‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ is a short story by E. M. Forster (1879-1970), who is probably best-known for novels like Howards End and A Passage to India. However, Forster was also a master of the short story and used the form to explore some of his more metaphysical ideas about humanity, progress, technology, and the future. ‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ is a good example of how he could weave these disparate themes into a piece of imaginative fiction.
The story is a highly symbolic one in which a man walking along a road stops for a rest, goes through a hedge, and finds himself in a strange world where nothing leads anywhere. Before we offer an analysis of the story’s meaning and symbolism, here’s a brief summary of what happens in it.
‘The Other Side of the Hedge’: plot summary
The story is narrated by a man walking along a road. He is using a pedometer to measure his speed, and is so tired he has to stop for a rest, allowing an educationalist named Eliza Dimbleby to overtake him. The narrator fears he will be like his brother, whom he had had to leave by the roadside a year or so before. The narrator says that the monotony of the road is the biggest obstacle in keeping going.
A puff of air from the hedge at the roadside intrigues him, and he goes to take a closer look in the hedge, only to get stuck halfway into the hedge so he has no choice but to push forwards. He finds he has fallen right through the hedge and into a pool of water which turns out to be a moat. He is rescued from the water by an old man, whom he quizzes about this new place. The place, the man tells him, leads nowhere. This doesn’t make sense to the narrator, who is used to the road which is always going somewhere.
Realising that he appears to be trapped there, the narrator loses all enjoyment of this pleasant pastoral world. He is used to advancing and being constantly on the move, but such things appear to be alien to this new world. He is obsessed with development, with things being linked together as part of a great chain of progress. But this new place doesn’t work like that.
As he explores the new place, the narrator finds a bridge, over which is a big gate as white as ivory. This gate opens outwards onto a road just like the one from which the narrator had come. But this guide tells him that it’s a different road from the one he knew: it’s the one from which humanity first left this place when it was first seized with ‘the desire to walk’.
As they continue to walk around the place, the narrator sees Eliza Dimbleby, and this surprises him because he knows she is due to give a lecture that evening. He then finds his watch has stopped. The old man tells him that people often meet others they knew from the road in this place and are astonished to see familiar faces.
The narrator tells him he must bid them farewell and re-join the road. But he can’t. He refuses to eat the food the people eat in this strange place, and insists on staying awake. He yearns to return to life with all of its struggles and its victories. Coming to another bridge on which another gate – a gate that looks to be made of horn – the narrator sees, through this gate, a road very much like the one he had left.
A man appears with a scythe over his shoulder, and the narrator grabs this man’s drinks can and drinks from it gladly. He then sees the old man close the gate and tell him that this is where his road ends. The story concludes with the narrator falling asleep, and, as he drifts off, recognising the man with the scythe as his own brother who had left the road a year or so ago.
‘The Other Side of the Hedge’: analysis
‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ has the force of an allegory, and it’s clear that everything in the story is symbolic rather than literal. The road down which the narrator walks is life, whose monotony is occasionally challenging, but the alternative is to stop and ‘rest’ (i.e., die) and give up life forever. When he leaves the road and goes through the hedge, he dies, returning to the Edenic world of humanity before life and ‘the road’ existed. However, the road also symbolises a particular view of life, which is predicated on progress, improvement, and development: especially scientific and technological development (hence the pedometer).
Forster was deeply concerned about the impact that technological ‘progress’ would have on humanity, as his dystopian short story of 1909, ‘The Machine Stops’ (perhaps the most prophetic story ever written), all too clearly demonstrates. The narrator of ‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ seems certain that things are constantly improving, yet the examples he gives include the Transvaal War: hardly a good example of progress. We are meant to view Forster’s first-person narrator with scepticism and examine his views and his attitudes under a critique.
The gates of ivory and horn are also deeply symbolic. The gates of horn and ivory denote the difference between true dreams and false ones: dreams that came through the gate of ivory were false and dreams that came through the gate of horn were true. It is significant that the first gate in ‘The Other Side of the Hedge’ is made of something which resembles ivory, since it leads onto the road which, the old man reveals, first tempted humanity to leave behind the paradise of the world beyond the hedge and take their first steps towards ‘progress’ and the mortal world.
By contrast, the second gate is made of something transparent, like horn, because it shows him one last glimpse of the road he is leaving behind as he returns, forever, to the world enclosed by the moat. The phrase is found in Homer’s Odyssey, where Penelope observes that dreams that pass through the gate of sawn ivory deceive men, bringing words that find no fulfilment, while dreams which come through the gate of polished horn bring true issues to pass. In other words, humanity leaving the hedge-world behind for the road did not bring fulfilment, though men were tricked into thinking it would. But in accepting that one must leave it behind (as in the narrator’s last look through the horn-like gate), one realises and accepts the truth.
Is the narrator definitely dead? The fact that his brother resembles the Grim Reaper, complete with his scythe, suggests so, but one of the cleverest thing about Forster’s story is that he leaves the matter open to interpretation, with the symbolism working on several levels. For this reason it might be wrong to label the story as a strict ‘allegory’ per se, because its symbols are more ambiguous than the allegory label would allow. The world beyond the hedge may not be heaven or paradise, but some other state. The road may not just symbolise life, but rather the rat-race in which humanity views everything as a matter of progress, targets, goals, and technological improvement. The prelapsarian and preindustrial world the narrator is introduced to offers another way of living.