living thing made him unhappy because he knew it would die” (196).
In other words, once you glimpses this world of myth that is not so ridiculous after all, the entirety of reality comes crashing in, reaching out and touching much more of our world than we ever imagined.
The narrator comes close to touching this realm himself. He is moved by Giuseppe’s strange tale, as if the chords of some unknown mystery have been strummed upon inside him, and the vibrations resonate with some hidden aspect of his psyche that he cannot clearly define or explain:
“The story of Giuseppe, for all its absurdity and superstition, came nearer to reality than anything I had known before. I don’t know why, but it filled me with desire to help others—the greatest of all our desires, I suppose, and the most fruitless. The desire soon passed” (197.
The Unnamed Race
What is the cause of this sudden stirring of emotion that is extinguished as quickly as it is inflamed? No more than the realm of myth creeping into a consciousness heavily cemented with human delusions about "reality."
There is a reason why the narrator is never named; he represents us all. We are happy to accept our realm of the everyday, and when the glassy surface of the ordinary is ruffled, we are quick to turn away and deem such higher desires as “fruitless” musings of fantastically unreal notions.
Indeed, the narrator's coping mechanisms (and perhaps ours to?) are so well-grounded that Wonder never had a chance to touch him in the first place; just he is starting to come to terms with the possibility of myth, the conversation is interrupted by the ship; the concrete and familiar breaks into the magical and once more enshrouds it in comfortable obscurity:
“I would have asked him more, but at that moment the whole cave darkened, and there rode in through its narrow entrance the returning boat” (199).
The Siren's Call
It would’ve been interesting to do a comparison of Forster and Sebold, since both authors explore similar themes yet take totally different viewpoints. While Sebold suggests the comfort and awe of an Unseen World, Forster illustrates how humanity’s delusions actually protect it from the realm that would dazzle consciousness and shatter sanity.
For Forster’s Siren represents those metaphysical realities that constantly draw us in. In the rare occasions when we do experience it, it ravishes us and leaves us quite senseless. The author asserts that few can withstand the mighty blow of Myth, and he highlights how unseen things are perhaps sometimes more real to us than the commonplace events in our everyday lives.
Book Bug (author) on June 18, 2015:
You're great for my ego, Jodah ;) Thanks for the kind words, as usual!
John Hansen from Queensland Australia on June 18, 2015:
Very interesting commentary Bernadette. I particularly enjoyed the witty captions under the pictures. Well done