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Howards End- Book Review

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Howards End- Book Review

Howards End- the fourth novel by E.M Forster has drawn in attention for its strong social content. Forster reflects in this novel a picture of a narrow segment of the turn-of-the-century England. The brilliant form of art and design of the novel has successfully brought out the theme of class struggle. In the November 1910 edition of “Nation”, an anonymous reviewer pointed out this novel as a ‘far sighted criticism of middle class ideas’ (Colmer, 107). Published in the year of 1910, Howards End is essentially a conflict between the social values and the cultures, ultimately leading to the prejudging of various social vices.

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Through the difficulties and benefits of the relationships between the people of various social causes, Forster presents a detailed thematic balance of the novel.

Forster scathingly in Howards End dissects the economic underpinnings of different social relations by dealing with the social subjects like class, money, culture and social statuses. The novel gives an insight in to the life of England a few years before the World War I.

The most dominant question that was raised at that time was “Who shall inherit England”, as mentioned by an eminent critic Lionel Trilling. (sparknotes, 2008) People were concerned about which class will rule the nation. The underlying theme of the social criticism makes the novel a representative of the ‘Edwardian novel’ (Colmer, 107). It explores the theme of social relationships that developed between different classes in England.  The culture is as important a subject of the novel as the social distinctions. Different characters of Howards End show different reactions to it. While the culture is totally ignored by the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels accept it wholly and on the other hand, Leonard Bust wants to acquire it (Colmer 107).

 The motto, ‘Only connect’ of the novel establish a relationship between the passion of human relationship and prose. The novel, Howards End revolves around three families, each belonging to different strata of the society. The Wilcoxes are the rich capitalists, who have made a huge fortune in the Colonies. Margaret, Tibby and Helen are the half-German Schlegel siblings and representative of the intellectual bourgeoisie class. They show familiarity with the real-life Bloomsbury Group, while to the lower middle class belongs the Bast couple. The class struggle and social distinctions develop in the novel through the intricate inter relationships between these sets of characters.  These groups of characters are set against each other and are interrelated to show that the people from different classes of Victorian England are mixing with each other.

It is thus seen that leaving behind Leonard Bast, other characters belong to the upper strata of the societal ladder. These Wilcox’s and Schlegel families both represent different aspects of the upper class society. Proper education, culture and intellectual ideals are brought about by the Schlegel family in the novel and on the other hand, the materialistic and hard working ideals of the society are represented by the Wilcox’s (Helium, 2002). With his background as an ordinary clerk, working for an insurance company, puts Leonard Bast to the lower middle class of the society.

Forster, while writing the novel, Howards End realized that the upper classes were gaining importance in the Victorian England. The dominance of the upper class in the society as portrayed in the novel, by E.M. Forster is somewhat autobiographical. He actually saw in his real life the rise to power and dominance of the capitalist class and was also aware of its result in the near future. With the dominance of the Wilcox’s, automobile and machines became more prominent in the society. (emforster, 2002)  These remain the most significant images to assert the dominance posed by the upper and middle class peoples.  The imagery of the machines is all pervasive in Howards End. Forster, in the chapter 13 of Howards End, goes on to describe their effects in the city of London. He writes:

“And month by month the roads smelt more strongly of petrol, and were more             difficult to cross, and human beings heard each other speak with greater difficulty, breathed less of the air, and saw less of the sky. Nature withdrew: the leaves were falling by midsummer; the sun shone through dirt with an admired obscurity”. (Page 105)

The Wilcox’s are responsible for polluting the air with the fumes emitting from the machines and automobiles. The colonial spirit of the Wilcox’s is shown in their love for the Colonies and their frequent changing of homes. Not only is this, by their idea of spending their leisure by motoring also largely colonial by nature and spirit. By doing this they are making the lives of London endangered and contribute to the dehumanization of the society.

The characters and their changing relationships are handled with great care while dealing with the social issues of Victorian England as brought about by E.M.Forster in Howards End. Different sets of characters are chosen while dealing with different social issues. The romance between Helen Schelgel and Paul Wilcox give rise to various complications both in the domestic and the social arena. Though both of them belong to the upper class families, yet there are complicacies that arise from the difference in ideals. Aunt Juley and Charles break out in serious arguments when he learns about the relationship shared between Helen and Paul. They argue about whose family had better ideals. Though both the family belong to the same social status, yet there are serious clash between their ideals.

Serious social issues arise when Helen Schelgel sleeps with Leonard Bast and she becomes pregnant. Leonard is already married to a woman named Jackie and the relationship between Helen and Leonard does not continue for long. It was considered to be a taboo for Helen to sleep with someone who belongs to the lower class. As a result, their encounter is not clearly mentioned in the book, which gives an oblique hint at the social discrimination. Thus we see, Helen maintains relationship with two different individuals who belong to two entirely different classes and has different social statuses.

Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox are another set of characters, through which Forster upholds his differences in social statuses. Margaret and Henry get married after his wife passes away. Though both of them belong to the upper strata of the societal ladder, yet their ideals are put to test after their marriage. She compromises on her ideals lets him dominate her as she feels sorry for Henry. But clash of ideals arises between the two when, Margaret finds out that unmarried Helen is carrying a child by a man who belongs to the lower class. When Henry refuses to help Helen, Margaret brings about the affair that Henry shared some years ago with a lower class woman named Jackie Bast. At this Henry gets embarrassed and the end of the novel shows us that Helen comes to live with them, where her child is born. A bond of friendship is developed between Henry and Helen to show that all the three classes unite finally. This is to bring out that in the Victorian society, the different classes are mixing together and are moving towards a new world during the post industrial revolution era.

“Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.

“The field’s cut!’ Helen cried out excitedly—“the big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”  (Page 351)

This upholds the changing nature of the 20th century England, where the classes will blend together without any differences.

Another major issue that gives scope for the conflict in E.M. Forster’s Howards End is the role of money. (Sparknotes, 2008) Money has lots of symbolic interpretation in the novel. It strengthens the class struggle and as Forster mentions in his novel, it is for which the struggle of the people continues. It is through the characterization of the Wilcox and Schlegel that Forster establishes the contrast between the material world and the imaginative world. The whole life is but a struggle for subsistence and working hard to earn money. This makes Helen imagine during the performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony that there is nothing great in being human beings and that goblins are walking down the paths of universe.

“No; look out for the part where you think you have done with the goblins and they come back,” breathed Helen, as the music started with a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end. Others followed him.  They were not aggressive creatures; it was that that made them so terrible to Helen. They merely observed in passing that there was no such thing as splendor or heroism in the world…had seen the reliable walls of youth collapse. Panic and emptiness! Panic and emptiness! The goblins were right.” (Page 29)

Later, Helen realizes that life is not all about money but it is a necessity that brings happiness and security to the people. It is because of the unforeseen forces that people wants to indulge in leisure and spend money. It is because she has money that she realizes the truth but the things are completely different for Leonard Bast, who belongs to the lower class. The houses in which the characters live also become a symbol of their social status and class identity.

 Forster through his stylistic resistance brings out the theme of social status in the novel, Howards End.  He uses the narrative techniques exclusively to make the readers understand the various thought process of the characters. The modernist approach of the narrative style shows the conformity of the place and the characters (Bradshaw, 248). The various concerns for family, modernity, social class and identity are equated with the inheritance of the property by the characters in the novel.  The characters are intertwined with each other to interpret the social scenario of the Victorian England. Forster is out to confront the social problems of England rather than discussing the class problems in the domestic levels. The characters are representatives of the social, economic and political power of England. The synchronization of the personal and public relations had always been the crucial problem for Forster, which he tried to portray in Howards End.

Howards End is a novel that involves numerous themes, but class conflict and antagonism come up as the major ones. The time when the novel was written is important in this context. It is the Edwardian England, which is represented by Howards End. Middle and the upper middle classes were the burgeoning sections of the British society. Changes took place mainly because of the emergence of industries. People belonging to the commercial class came into the limelight. Members of this class had their attempts to keep connection with the gentries – a way that was considered as one of the best surviving strategies of the time. Such a business-based beau monde atmosphere undoubtedly gave priority to material wealth above everything else. A practical lookout towards life became a main philosophy during this time. This is why the culture and educational system tried to be more liberal. Schlegel and Wilcoxes sisters had arguments between them mainly because of their moral and cultural differences. The England-Germany relation, on the other hand also represents the international arguments that existed at that time. The sisters also display the national differences among them and therefore portray a realistic picture about the concerned time. Forster has rightly portrayed the graveness of this conflict regarding power in the society. Each and every class tried to get the upper hand on the others and the main means of this power was obviously money.

The lifestyle that has been portrayed in Howards End is a true example of the so called English practicality. The emergence of capitalism and industrialism made the commerce based section of the society more powerful than the intellectual counterpart. This became the main reason for conflict of the time. People who were highly educated could not accept the truth that their intellectual power on other would no longer remain effective in a world of politics and business. The intellectual class represented by the Schlegels here in this novel became busy with the interpersonal relationships during this time of commercialism. On the other hand, the commercial sector of the society was busy expanding themselves into a broader world. Howards End shows the two families, which represent the two opposite sides of English society of the contemporary period bringing up the conflict face to face.

Leonard Bast is the character who is seen to be obsessed with the idea of conflict in a social milieu. Middle class is the main sector of the British society where this struggle is basically visible. This is a section of the society that is very eager to have everything like the upper class yet they cannot afford. Leonard Bast is a person who always tries to prove himself as a cultured man and he attends several concerts and reads books in order to prove himself as an intellectual. Forster shows the differences inside the middle class society, where a conflict is visible between the upper and lower portions of the society.  Bast reflects this conflict as he belongs to the lower level of this British Edwardian middle class culture. His main conflict is with the Wilcoxes, the family which represents the upper counterpart of the society. Leonard, on the other hand, is devastated by the fact that he is taken only as an object of sympathy in the life of Helen. Moreover the Wilcox’s attitude towards him also appears to be troublesome. The incident where Wilcox beats Leonard is the example of the extreme of this class conflict in which the upper class controls and hates the lower counterpart.

According to many of the eminent critics of English literature, Howards End is actually the true portray of Edwardian England. This was a country where the families like the Wilcoxes used to rule and underestimation of the lower classes was quite clearly visible. Here E.M. Forster has also used symbolism to a great extent. Wilcoxes are the symbols of commercialism and industrialism – the burgeoning ideas in England during the Edwardian period. City took over the rural culture and this is why wealth became one of the main role players in the society. People were seen running after achieving wealth by hook or by crook. Forster therefore shows the elements of the lost culture through the symbols like vine, pig’s teeth, and hayfield. Motorcar, on the other hand, plays a great role to symbolize the love for wealth and luxury.

A strong argument against theory can be drawn upon by citing the natural aspects of the novel. This novel shows the calm and quite countryside and therefore pacifies the conflict among people representing a well natured society. Humanity is the main factor in this novel and therefore arousing the sensitive issues to draw attention of the readers’ may seem to be the prime issue of this novel. Yet, this argument cannot be taken seriously as Howards End thrives with a strong historical background. This historical background, as said before, is based on the Edwardian society where materialism became one of the main reasons of conflict. Humanity is obviously one of the main parts of the novel but a reader is never able to shirk the theme of conflict. This is why Forster has portrayed characters from the different classes of the society; otherwise there was no importance to perform the task. Forster has ever played the role of a morally strong writer in the world of English literature. Therefore Howards End is not also an exception.

The conflict in Howards End is also visible in the microcosmic field as there are struggles going on inside the minds of the characters. Intellectuality and commercialism both have a struggle between them and they are, on the other hand, also associated with the philosophies of the different classes of the society. Therefore, Forster has been successful in blending the macrocosmic as well as microcosmic approaches towards life in the Edwardian England. To state it in a nutshell, the novel mingles the ideas of poetic symbolism with the ever adored social realism in England. Human experience is a subject which has always attracted E.M Forster and here in this novel, too, Forster portrays a same kind of series of experiences of human beings.

The cultural and economic difference among the characters also results into a difference in their philosophy of life. Some of them like Helen and Margaret are the believers of inner life and the people, taken as non-intellectuals are the believers of outer life. The introspection practiced by Helen and Margaret is the reflection of their intellectuality whereas the other side of the society is known to be shallow, without the depth of introspection. The conclusion of the novel Howards End presents a completely different picture of the conflict that the book portrayed from the very beginning. The readers come across a happy ending where Margaret, Wilcox and Helen begin a new happy life in the Howards End. This is the life away from the commercialism in which the Edwardian England was habituated. E.M. Forster draws a picture of the lost beauty of British society regained in this way. Howards End, in a sense, therefore represents the paradise regained. This is one of the main dreams experienced by many of the intellectuals living in the Edwardian England. Forster himself was one of them and he could not accept the emergence of industrialism and rapid changes that took place in the country during that time. Both the cultures of materialistic and non-materialistic present something new in this book. Both of them are not wise enough to learn the actual way of living life. The lack of understanding and presence of meaningless pride and prejudice are the reason of the conflicts taking place in this novel. Forster finds the ultimate way to do away with these prejudices and to go for an ideal style of living life with respect to every upcoming trend.


1. Colmer, John. E. M. Forster: The Personal Voice. Routledge. 1975.

2.  Book reviews: Howards End, by E.M. Forster by Josh Owens. 2002. retrieved from: http://www.helium.com/items/135618-book-reviews-howards-end-by-em-forster, on 22.11.08

3. An Interpretation E.M. Forster’s Howards End by Rob Doll.

2002. retrieved from: http://www.emforster.info/pages/howardsend.html, 22.11.08

4. Forster, E.M.  Howards End. Forgotten Books. 1958.

5. Sparknotes. 2008. Retrieved from: http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/howardsend/analysis.html on 22.11.08

6. Bradshaw, David. The Cambridge Companion to E.M. Forster. Cambridge University Press. 2007.

7. Stone, Wilfred. The Cave and the Mountain A Study of E.M. Forster. Stanford University Press.


Cite this Howards End- Book Review

Howards End- Book Review. (2016, Oct 11). Retrieved from https://graduateway.com/howards-end-book-review/

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