A Room with a View

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Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms Theme Analysis

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Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms Theme Icon

The novel takes place at a transformative and transitional moment in British society, as the strict social manners, class hierarchy, and codes of behavior typical of the Victorian period give way to the greater freedom and liberality of modernity in the 20th century. This results in numerous tensions between new and old ways of thinking and doing things, evident in the contrast between young and old characters. Lucy, for example, has very different ideas about proper behavior for a lady than does Charlotte or Mrs. Honeychurch. And even the progressively minded Mr. Emerson doesn’t quite understand George’s abstract ponderings and concern with grand ideas about the universe fitting or not fitting together (the kind of thinking that might define the very modernist characters of authors like James Joyce or Virginia Woolf). The younger characters in the novel, as well as those who support more progressive social ideas (like Mr. Emerson) want to move away from strict social hierarchies, prejudiced snobbery against the lower classes, and patronizing, sexist attitudes toward women—in contrast to those like Mrs. Honeychurch or Mrs. Vyse, who place great importance on maintaining traditional social norms.

This desire to break out of restrictive Victorian social structures and move toward greater freedom finds two major symbolic manifestations in the novel. The first is the recurrent motif of indoor and outdoor spaces. The openness of the outdoors suggests a kind of utopian freedom, as epitomized by the carefree romp of Freddy, George, and Mr. Beebe at the Sacred Lake (temporarily reminiscent of the primal Garden of Eden). Moreover, it is significant that both of Lucy’s kisses with George take place outside, while she can only think of Cecil in relation to an inside room without a view—a sealed-off space within the structures of society. By contrast, she finds with George a room with a view out onto the freedom of the outdoors. The second important motif is the idea of travel. Lucy starts to think beyond the narrow social sphere of Windy Corner after being exposed to more of the world in Italy, and later thinks that she will travel to Greece to escape her troubles at home. Finally, she and George elope and find their own personal freedom in Italy. These foreign lands offer a possibility of literal, physical escape from England, as well as from the social structures there.

Both of these motifs, though, also suggest that getting beyond the restrictions of traditional society is no simple matter. Ecstatic outdoor scenes are short-lived in the novel, and afterwards the characters have to resume their normal lives and habits. Moreover, while Lucy ends up with George in a room with a view of the outside, this is still an interior room. This may subtly hint that Lucy is not entirely free from society, or perhaps doesn’t even desire the absolute state-of-nature freedom that the Sacred Lake might symbolize. And as for travel, it is doubtful whether Lucy’s trips outside of England really allow her to escape her homeland. The Pension Bertolini is run by a British woman, after all, and is populated by a mostly British clientele of tourists and expatriates. Through the social dynamics of the novel, Forster is thus able to critique and satirize the upper classes and the fading social codes of the Victorian era, while simultaneously showing that one may not be able to escape this kind of society entirely.

Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms appears in each chapter of A Room with a View. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms Quotes in A Room with a View

Below you will find the important quotes in A Room with a View related to the theme of Society, Manners, and Changing Social Norms.
Chapter 1 Quotes

I think he would not take advantage of your acceptance, nor expect you to show gratitude. He has the merit—if it is one—of saying exactly what he means. He has rooms he does not value, and he thinks you would value them. He no more thought of putting you under an obligation than he thought of being polite. It is so difficult—at least, I find it difficult—to understand people who speak the truth.

Related Characters: Mr. Beebe (speaker), Lucy Honeychurch, Charlotte Bartlett, Mr. Emerson
Related Symbols: Indoors, Outdoors and Views
Page Number: 8
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Emerson family--George and Mr. Emerson--has offered to do a favor for the far wealthier and more well-to-do group of Lucy and Charlotte. The Emersons overhear Lucy and Charlotte moaning about how their rooms don't have a nice view; they offer to exchange rooms with the two women, an offer that's appalling to both Lucy and Charlotte. Neither woman wants to be in a lower-class man's debt. But as Mr. Beebe, a friendly reverend, explains, the Emersons aren't trying to gain a favor for themselves--they're just trying to be nice.

Lucy and Charlotte are so sheltered and "well-mannered" that they look a gift-horse in the mouth--they wonder why on earth two strangers are offering them anything, and conclude that the strangers must have poor intentions. Beebe has to explain what, from a 21st reader's perspective, seems perfectly clear: the Emersons are just trying to be friendly. Manners and customs act like a veil between Lucy and the Emersons, obscuring the natural goodness of all the characters.


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About old Mr. Emerson—I hardly know. No, he is not tactful; yet, have you ever noticed that there are people who do things which are most indelicate, and yet at the same time—beautiful?

Related Characters: Lucy Honeychurch (speaker), Mr. Emerson
Page Number: 10
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lucy thinks about the offer she's received from the Emerson family. Lucy is too reserved to accept the offer upfront, and yet she's strangely charmed by the fact that the Emersons made it in the first place: she's so used to people who refuse to speak their minds (out of supposed politeness) that she can scarcely believe that the Emersons would voice their intentions so clearly.

The passage could be considered a satire of the severity and strictness of late-Victorian / Edwardian manners, but it's also meant to signal that Lucy stands somewhat apart from her culture. Where others would be irritated by the Emersons' frankness, Lucy now starts to like the Emersons, and recognizes that they're just good people, even if they're not speaking the same "language."

Chapter 2 Quotes

Buon giorno! Take the word of an old woman, Miss Lucy: you will never repent of a little civility to your inferiors. That is the true democracy. Though I am a real Radical as well. There, now you're shocked.

Related Characters: Miss Lavish (speaker), Lucy Honeychurch
Page Number: 16
Explanation and Analysis:

Tom Wolfe coined the term "radical chic" to define well-to-do people who like to "dabble" in progressive ideas (socialism, anti-colonialism, gender equality, etc.) without ever really committing to them, mostly because they want to distinguish themselves from their stuffier peers. Miss Lavish, based on this passage, could easily qualify as an exemplar of radical chic: she's a wealthy, successful woman, but she likes to brag about being radical to her other wealthy friends. Lavish makes a big show of greeting random people in the street, but we get the sense that she does so not because of her commitment to democracy or humanism, but because she wants to distinguish herself from people like Lucy, whom she's supposed to be guiding through the city. Lavish continues to blab to Lucy as she shows her Florence. (Notice the way that Lavish calls the people she greets "inferior" without so much as a second thought--which isn't exactly "progressive" of her.)

I think that you are repeating what you have heard older people say. You are pretending to be touchy; but you are not really. Stop being so tiresome, and tell me instead what part of the church you want to see. To take you to it will be a real pleasure.

Related Characters: Mr. Emerson (speaker), Lucy Honeychurch
Page Number: 21
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Lucy runs into her old "benefactors," the Emersons. The Emersons are looking around the same church that Lucy's exploring, and when a reverend makes a misstatement about Giotto, Mr. Emerson, the elder of the two, calls the reverend out for his error. Lucy, shocked that Emerson could have been so tactless, tells Emerson that he should have been more polite. Emerson fires back that politeness itself is overrated--why not say what's on one's mind?

Emerson's monologue in the passage is a great example of how tact can be overrated. Emerson is clearly a kind, likable person, even if his manners are sometimes lacking (he offers to show Lucy around the church, which is certainly very helpful). Emerson's behavior could be said to stand for Forster's sometimes romanticized view of the lower classes: they lack specific social training, but their overall "spirit" is good.

Chapter 4 Quotes

There is much that is immortal in this medieval lady. The dragons have gone, and so have the knights, but still she lingers in our midst. She reigned in many an early Victorian castle, and was Queen of much early Victorian song. It is sweet to protect her in the intervals of business, sweet to pay her honour when she has cooked our dinner well. But alas! the creature grows degenerate. In her heart also there are springing up strange desires. She too is enamoured of heavy winds, and vast panoramas, and green expanses of the sea. She has marked the kingdom of this world, how full it is of wealth, and beauty, and war—a radiant crust, built around the central fires, spinning towards the receding heavens. Men, declaring that she inspires them to it, move joyfully over the surface, having the most delightful meetings with other men, happy, not because they are masculine, but because they are alive. Before the show breaks up she would like to drop the august title of the Eternal Woman, and go there as her transitory self.

Page Number: 37
Explanation and Analysis:

Forster continues to expound on the notion of a medieval lady--i.e., the kind of woman that Lucy has been trained to be. For centuries, English women were taught that they should be docile and obey men at all times, allowing men to attain happiness for themselves while women watched and "inspired" them from the sidelines.

And yet Forster makes it clear that the notion of a calm, docile, obedient woman is breaking down in Lucy's lifetime, if indeed it was ever stable. Women like Lucy don't just want to be obedient--they want to explore the world, love men, see nature--to essentially allow themselves to be human beings rather than ideals. Women have strange, romantic desires just like men, and they should be able to explore such desires.

Chapter 5 Quotes

"How wonderfully people rise in these days!" sighed Miss Bartlett, fingering a model of the leaning Tower of Pisa.
"Generally," replied Mr. Eager, "one has only sympathy for their success. The desire for education and for social advance—in these things there is something not wholly vile.”

Related Characters: Charlotte Bartlett (speaker), Mr. Eager (speaker)
Page Number: 49
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Charlotte and Mr. Eager, another British clergyman, have a conversation about the Emerson family. Charlotte notes that the Emersons have risen in British society very quickly: with hard work and a strong desire for education, they have made a fortune for themselves. Charlotte and Mr. Eager are both impressed with the Emersons' progress in society--up to a point. While they offer reserved compliments for the Emersons, they also qualify their compliments, suggesting a kind of wariness. Charlotte, a proud resident of the upper-classes of British society, sees something threatening in the progress of the working classes: if the poor are getting richer, then how much longer will the rich be around? (Note also the potentially erotic way that Charlotte strokes a phallic model of the Tower of Pisa--a sign, some critics have argued, for the repressed sexual desires of the British elite.)

Chapter 6 Quotes

At this point Mr. Emerson, whom the shock of stopping had awoke, declared that the lovers must on no account be separated, and patted them on the back to signify his approval. And Miss Lavish, though unwilling to ally him, felt bound to support the cause of Bohemianism.

Related Characters: Mr. Emerson, Miss Lavish
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, the Emersons, Lucy, Charlotte, Mr. Eager, and Miss Lavish are in a carriage. The carriage driver has picked up a young woman, whom he tries to kiss as he drives the carriage (causing the horses to lurch from side to side). Mr. Eager, upset with such an open display of sexuality, asks the driver to dismiss the young woman, but Mr. Emerson insists that the driver should be able to show his love for his girlfriend. Miss Lavish, who's less committed to progressivism than Emerson, but loves to seem to be progressive (or "Bohemian"), agrees.

The humorous passage illustrates some of the political and cultural differences between the English characters. Despite coming from the same country, Mr. Emerson and Mr. Eager illustrate two opposing views of how people should behave--either with freedom or with "good manners." Miss Lavish doesn't really care either way, but because romantic freedom is "hip" these days, she goes along with Mr. Emerson. Miss Lavish, the tie-breaking vote, suggests that England is moving, however slowly, in the direction of sexual frankness.

Fifty miles of Spring, and we've come up to admire them. Do you suppose there's any difference between Spring in nature and Spring in man? But there we go, praising the one and condemning the other as improper, ashamed that the same work eternally through both.

Related Characters: Mr. Emerson (speaker)
Related Symbols: Indoors, Outdoors and Views
Page Number: 59
Explanation and Analysis:

Mr. Emerson, upset with Mr. Eager's prudishness concerning the romantic carriage driver, mutters about the universality of human freedom. He notices the beautiful spring weather, and the natural beauty that spring creates. He wonders aloud why human beings try to censor the "spring" of the soul, even as they celebrate the literal spring of nature.

Mr. Emerson's analogy is interesting because it suggests that liberty--sexual, moral, etc.--in an inevitable, even cyclical, part of the human experience. There's no virtue in trying to repress what is natural and god-given--and yet that's exactly what the late Victorian society symbolized by Mr. Eager has done.

Miss Bartlett had asked Mr. George Emerson what his profession was, and he had answered "the railway." She was very sorry that she had asked him. She had no idea that it would be such a dreadful answer, or she would not have asked him.

Related Characters: Charlotte Bartlett, George Emerson
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:

Here Charlotte asks Mr. Emerson about his job, and Mr. Emerson answers, simply, "the railway." Charlotte, a long-time member of the English elite, is shocked that anyone she knows could have such a horrible, down-to-earth profession. She's sorry she asked Mr. Emerson about his job at all.

From a modern perspective--and probably from Forster's, as well--there's nothing wrong with Charlotte's question, or Mr. Emerson's answer: he's a working-class guy, and proud of it. But the passage illustrates the assumptions that go into upper-class English manners. The reason that Charlotte feels comfortable asking Mr. Emerson a question like, "what do you do?" is that she's expecting an answer--whenever she asks that question of her wealthy friends, they say they're lawyers, doctors, bankers, etc. In short, Charlotte's system of politeness and manners rests on the assumption that all people are basically the same; i.e., they come from the same class. Charlotte doesn't like to "mix" with the Emersons because she becomes conscious of the limits of her manners.

Chapter 9 Quotes

No, Lucy, he stands for all that is bad in country life. In London he would keep his place. He would belong to a brainless club, and his wife would give brainless dinner parties. But down here he acts the little god with his gentility, and his patronage, and his sham aesthetics, and every one—even your mother—is taken in.

Related Characters: Cecil Vyse (speaker), Lucy Honeychurch, Sir Harry Otway
Page Number: 98
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Cecil tells Lucy that he finds Sir Harry Otway to be insufferable. Harry, Cecil argues, has horrible taste: he's loud and aggressive, and doesn't know how to tell beauty from ugliness. Cecil also seems to resent that everybody else like Harry, even Lucy's mother, Miss Honeychurch.

The passage is significant because it shows Cecil to be a pretentious and rather hypocritical person. Cecil is an upper-class character, too--he just doesn't have as much land or property as Sir Harry. Cecil is a snobbish aesthete, who looks down on people because they don't have any taste. Cecil's mistake, of course, is to ignore the fact that taste is largely a product of one's class, as well. Cecil would probably look down on most of the working-class families of England, as well as Sir Harry--he'd continue sneering at their bad taste.

On a subtler level, Forster here also critiques the very idea of "taste." As elsewhere in the novel, he contrasts having good taste--that is, knowing what is "supposed" to be beautiful--versus really engaging with beauty on an emotional or spiritual level. Cecil knows how to appreciate art and beauty in theory, but he never really connects with or is moved by it.

Chapter 20 Quotes

Youth enwrapped them; the song of Phaethon announced passion requited, love attained. But they were conscious of a love more mysterious than this. The song died away; they heard the river, bearing down the snows of winter into the Mediterranean.

Related Characters: Lucy Honeychurch, George Emerson
Related Symbols: Indoors, Outdoors and Views
Page Number: 196
Explanation and Analysis:

In this happy, lyrical ending, Lucy and George end up together, having journeyed through Italy once again and reunited. George and Lucy are thrilled to be with each other again: they confess their love for one another, and embrace tenderly. It would seem that they've finally escaped from repression and the control of English proper manners.

And yet, what will George and Lucy's "happy ever after" look like? Forster doesn't tell us what's going to happen, should Lucy and George get married. He leaves the possibilities open, characterizing George and Lucy's love as mysterious and foreign--and also intimately associated with freedom and nature. If Cecil was like an enclosed room, then George is a "room with a view"--one connected to the wildness, freedom, and unpredictability of nature, but still enclosed and sheltering (Lucy doesn't end up totally free, after all).