Henry Wilcox, a prosperous British businessman who has his fair share of domestic bliss and trouble. He owns Howards End, a country home near London, and it is here that the climactic scenes in the novel take place. At the end of his life, he wills Howards End to his second wife, with the understanding that after her death it is to go to the illegitimate child of his second wife’s daughter.
Ruth Wilcox, Wilcox’s first wife and Margaret Schlegel’s good friend. She becomes ill and dies suddenly after writing a note that leaves Howards End to Margaret. Because the note was not part of the formal will, Wilcox and the rest of the family disregard it.
Helen Schlegel, the sister of Wilcox’s second wife, who provides much of the continuity of the novel’s narrative line. She at one time loved Wilcox’s younger son. She has a child by a man Wilcox caused to lose his job. It is her baby that Wilcox learns to love just before his death.
Margaret Schlegel, Wilcox’s second wife. She is cool, sensible, cautious. She is a good friend to Wilcox’s first wife; it was, in fact, to Margaret that Wilcox’s first wife willed Howards End just before she died. Margaret is a faithful wife to Wilcox and a good sister to Helen.
Leonard Bast, a poor, reasonably intelligent, rather neurasthenic worker who loses his job by acting on information Wilcox purposefully provides. His life, by accident, becomes woven into the lives of the Wilcox and Schlegel households. Helen has an illegitimate child by him. He dies of a heart attack caused by the shock of unexpectedly seeing Helen and the trauma of a beating administered to him by Wilcox’s older son.
Paul Wilcox, Wilcox’s younger son, who loved Helen but had been unable to marry her because both families disapproved of the union.
Charles Wilcox, Wilcox’s older son, who is sent to prison for beating Leonard Bast. Though Bast dies of a heart attack and not of the injury sustained in the beating, Charles Wilcox is convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for three years. His son’s trial and conviction break Henry Wilcox’s health.
Jacky Bast, Leonard’s wife, an older woman who tricks Bast into an unpleasant marriage. She has an unsavory reputation caused as much as anything by the fact that she drinks too much.
Theobald Schlegel, Helen and Margaret’s brother.
Leonard is the lowly clerk who wishes to educate himself by reading books and attending concerts. "Such a muddle of a man, and yet so worth pulling though," says Helen Schlegel. He is described as being on the "abyss" of poverty, and is very self-conscious about his position in society. Suspicious of the rich, he will not be patronized by them, which is part of the reason he refuses Helen's offer of money. His two unfortunate mistakes are leaving his job on the advice of the Schlegel sisters (and Henry Wilcox), and becoming involved with Helen. The scene in which he dies, which includes a dramatic fall into a bookcase that showers him with books, has been criticized for its heavy-handed symbolism.
The charming sister of Margaret, Helen is high-spirited and hopelessly idealistic. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony affects her most profoundly, and reveals an interesting theme in the novel. She hears a "goblin footfall" in the music, which she imagines to represent the "panic and emptiness" of life, but she also hears a repetitive motif that she imagines as the heroism, magnificence, and triumph of life. These two aspects of life intrinsically bound together echo the highs and lows of Helen's own experiences. Her short-lived love affair with Paul at the beginning of the novel is indicative of her behavior throughout—heady excitement followed by disillusionment. Ruled by passion, she seldom considers the reality of a situation until it is too late. At first she is quite taken with all of the Wilcoxes, but the ill-fated love affair...
(The entire section is 1,656 words.)