Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Other Side of The Hedge

I had written in my previous post about the beautiful essay Machines and the Emotions which we had read in Class 12. That made me revisit my Class 12th English book English With A Purpose. I remember when I asked my ma’am Mrs. B. Puri what her favourite chapter in the book was, she replied that it was The Other Side of the Hedge by E.M. Forster. However, that chapter was not in our course as CBSE had removed it. But I had read it that time and was taken aback as to what is so good about it? Now I feel how naive I was at that time (makes me feel old..6 years ago). And now I also realize why the CBSE removed it from the course!! It is too open-ended and deep that maybe too difficult for an average Class 12 student to comprehend its intricacies, also considering that CBSE has to take into account the level of understanding of students of Hindi medium as well. 

I have read that essay during the past week at least thrice (and will have to read again and again) and finally have come to some understanding about the extremely layered text. I can guarantee that if you read the essay for the first time, you will not fully understand what the author is trying to say. You have to read it again to decipher the hidden references to understand what he is actually trying to convey. I found the essay just like the brilliant film No Smoking by Anurag Kashyap. I can vouch that you will not understand that film if you watch it once, you have to watch it again and again, even then you will not be able to make out exactly what is going on the will entirely be your interpretation which might be totally different from someone else’s. That is the power of a good film which makes you want to watch it again and again, just like a good book that makes you revisit it again and again. The Other Side of the Hedge is exactly like No Smoking. There are so many interpretations that your understanding of the events could be entirely different from mine which could again be different from what the author wants to convey. However, this might lead to some criticism that it might make it too difficult for readers to understand, just like it happened in the case of No Smoking. Even the critics panned that movie! There is only a niche audience for such texts, considering how big a star Chetan Bhagat is in our country! So, getting back to the essay, I think everyone should read this essay at this hyperlink

Here is my interpretation of the hedge :- 

I think the story is about the modern day life, that in this quest for advancement we have forgotten to stop and appreciate the beauty around us. We are constantly running on a road that we think will take us to progress but we are just going round and round ultimately leading to nowhere. We are more concerned about materialistic pleasures that we have lost our inherent humanism in our lives. Like he says 

“At first I thought I was going to be like my brother, whom I had had to leave by the roadside a year or two round the corner. He had wasted his breath on singing, and his strength on helping others. And I had already dropped several things - indeed, the road behind was strewn with the things we all had dropped, and the white dust was settling down on them, so that already they looked no better than stones.” 

We have become so rigid in our thoughts that we do not like to accept an alternative viewpoint and believe that our view is the correct one, and we are always trying to show others down. 

“For we of the road do not admit in conversation that there is another side at all.”

“We moved away from the boundary, and then followed a path almost parallel to it, across the meadows. I found it difficult walking, for I was always trying to out-distance my companion, and there was no advantage in doing this if the place led nowhere. I had never kept step with anyone since I left my brother.” 

And we do not realize that there in a more beautiful world around us, if only we could just look on the other side. 

“Even when the water was out of my eyes, I was still dazed, for I had never been in so large a space, nor seen such grass and sunshine. The blue sky was no longer a strip, and beneath it the earth had risen grandly into hills - clean, bare buttresses, with beech trees in their folds, and meadows and clear pools at their feet. But the hills were not high, and there was in the landscape a sense of human occupation - so that one might have called it a park, or garden, if the words did not imply a certain triviality and constraint.”

We could be happy doing something we really want to do in life, if we stopped thinking about our competitors, if we do chose not to participate in the rat race. Our biggest competition should be with us, not with others. Like he says 

“Some of them were singing, some talking, some engaged in gardening, hay-making, or other rudimentary industries. They all seemed happy; and I might have been happy too, if I could have forgotten that the place led nowhere." 

"I was startled by a young man who came sprinting across our path, took a little fence in fine style, and went tearing over a ploughed field till he plunged into a lake, across which he began to swim. Here was true energy, and I exclaimed: ‘A cross-country race! Where are the others?’ 

‘There are no others,’ my companion replied; and, later on, when we passed some long grass from which came the voice of a girl singing exquisitely to herself, he said again: ‘There are no others.’ I was bewildered at the waste in production, and murmured to myself, what does it all mean?” 

The narrator is not convinced of his guide’s views that one’s competition should be with oneself instead of others. He says this to prove his point, “It is the thought of that that makes us strive to excel, each in his own way, and gives us an impetus which is lacking with you. Now that man who passed us - it’s true that he ran well, and jumped well, and swam well; but we have men who can run better, and men who can jump better, and who can swim better.” 

Forster uses another reference to Greek mythology of ivory and horns. From what I found on the Internet, the two gates are an allusion to the Odyssey, an epic which speaks of dreams that pass through gates of ivory and horn. In Greek, the terms 'ivory' and 'horn' are a play on words: horn is a metaphor for fulfill, the same is true of ivory and deception. These come into play when the guide is explaining about the two gates. 

“Over the bridge was a big gate, as white as ivory, which was fitted into a gap in the boundary hedge. The gate opened outwards, and I exclaimed in amazement, for from it ran a road, just such a road as I had left, dusty under foot, with brown crackling hedges on either side as far as the eye could reach. 

‘That’s my road!’ I cried. He shut the gate and said: ‘But not your part of the road. It is through this gate that humanity went out countless ages ago, when it was first seized with the desire to walk.” 

And about the second gate, he says, “At last we came to a place where the encircling moat was spanned by another bridge, and where another gate interrupted the line of the boundary hedge. It was different from the first gate; for it was half transparent like horn, and opened inwards. But through it, in the waning light, I saw again just such a road as I had left - monotonous, dusty, with brown crackling hedges on either side, as far as the eye could reach. This is where your road ends, and through this gate humanity, all that is left of it, will come in to us.” 

I think probably Forster is referring that the ivory gate as it opens outwards symbolizes that we humans are looking at outwardly materialistic pleasures. We are in a way living in a bubble of deception that we could be happy through these. Humanity has lost its way. Only we come inside through the second gate, and look for inner happiness (as the horn gate opens inwards) then only we can be happy. 

It is such a beautiful chapter that I am still trying to figure out the significance of the stopped pedometer, the drink at the end, the lost brother and the scythe (communism perhaps?!). 

However, there is another interpretation of the chapter that I found on the net that shows the story as the transition from life to death where the hedge represents a purgatory. Although, some believe that this is in contrast to Forster’s religious writing, I think it might be true as well. 

This is what they say in this regard 

“The Other Side of the Hedge serves as a metaphor for life, death and afterlife. Within the story, Forester has hidden many references – both religious and philosophical – to the world as an average reader would perceive it. The road becomes life itself; milestones mark passage of time and achievement while pedometers serve to measure experience. However, the road is also a folly of construction. It was created by humankind to give meaning to their existence and direction to their false lives. The walkers pretend the other side of the hedge does not exist, for its presence will cast doubt on the truth of their existence. 

During the narrator's stay on the road (which serves as a reference to life on earth) he leaves behind his brother. The possibilities for this figure are many; "Brother" could be an all-encompassing term for mankind, or it could reflect a reader's own paradigms, referencing a male figure with sibling relationship to the narrator. This second has more likely feel to it; the entirety of humanity could not be accurately represented by a single individual. 

The narrator, when the audience first encounters him, is seated on a milestone; he is stopped, watching others pass by as they jeer at him for having fallen short on the road. When there are no longer people around, he takes himself through the hedge, finding it to be "not as thick as usual." This is where there are several diverging opinions. Several critics hold that the narrator simply dies. Others claim that because he crawls through the hedge on his own, he is committing suicide. Following the second theory fits in with the description the narrator offers of how he is feeling: "In my weak, morbid state…I yielded to the temptation." Before he even considers entering, he first checks to make sure no one is around to see; there is a shame to his actions. He enters the hedge, going through the thinner portion only to fall out the other side into cold water. 

Through life, both in the "real" world and in mythology, water is a symbol of birth and rebirth: when creatures are born into the world, they come through embryonic fluid; when Hindus and Buddhists hold funerals, they utilize water as a symbol of passing on; Christianity links water to baptism, as a public declaration of faith; in Islam water is a symbol of total purification, as it is in Judaism as well; and in Greek mythology, the dead cross a river to reach the afterlife. 

The narrator is fished out of the water – presumably purified – by someone from the opposite bank. Before he comes out, he is said to have heard someone exclaim "Another!" which presents the idea that he is not the only walker of the road to enter this paradise by way of the hedge. The narrator, once helped from the water, immediately questions his rescuer: "'Where does this place lead to?'" to which the other replies, "'Nowhere, thank the Lord." 

Overwhelmed by the vast scale of this space on the other side of the hedge, the narrator gives in to his rescuer, and allows the tour guide to lead him away from the water, arguing the merits of the road. The tour guide seems to have heard all the protests before; it is quite obvious that this man is no stranger to denial. Forcibly, the tour guide leads the narrator through this trapped paradise. 

The aimless participation of others within the sphere of the park irks the narrator as he is led by a cross-country race staring a single participant and a girl singing for no audience. He is bewildered by the lack of motivation for a goal; as he follows the tour guide, he argues continually about the superiority of the men of the road. The tour guide, however, has his own views on what to show. He takes the narrator to a set of gates, promising that he will let the narrator go after they have been to the gates. The first set of gates are made of ivory, and lead out towards the road; this the tour guide names as the portion of the road through which "'humanity went out countless ages ago, when it was first seized with the desire to walk.'" The second gate which the narrator and tour guide visit is built of horn. The two gates are an allusion to the Odyssey, an epic which speaks of dreams that pass through gates of ivory and horn. In Greek, the terms 'ivory' and 'horn' are a play on words: horn and fulfill in English are the same word in Greek. The same is true of ivory and deception. 

If the gate of ivory led out to the road, then the road is symbolic of self-delusion. Leaving paradise for the road is reminiscent of Adam and Eve's banishment from Eden after eating from the Tree of Knowledge. Following the Christian trend, humanity's return through the gates of ivory should be symbolic of Judgment Day and the return of truth to the human race. 

The hedge itself is also related to the gates. When the narrator comes through, he notes that there are dog-roses and Traveler's Joy on the park side of the hedge. Traveler's Joy is also known as Old-Man's-Beard, and in the language of flowers is a symbol of artifice. Following with the gates, coming in through the hedge would be passing through the self-delusion, and then the water in its purification would create the perfect environment within the enclosed paradise.”


  1. Oh GOD, what a post!!!

  2. first time visit your blog....didnt read the complete post just first 25 lines.....first i will read those essays you ,mentioned then come back and will resume reading rest of the materieal.

  3. A most fascinating read dude!! Fair to say the essay is too deep for 12th graders.
    Though the first interpretation is the one that I could decipher, it is hard to find fault with the second one. The reference to water in the latter is most amazing.

  4. what was confusing has been doubled.. i agree it is a "massively" complicated text for so short a space it has occupied..and too open-ended... i am going to have a wonderful time in the classroom next week!

  5. Very deep and educational! Helped me a understand the complicated symbols in the story. Great post!

  6. i have to write a research paper on it and im in the tenth grade!

  7. to my understanding, the pedometer represents the stopping of his life.... he was 25 when he died. your post was very useful, i´m an argentinian student of english

  8. again, the lost brother may represent reunion in heaven with your beloved people after death, the scythe: may represent death, cause i strongly believe he struggles with himself in heaven, after crossing the hedge, but the very moment he dies is when he drinks the cup of beer. hope to be helpful
    the argentinian student...

  9. Thank you for such a elaborate explanation. I am so happy to find interpretation of this essay. I was reading "The Celestial Omnibus and Other Stories" and came across this essay in that book. It sounded familiar but i could not remember where i read it. Then after doing google to find meaning of metaphors i found your blog. i had this short story in my school some 10 years back.


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