Mr. Lucas, an Englishman, is growing old. He has always wanted to visit Greece and has finally achieved this, accompanied by his unmarried daughter, Ethel, who will, it has been assumed, dedicate her life to taking care of him in his old age. In Greece, Mr. Lucas becomes restless and resistant to the idea of an expected passive, peaceful death from old age. He wants to "die fighting." Something mysterious happens: he finds a great old hollow tree from which a spring of water flows. He climbs into the tree and experiences an epiphany: he suddenly sees all things as "intelligible and good."

But when the rest of his party find him, he is oddly repelled by them. He does not feel that anyone can share the revelation he has experienced, and he becomes afraid that if he leaves the place he will lose the feeling himself. He decides not to leave, and says he plans to stay at an inn near the old tree, but the others are horrified, and force him to leave with them.

Back in England, some time later, Ethel is now about to be married. Mr. Lucas has become a perpetually disgruntled old man, complaining about everything (especially the sound of water in the plumbing--the mystical Greek spring has been reduced to this annoyance--he says, "there’s nothing I dislike more than running water"). His sister, Julia, whom he hates, is going to take care of him once Ethel is married.

Then a gift arrives from a friend in Greece, wrapped in a Greek newspaper. In it Ethel reads the news that on the night they left, the old tree was blown down, and fell on the family who kept the inn nearby, killing them all. Ethel is upset, and says how lucky it was that they hadn’t stayed there that night, calling it a "marvellous deliverance," but Mr. Lucas dismisses the story without interest. He no longer cares.


Forster anchors this story in Greek tragedy, explicitly identifying Mr. Lucas with Oedipus and Ethel with his daughter, Antigone. The story’s meaning lies largely in its departure from the Greek one. After discovering the horrible truth of his parentage and putting out his own eyes (at the end of Oedipus the King), Oedipus leaves Thebes and he and Antigone wander until they reach Colonus. He refuses to leave the place and dies there (see Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus). For Oedipus there is no road from Colonus.

In Forster’s version, Mr. Lucas is forced to relinquish his vision of meaning and the dramatic death he desired and which was, evidently, awaiting him in the tree’s fall. He must return to England, to be abandoned by his Antigone, and to age and die slowly and without much dignity. In return, he abandons his glimpse of meaning and his dream of a good death, becoming disaffected and selfish and lonely.

The Greek kind of tragedy with its heroism and its sense that the world is intelligible even when most painful is replaced by a more modern kind of tragedy, where meaning is lost to failed communication and social dictates (the English party won’t stay at the inn because they consider the Greek family dirty and foreign and low-class).

A powerful reminder of the importance of respecting the insights and needs of the aging. The others patronize Mr. Lucas because he seems unreasonable, even incompetent. They think they have rescued him. Instead he has been diminished, fatally.

Primary Source

The Collected Tales of E. M. Forster



Place Published

New York



Page Count