Howards End E. M. Forster
English novelist, short story writer, essayist, critic, and biographer.
The following entry presents criticism on Forster's novel Howards End (1910). See also E. M. Forster Criticism (Volume 1), and Volumes 2, 3.
In Howards End (1910) Forster explored the often violent and disturbing struggle for survival and dominance among English social classes in the first years of the twentieth century. Ultimately arguing in favor of the fundamental integrity of the individual and the primacy of personal relations, Howards End focuses largely on the simplicity of its famous dictum: “Only connect!”
Plot and Major Characters
Howards End begins with the depiction of a series of seemingly unrelated encounters and events that soon cause the lives of individuals in three distinct English social classes to intertwine, with permanent and sometimes shocking consequences. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are sisters who represent the middle level of the English middle class. Financially independent but not wealthy, the Schlegel sisters are categorized as intellectual humanists, devoted to the arts and literature rather than the capitalist interests of the upper-middle-class Wilcox family, who cannot be bothered with intellectual or emotional issues because they are entirely focused on rigid financial and social pursuits. A third class level is illustrated by Leonard Bast, a lower-middle-class clerk at an insurance company who loses his job because of some advice he takes from Henry Wilcox. It is primarily Margaret Schlegel who serves as the bridge among the three social groups. Margaret befriends Henry Wilcox's first wife, Ruth, who is the inheritor of the country house Howards End and who feels an affinity for Margaret that she does not have with any of her family; eventually, she tries to bequeath Margaret the house in her will. Margaret also becomes closely acquainted with Henry, whom she eventually marries. Helen has a child with Leonard Bast, who dies from heart failure after receiving a beating from Henry's son Charles. After a series of misunderstandings and separations, the three main characters—Margaret, Helen, and Henry—are reunited at Howards End, where they all choose to live, along with Helen and Leonard's child. Margaret's famous plea, “Only connect,” beseeching others to observe and unite the various aspects of life—the mundane and the extraordinary—serves as a unifying theme among the disparate classes and characters.
Forster's themes in Howards End are many and varied. Most important is the antagonism among the classes in Edwardian England. The second half of the nineteenth century in England—as well as in America—saw a burgeoning of the middle and upper-middle classes, as industrial spread and businesses, particularly factories, grew. This business class, which had money but few family or social connections to the gentry, was known for its pragmatic approach to living, valuing material acquisition over patronage of the arts and liberal education. The tension between the Wilcoxes and the Schlegel sisters revolves around these differing values. By making the sisters part German, Forster also called to attention to sociopolitical relations between England and Germany at the turn of the century. The sisters' relationship with each other also is important to understanding Forster's themes. With each sister involved with men of different classes, they represent a separate facet of class awareness. The central symbolic image in the novel is Howards End, the house itself, which serves as a symbol of unity and community in an unstable and chaotic social world.
Howards End is acknowledged as one of Forster's greatest achievements in fiction. Critics have noted, however, that Forster seemed uneasy about representing physical relationships. The events that occur between Helen Schlegel and Leonard Bast have received the most negative commentary, with many critics finding their relationship baffling. Nonetheless, opinion of Howards End generally places it among Forster's most important commentaries on Edwardian society.