Forster's tone is often an odd juxtaposition of highfalutin and quirkily humorous, with very little middle ground in between. Howards End is no exception; its tone alternates between the quite-serious and the quite-silly. Forster manages to express the dire philosophical and social troubles he's trying to communicate here, while all the while maintaining a healthy sense of humor. This makes for a novel that is both difficult and delightful by turns. It manages to encompass a weighty sense of the social troubles at stake, while still maintaining an oddly conversational, almost familial intimacy.
While the genre of Howards End can certainly be said to be a family drama on a small scale – as in, it's about two very different families, the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, and their difficulty reconciling with each other – we might also try and expand this term a little bit. The novel is both about the individual and the universal; while at first glance, the plot revolves around the relatively small and inconsequential lives of the very few characters we meet, its philosophical stakes are a lot higher. We might get a little loosey-goosey and say that this novel is also a drama of the human family and the need for sympathetic understanding.
On a less vague but still ambitious level, we could also say that it's specifically about the English part of that family tree; the novel is usually referred to as a "condition of England" novel, a genre in itself, in which an author approaches the question of the nation, attempting to figure out what makes England English, and if it can be improved upon – socially, politically, morally. Other famous "condition of England" novels you might have heard of include several of the works of Charles Dickens, especially Oliver Twist and Hard Times, and the novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, like North and South.
This gets us into the second genre we've chosen, literary fiction. This explicit project for the novel definitely means there's more at stake here than plot; this novel seriously works on so many levels, not all of them simple or straightforward.
This name, though seemingly rather puzzling upon first glance, is actually thankfully straightforward: Howards End is a house. Not just any house, a very special house, that provides both the geographic and emotional center for the characters in this book. Its meanings are many and varied, and span both the literal and figurative; while Howards End is primarily a country home, one that is visited with fairly regular frequency by a variety of the characters in Forster's novel, it's also a metaphorical home. Howards End represents a kind of vision of family, of tradition, and of Englishness that runs through the entire book until, fittingly, we (and our main characters) take refuge there in the end.
The ending of Howards End contains multitudes – it seems incredibly simple in some ways (a family reunion, a plan for the future, a new hope – sounds almost like Star Wars when you put it that way), but in others, it's intensely complicated. Basically, we leave the Wilcox-Schlegels back at Howards End, the house that's at the heart of the whole novel, where they've all learned to make some kind of peace with each other, even if it's a somewhat grudging one. On one hand, there's a kind of unifying, cosmic justice at work here – as Dolly thoughtlessly comments, the first Mrs. Wilcox had wanted Margaret to have Howards End to begin with, and now, in the end, she gets it. On the other hand, there's an interesting sense that the old order (represented by the domineering, hyper-masculine, imperialistic Wilcoxes) has been fragmented, and either swept away or absorbed into the new, liberal, feminized world of the Schlegels.
It's an ending that is simultaneously unsettling and optimistic, in which we can only hope that the world that Helen's fatherless child will venture into will be ready for him. The general idea is, a new kind of England has emerged out of the convoluted events of the novel, and is represented by Helen's baby, who's an ultimate combination of all of the different social classes and circumstances Forster throws together in the novel.
The big thing to notice with regards to setting here is the HUGE difference between city life and country life. The novel moves between urban and rural (and increasingly suburban) settings, and explicitly forces us to look at the problem of urban sprawl. Forster carefully situates his characters and readers in two "homes" – first, the Schlegels' house in Wickham Place, London, and second, in the Wilcoxes' house in the country, Howards End.
London is a place of chaotic progress in Howards End, and the way Forster depicts it, it's no surprise that our characters can't wait to escape the city. Sure, it's a place of cultural enrichment and sophistication, but it's also characterized by impersonal business relations and equally cold economic realities. The city is a place where both poverty and wealth are inescapable – and the disparity between the two is painfully marked. London is what ruins Leonard Bast, and also what drives Margaret Schlegel to long for a greater sense of human connection so desperately.
In counterpoint to this rather depressing vision of city life, we have an idealized – perhaps over-idealized – vision of the countryside. According to Forster, the country is the repository for all things old-fashioned and good; there are remnants out there of Ye Merry Olde Pre-Industrialized England. The narrator tells us frankly that people victimized by the city, like Leonard, would have been better off if they had just stayed in the pastoral settings of their ancestors. Poverty seems not to have a place in rural or village life, and there seems to be a greater sense of, for lack of a better word, a kind of primordial Englishness there.
Ultimately, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes retreat to the country to try and rebuild their families – and implicitly, to try and maintain the connection between England's past and future. We're not sure how successful this venture will be, however; at the end of the novel, we see the ominous, rust-red glow of the city's lights impinging upon the rapidly suburbanizing countryside surrounding Howards End. Forster's novel leaves us uncertain as to what direction England is actually taking, and if there's any hope for the values of old England anymore.
This phrase, a quote from the novel itself, is the guiding principle of its main character, Margaret (Schlegel) Wilcox. She longs for people to be able to reach out to each other and truly communicate – beyond superficial barriers like class or gender – and, as she says, "Only connect." We can also view this as a kind of pocket-sized version of Forster's philosophy; in a nutshell, he was obsessed with this idea of human connection and sympathy across boundaries of prejudice.
Forster's style is just so characteristically…Forster. His distinctive voice is unmistakable in its directness and ambition; we can practically see him straining to get across the philosophical angst he so clearly feels at times, and he reaches out towards us with such urgency, hoping to get us to reevaluate our lives and human relationships. He does this through both direct address and sneakier ways. His depictions of character are simultaneously sympathetic and unforgiving, and the realistic, sometimes cuttingly blunt detail with which he reveals his players to us communicates both tenderness and objectivity. His style as a whole might be summed up in those two words – he's tender without measure to his characters, and, in an interesting way, to us, his readers. But at the same time, he's not afraid to show them, and us, where they've gone wrong, and to sometimes come down quite harshly on them.
The idea of "home" is a major, major problem here. For the most part, our characters are uprooted and drifting – whether by choice or not. For some, like Henry Wilcox, houses have no sentimental value, and are just seen as investments to be turned into more money, while for others, like Leonard, urban poverty makes having a real home an impossible dream (we get the feeling that if Leonard's family had just stayed in the countryside, this might not be true – see "City versus Country" below). Home is the biggest problem for Margaret, though; she longs desperately for a house to call her own, and to feel truly connected to, and once the Schlegels are turned out of Wickham Place, she feels at a loss.
The only stable place any of the characters – or we, the readers, for that matter – can call home is Mrs. Wilcox's house, Howards End. After all, there's a reason the book is named after this remarkable place – it's the spiritual center of the England presented here, and it seems like Margaret's fate to finally inherit it in the end.
The dangers of city life concern the narrator of Howards End greatly, but they're not necessarily the fears of the big, bad city that we might expect – there's nothing dramatic about violent crime or inner city corruption. Rather, the novel is concerned with the less flashy, but no less alarming dangers of living in London: the damage it can do to one's character and personal relationships. The narrator and some of our characters are agitated by the continual flux of the city, in which things are constantly coming and going. London is portrayed like a kind of beast that consumes everything that crosses its path, from individual people to whole villages, and the threat of urban and suburban sprawl haunts the whole novel.
The country, on the other hand, is depicted as a space of real, proper Englishness – a place where the characters can truly connect with the land that they all come from. There's something real about the countryside (whether in Oniton or Hilton) that gets to both Margaret and the narrator – and, through them, to us, the readers. Country life seems to be somehow more substantial, natural, and, well, human than city life, and the relationships that people have both to each other and to the land itself seem more valuable there.
There's not much to say about this concept – Forster is interested in the troubled relationship between England and Germany, and several of our characters play out these national roles clearly. First of all, we've got the determinedly English characters, namely Aunt Juley and all of the Wilcoxes. The narrator, as well as Margaret, is curious about what makes England English – and who are the real English people, anyway? Part of Englishness is the imperial drive, represented by the Wilcox men, whose desire to conquer and pillage is barely concealed. Another part is Aunt Juley's pride in Englishness, which is demonstrated in her overflowing love for the subtle (but still remarkable), rather clichéd beauties of the English countryside. On the other hand, we have Cousin Frieda, whose pride in Germany is just as strong as Mrs. Munt's pride in England – Frieda represents a wholeheartedly good, though rather reductive, example of German patriotism.
In between these extremes, however, we have the Schlegels themselves – half-English, half-German, we see the conflict between nations played out in each of them individually, and ultimately in the clash between Helen and Margaret.
For about 99.9% of Howards End, the narrative voice appears to be a somewhat sassy third person narrator, who can see into the hearts and minds of all of the characters (some more than others). The other .1% of the time, though, there's an odd "I" that shows up on the scene. This "I" is confusing – who is it? Is it some mystery narrator that we're just not supposed to wonder about? Is it Forster himself? The answers are not for us to know; rather, we just take it in stride. A better question is, what does it do for us, as readers? Basically, this unsettling gesture makes us question the objectivity of the narration throughout the whole novel – it reminds us that everything comes down to personal perspectives (what the Schlegels call the "interior" life), and that every single thing is viewed through our individual, unique, and incredibly human eyes.
OK, this seems like a stretch, but just go with us…
It's simple – when conservative Wilcoxes meet liberal Schlegels, conflict is inevitable. The "dark power" here could be seen as a couple of things – at this early stage, it seems to be the Wilcoxes themselves.
We wonder if perhaps Wilcoxes and Schlegels can coexist in the world. They're neighbors now, and it seems like things might actually work out. Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox form an odd bond, and their relationship makes it appear as though the breach between the two families is at least partially closed.
Though it seems like the Wilcoxes and Schlegels seem to have broken off their association after Mrs. Wilcox's death, they find each other again after two years. Mr. Wilcox takes a liking to Margaret, resulting in their marriage. It looks to us (and to Helen) like Margaret has gone over to the dark side – she's fascinated by Mr. Wilcox's air of masculine ability and strength.
After the horrible events of Evie's wedding, Helen banishes herself from England, and it seems like she'll never return. We wonder if the Schlegels will ever be reunited. Have the Wilcoxes and their mode of living triumphed over the romantic, idealistic Schlegels?
After Society has basically crushed everyone – Wilcox and Schlegel alike – a new hope turns up just in time. Back at Howards End, Margaret, Helen, and Mr. Wilcox are all reunited. Helen's baby (notably, also Leonard's child) provides hope for a new kind of Englishness, one that's less torn apart by the problems of older social standards and structures. Even Mr. Wilcox has found a kind of release, and he and Helen are finally reconciled to each other.
The tension between the two families begins right away, with Helen's brief and dramatic affair with Paul. Immediately, we see the Wilcoxes and Schlegels in conflict with each other – they're basically polar opposites, which makes them both attractive to one another, and repellent.
Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret become friends, and the former tragically dies before their friendship can really flourish. In a seemingly inexplicable turn of events, though, Mrs. Wilcox leaves Howards End to Margaret, which puzzles and angers her husband and children. The Wilcoxes choose not to tell Margaret about this bequest, but it still sets up a sense of suspicion and fear with regard to the Schlegels, especially in Charles.
Despite their odd and complicated history, Henry is drawn to Margaret, and she to him. They decide to marry, which throws everyone into a tizzy – nobody else is pleased about this. Helen and Charles are especially unpleased. We can't tell how this is going to pan out; how can the Wilcoxes and Schlegels possibly interact as one single family?
All of the Wilcox-Schlegel tensions come to a head at Evie's wedding at Oniton Grange. Helen unexpectedly shows up with two unwanted guests, Jacky and Leonard, saying that they're starving and it's the Schlegel's fault. What she really means is that it's Henry's fault, since he gave the fatal advice to leave the Porphyrion anyway. It's revealed that that's not the only thing to blame Henry for – he also had a torrid affair with Jacky ten years ago, which may or may not have been the cause of his ruin.
After the debacle at Evie's wedding, Helen goes off the map for a while. She doesn't want to see anyone in her family, and it seems like she's left England forever. Nobody can understand why – Margaret thinks that it's because she hates Henry so much, but that just doesn't seem like a satisfactory explanation.
Finally, we understand what Helen's been up to. The fact that she's pregnant makes everything fall into line, in a tragic way; all of the characters are brought back together a final time, in which the conflicts (Wilcox-Schlegel, Schlegel-Bast, and Wilcox-Bast) are all out in the open. Poor Leonard bears the brunt of it, and is killed as a result. However, though this isn't a happy unraveling of conflicts, it does allow for the whole world as we know it to be reevaluated.
The fallout of Leonard's death by Charles's hand creates a new world for the Wilcoxes and Schlegels. Howards End ultimately ends up as their new home, and at the end, we see all of the loose ends tied up: the Wilcox children end up with all of the family money, while Margaret, Helen, and Helen's baby end up with the house.
Chapter 1-23. The Schlegel-Wilcox opposition is set up, and then cemented when Margaret decides to marry Henry; Helen comes out and says that she is breaking off from them.
Chapter 24-41. This act ends with the convergence of all of the bad things that have happened so far – Helen's pregnancy, Charles's Wilcoxian sense of propriety, and poor Leonard's final appearance. Of course, it all ends up at Howards End.
Chapter 42-44. After Charles inadvertently kills Leonard, the last couple of chapters tie up all of our loose ends – and present an opening into the future.