Howards End - Connection and disintegration
Published in 1910, Howards End is E.M. Forster's fourth novel. Although thematically rich, the novel focuses on the concept of 'connection' -- connection between the private and public life and between individuals. This theme is also highlighted in the epigraph of the novel, which reads, "Only connect." Forster emphasizes the difficulty in creating and maintaining such connections due to the ways in which people relate to one another and the moral codes they live by. As far as characters, the novel is centered on two families: the Schlegels who symbolize intellectualism and ideals, and the Wilcoxes who represent English practicality and commercialism, with connections to the worlds of business and politics. On a deeper level, these two families could suggest human nature in its whole, with the Wilcoxes representing the applied, practical side, and the Schlegels the less visible, more subtle corners of the human mind. This paper looks at two of the most important characters throughout the novel, i.e. Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox, both as individuals and from the perspective of their relationship.
Margaret Schlegel is the protagonist of the novel, a 29-year-old woman of mixed German and English heritage, living in London at the beginning of the twentieth century. She is the chief representative of her family, characterized by the idealism and intellectualism that defined the English upper class. Margaret is intelligent, educated and well-read. Although she shares her idealistic nature with her younger sister, Helen, Margaret is grounded and realistic as well. In fact, Forster's description of his protagonist unveils Margaret's essence: "Not beautiful, not supremely brilliant, but filled with something that took the place of both qualities -- something best described as a profound vivacity, a continual and sincere response to all that she encountered in her path through life" (Chapter 1).
It is precisely this combination of idealism and realism which determined Margaret to marry Henry Wilcox, a man who most definitely appears to represent her exact opposite. However, she sees the big picture and is able to recognize his qualities as well as his shortcomings. From this point-of-view, she becomes the bridge between the two families -- Forster calls her "rainbow bridge" (Chapter 22) -- and succeeds in creating a connection between the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes because she understands that society needs all kinds of people: "They form character, too; Margaret could not doubt it; they keep the soul from becoming sloppy. How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes, when it takes all sorts to make a world?" (Chapter 12) Henry Wilcox is the head of his family, a sexist and practical man who devotes his life to his business after his first wife dies. Henry is clear-headed and rigid, with clear opinions on matters such as politics, women, or society. Marrying Margaret does change him to some extent. Margaret is sympathetic and wants to help Henry, and in doing so, she manages to exert considerable influence over him. However, it is his inability to make connections between his own experience and others', or, in other words, his utter lack of sympathy that renders him cold and emotionally unavailable. Nonetheless, by the end of the novel, Henry is broken by life itself through the imprisonment of his son, Charles which forces him to reevaluate the values he lives by.
The concept of connection is perhaps most highlighted in the case of these two characters. By Margaret and Henry's marriage, the two opposing worlds are connected. Margaret, unlike her more idealistic sister, Helen, evolved toward an understanding of the Wilcoxes, and their way of functioning both as individuals and as a family. Moreover, Margaret begins to realize their importance in society and that without practical and financial-oriented people such as Henry social and economic stability would not exist. In fact, she becomes aware of the fact that many of the things she values in life, such as art and culture, could not exist without this stability. "More and more," she says, "do I refuse to draw my income and sneer at those who guarantee it" (Chapter 19). These two worlds are opposed due to the values they cherish. The theme of the contrast between the inner and the outer world is strongly linked to that of connection. In order for these two families to coexist in peace and harmony, they have to learn to understand and accept each other. From this point-of-view, Margaret represents the unifying link between her family, more precisely her sister, Helen, and her husband, Henry Wilcox. Margaret struggles to end her sister's and husband's isolation as she feels that life consists of both "the beast" and "the monk": "Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die." (Chapter 22) Towards the end of the novel, these two families are finally united as Henry, Margaret and Helen live happily in Howards End. Although initially their marriage was on the brink of dissolution because of his refusal to allow Helen to spend the night at Howards End, Henry slowly develops an appreciation for spirituality, i.e. The inner life, while Margaret's younger sister begins to understand and acknowledge the importance of practicality and action.
The time and setting in Howards End are also relevant as far as the endeavor of understanding the concept of "connection" in the novel, as Forster depicts English life shortly before World War I when England was in the midst of profound social change while attempting to maintain and increase its great global influence. Class conflict is another important theme in the novel with the three families in Howards End representing different levels of the middle class. The Schlegels occupy the middle position, the intellectuals, the ones that focus more on interiority than practicality. The Basts represent the lower middle class, with Leonard Bast trying to improve himself by becoming more cultured, and in doing so, climbing up the social ladder. The Wilcoxes belong to the upper middle class thanks to Henry Wilcox's savvy business sense and determination. Closely connected to the theme of class is that of inheritance.
At the time Howards End was published, England was undergoing great social change. The issue of women's emancipation, commercial and imperial expansion, and the possibility of war with Germany were all factors that contributed to a general feeling of uncertainty about the future of England. One of the most important questions addressed by the novel is of who shall inherit England. In Howards End, the theme of inheritance is tackled precisely from the perspective of class struggle. By the end of the novel, these three classes are intertwined and thus, connected with Margaret marrying Henry and Helen bearing Leonard Bast's child. This could suggest that Forster's idea of inheritance lies in this class dissolution in the sense that England belongs to each and every one of them, and that in order for English society to progress, it must learn the value of equality, or at least that of acceptance.
Howards End is not the only important house in the novel. In Howards End, a novel which takes its name from the Wilcox family's country house, the "material contexts" of the characters and their relationships to these material contexts defines each of the three families: the Schlegels, the Wilcoxes, and the Basts. The Schlegel house on Wickham Place is also a significant symbol of their class, hence of their very identity. However, in addition to the symbolism of houses in the novel, Forster also tackles the value of objects and ideas, including money, by building a continuous contrast between the "seen" and the "unseen," i.e. The material and the spiritual aspects of human existence. At one point, Margaret becomes estranged from her sister Helen because she now sees herself as an ally of the Wilcoxes. It is only when Margaret and Helen meet at Howards End that Margaret sees that the Schlegels are threatened in a world run by Wilcoxes. She and Helen are reconciled at Howards End, surrounded by their furniture and other possessions, when they realize that ". . . The triviality faded from their faces, though it left something behind -- the knowledge that they never could be parted because their love was rooted in common things." (Chapter 37) it is the history they share, represented by what they have jointly owned and experienced that binds them together. Because they value this common history, they also value Howards End.
In many ways, Howards End itself is a symbol of England. Howards End initially belongs to Ruth Wilcox, Henry's first wife, who befriends Margaret and on her deathbed, scribbles a note leaving it to her. She cannot leave it to her family because she is aware that their only feeling for it is one of ownership; they regard it…