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The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster: Summary

Instructor: Celeste Bright

Celeste has taught college English for four years and holds a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature.

In this lesson, we will summarize 'The Longest Journey' by E.M. Forster. First, we'll provide a short overview of the novel. Then we will work through a detailed summary of its three-part plot.

Overview of The Longest Journey

The Longest Journey by E.M. Forster is a novel about a Cambridge University philosophy student and aspiring fiction writer, Rickie Elliot, who is handicapped. His parents' separation and deaths leave him traumatized and orphaned at the age of 15. At Cambridge, Rickie contemplates love, reality, and human nature with friends. He idealizes and then marries Agnes Pembroke, but the marriage alienates him from his friends, and the teaching job he soon takes stunts his writing career. He learns he has an illegitimate half-brother, Stephen Wonham. Agnes plots to disinherit Stephen so his aunt's money will come to the Elliots instead. Rickie warms toward his brother, leaving Agnes with him to repair his lost friendship with Stewart Ansell and begin writing again.

Painting of E.M. Forster by Dora Carrington

Summary of The Longest Journey: Part One

In Part One, Rickie studies philosophy at Cambridge with his friends and fellow students Ansell, Tilliard, and Widdrington. He also writes short stories. Much like Harry Potter does with Hogwarts, Rickie feels Cambridge is his true home and paradise. He is also friends with non-students Agnes and her brother Herbert, and his involvement with them deepens after they visit him at Cambridge. At this point in the novel, Agnes is engaged to marry the handsome, athletic, and brutish Gerald Dawes. After his death in a soccer match, however, Rickie and Agnes grow closer. Rickie falls in love with her as an ideal rather than as a real person, and the two become engaged. His friends are dismayed, suspecting Agnes of being manipulative and an unfit match for him.

Cambridge University Campus

Meanwhile, his wealthy aunt, Emily Failing, asks Rickie and Agnes to visit her. They meet Stephen, a nephew she has raised from infancy, and no one but Mrs. Failing knows he is Rickie's half-brother. During their visit, she tells Rickie about Stephen just to shock him. Rickie is horrified because Stephen is a crass, uneducated clod who, he assumes, was born through his father's infidelity. Nonetheless, he feels Stephen deserves to know about their connection. Agnes, however, convinces Rickie that with Mrs. Failing's cooperation, this should remain a secret, even to Stephen, because of its scandalous nature. After the visit, a group of his short stories are rejected by a publisher.

Part Two

In Part Two, Herbert gets Rickie and Agnes jobs at Sawston School (Rickie teaches, Agnes serves as matron), providing salaries to support their marriage and allowing Herbert to be promoted from teacher to head of a boarding house. Agnes mocks Ansell for failing to gain a fellowship at Cambridge and secretly plots to disinherit Stephen, thereby gaining his aunt's money for herself and Rickie. Rickie's friends contemplate breaking up the marriage.

When Agnes becomes pregnant, Rickie realizes he doesn't love her and is unhappy teaching. Agnes gives birth to a daughter who is also handicapped and who dies after an illness. Although this is partly a relief, Rickie nonetheless struggles with the loss of their child, but feels Agnes does not. Agnes convinces Mrs. Failing to disinherit Stephen by sharing Rickie's observation that he is publicly ungrateful for his aunt's patronage (financial support). Rickie is furious with Agnes and feels guilty about not being honest with Stephen.

Unaware of this plot, but having learned from Mrs. Failing that he is Rickie's brother, Stephen visits the Elliots, hoping to make friends. He runs into Ansell and tells him the whole story. Agnes offers to pay Stephen for his silence, since his scandalous origin would ruin them if it were known, but the offended Stephen leaves angrily.

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