E.M. Forster on Elián González

The April 19 New York Times reports that CBS plans to make a four-hour miniseries about the Elián González saga. But the story has already been rendered as fictional narrative by E.M. Forster in his 1905 novel Where Angels Fear To Tread. (Click here to download the University of Michigan’s electronic-text edition of the book; click here to read up on the Merchant-Ivoryish 1991 film adaptation, which was actually produced by Nick Elliott and directed by Charles Sturridge.) Like Forster’s A Room With a View,  Where Angels Fear To Tread is a comedy of manners about insular Britons struggling to understand Italian culture. It tells the story of Lilia Herriton, an English widow who outrages her prim in-laws by abandoning her young daughter and marrying Gino Carelli, an Italian 12 years her junior, whom she meets while on holiday in Tuscany with her friend Caroline Abbott. After Lilia dies giving birth to Gino’s son, her sister and brother-in-law, Harriet and Philip Herriton, go to Italy to retrieve the baby. They are accompanied by Caroline, of whom Forster writes:

The child’s welfare was a sacred duty to her, not a matter of pride or even of sentiment. By it alone, she felt, could she undo a little of the evil that she had permitted to come into the world. To her imagination Monteriano had become a magic city of vice, beneath whose towers no person could grow up happy or pure.

When Caroline actually sees the infant, though, she acquires misgivings:

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. You could talk to it; in time it would answer you; in time it would not answer you unless it chose, but would secrete, within the compass of its body, thoughts and wonderful passions of its own. And this was the machine on which she and Mrs. Herriton and Philip and Harriet had for the last month been exercising their various ideals–had determined that in time it should move this way or that way, should accomplish this and not that. It was to be Low Church, it was to be high-principled, it was to be tactful, gentlemanly, artistic–excellent things all. Yet now that she saw this baby, lying asleep on a dirty rug, she had a great disposition not to dictate one of them, and to exert no more influence than there may be in a kiss or in the vaguest of the heartfelt prayers.

Gino is offered, and refuses, a bribe to turn the child over to the Herritons. But Harriet, a self-righteous prig who lacks Caroline’s ability to appreciate the conflict’s human dimension, contrives to steal the baby from Gino. At this point, the Anglo-Italian conflict veers from comedy to tragedy: The carriage in which Harriet spirits the child away during a violent rainstorm is accidentally upturned, and the baby is killed.

The parallels with the González story aren’t perfect. The gulf between Elián’s Miami relatives and his Havana relatives is more ideological than cultural, and the pro-freedom beliefs of the Cuban-Americans warrant much greater respect than the British conviction that “wogs begin at Calais.” Also, at 6, Elián is old enough to make his own preference to stay in the United States known (though not old enough for his preference to carry much weight). Chatterbox should further stipulate that he has never subscribed to Forster’s oft-quoted pronouncement that “if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (To read the entire passage from Two Cheers for Democracy, click here.)

Still, Lilia makes a plausible stand-in for Elián’s deceased mom, Elisabet; Gino is more than plausible as Elián’s dad, Juan Miguel; and one can only hope that Elián’s great-uncle Lázaro ends up being less blindly certain of his path than Harriet. Sadly, no one seems to be playing Caroline, in the sense that no one close to Elisabet seems to be waking up to Elián’s terrible exploitation. (Chatterbox is also unclear what the Forster antecedent would be for the federal appeals court that today ruled that Elián must stay in the United States pending appeal of his case.) The mainstream press is telling the story mostly as Forster would have written it, though there are pockets of Harrietism, most conspicuously at the Weekly Standard. The Standard’s conservative-but-normally-rational Christopher Caldwell, in particular, has given himself over to Harrietlike hysteria, pronouncing, among other things, that he can tell by looking at a news photograph of Juan Miguel stepping off the plane in Washington that the soles of his shoes are “unmarred by any contact with pavement,” ergo Castro bought the shoes for Juan Miguel, ergo Juan Miguel is a stooge of Castro’s Communist dictatorship. (Click here if you think Chatterbox is making this up.)