Maurice is the story of a young gay man in early 20th century England. The novel follows Maurice as he matures and discovers his love for a college classmate, Clive. Later, however, Clive pulls away and reveals to Maurice that he is going to marry a woman. The book explores what it meant to have to hide one's true identity in society, and reveals the unfair treatment and frustration of Maurice's life as he grows older. Major themes include societal constraints, sexuality, liberalism, and romantic love.
We first encounter Maurice Hall (pronounced "Morris") aged fourteen having a discussion about sex and women with his prep-school teacher, Ben Ducie, which takes place just before he progresses to his public school. This sets the tone for the rest of the novel, as Maurice feels removed from the depiction of marriage with a woman as the goal of life.
When Maurice enters university, he soon makes friends with fellow student Clive Durham, who introduces him to the ancient Greek writings about same-sex love. For two years they have a committed partnership, which they keep hidden from everyone they know. Maurice hopes for more from their attachment, but it becomes clear that Clive intends to marry, even though Forster's prose leaves no doubts that his marriage will probably entail a mostly joyless union.
Maurice is devastated, and gets a good job as a stockbroker. In his spare time, he helps to run a Christian mission's boxing gym for working-class boys in the East End, although under Clive's influence he has long since abandoned his Christian beliefs.
He makes an appointment with a hypnotist, Mr. Lasker Jones, in an attempt to "cure" himself. Lasker Jones refers to his condition as "congenital homosexuality" and claims a 50 per cent success rate in "curing" this "condition." After the first appointment it is clear that the therapy has failed.
Maurice's unfulfilled emotional longings come closer to being resolved when he is invited to stay at Penge with the Durhams. There, at first unnoticed by him, is the young under-gamekeeper Alec Scudder (called just Scudder for large passages of the book, to emphasise the class difference), who has noticed Maurice. One night he uses a ladder to climb into Maurice's bedroom, answering Maurice's call unheard by anyone else.
After their first night together, Maurice panics and, because of his treatment of Alec, the latter threatens to blackmail Maurice. Maurice goes to Lasker Jones one more time. Knowing that the therapy is failing, he tells Maurice to consider relocating to a country that has adopted the Code Napoleon, meaning one in which same-sex affectional expression is not the state's concern, such as France or Italy. Maurice wonders if same-sex relationships will ever be acceptable in England, to which Lasker Jones replies "I doubt it. England has always been disinclined to accept human nature."
Maurice and Alec meet at the British Museum in London to discuss the supposed blackmail. It becomes clear that they are in love with each other, and Maurice calls him Alec for the first time.
After another night together, it becomes clear that Alec has a ticket for a trip to Argentina, and will not return. Maurice asks Alec to stay with him, and indicates that he knows he has to give up his social and financial position, even his class status. Alec does not accept the offer. After initial resentment Maurice decides to give Alec a sendoff. He is taken aback when Alec is not at the harbour. In a hurry, he makes for Penge, where the two lovers were supposed to have met before at a boathouse. He finds there Alec, who tells him that he had sent a telegram stating that he was to come to the boathouse. Alec had changed his mind, and intends to stay with Maurice, telling him that they "shan't be parted no more".
Maurice visits Clive and outlines what has happened with Alec. Clive is left speechless and unable to comprehend. Maurice goes to the boathouse where he hopes Alec is waiting for him. He is, and they plan a future life together, in happiness.
In the original manuscripts, Forster wrote an epilogue concerning the post-novel fate of Maurice and Alec that he later discarded, because it was unpopular among those to whom he showed it. This epilogue can still be found in the Abinger edition of the novel. This edition also contains a summary of the differences between various versions of the novel.
The Abinger reprint of the Epilogue retains Maurice's original surname of Hill. (Although this surname had been chosen for the character before Maurice Hill (geophysicist) was even born, it certainly could not be retained once the latter had become a Fellow of King's College, Cambridge, Forster's own College. It might, of course, have been changed before that time.) The epilogue contains a meeting between Maurice and his sister Kitty some years later. Alec and Maurice have by now become woodcutters. It dawns upon Kitty why her brother disappeared. This portion of the novel underlines the extreme dislike that Kitty feels for her brother. The epilogue ends with Maurice and Alec in each other's arms at the end of the day discussing seeing Kitty and resolving that they must move on to avoid detection or a further meeting.