He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen's Hall Concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe. He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to a half-baked mind. (6.20)
Leonard is unhappy with his lot in life, but is curiously, rather desperately optimistic in a way – he thinks that he can somehow change himself wholly through his attempts to absorb culture.
Certainly London fascinates. One visualizes it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything: Nature, with all her cruelty, comes nearer to us than do these crowds of men. A friend explains himself: the earth is explicable--from her we came, and we must return to her. But who can explain Westminster Bridge Road or Liverpool Street in the morning--the city inhaling--or the same thoroughfares in the evening--the city exhaling her exhausted air? We reach in desperation beyond the fog, beyond the very stars, the voids of the universe are ransacked to justify the monster, and stamped with a human face. London is religion's opportunity--not the decorous religion of theologians, but anthropomorphic, crude. Yes, the continuous flow would be tolerable if a man of our own sort--not anyone pompous or tearful--were caring for us up in the sky. (13.2)
Here, the narrator depicts a kind of abstract dissatisfaction – this is different from Leonard's personal struggle, but is definitely related to it. He's talking about the dissatisfaction of modern urban life, in which humanity is subjected to a force alien to it – that of the city itself (in this case, London). There's something about the inhumanity of the city that forces mankind to seek solace elsewhere, like in the idea of God.
One guessed him as the third generation, grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who have lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit. Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tail coat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well--the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her. (14.3)
Margaret recognizes what Leonard himself might not – that he would be much, much better off living the life of the country, like his ancestors. However, driven by the desire for "culture," he's been warped and transformed into a kind of predictable mockery of the middle class.
"I never thought that walking would make such a difference. Why, when you're walking you want, as it were, a breakfast and luncheon and tea during the night as well, and I'd nothing but a packet of Woodbines. Lord, I did feel bad! Looking back, it wasn't what you may call enjoyment. It was more a case of sticking to it. I did stick. I--I was determined. Oh, hang it all! what's the good--I mean, the good of living in a room for ever? There one goes on day after day, same old game, same up and down to town, until you forget there is any other game. You ought to see once in a way what's going on outside, if it's only nothing particular after all." (14.16)
Leonard expresses here the frustration of being penned up in city life – his adventure in the woods showed him that there's more to life than the monotonous grind of work every day, even though civilization tells us that's what we should all be doing.
"But he must be one of those men who have reconciled science with religion," said Helen slowly. "I don't like those men. They are scientific themselves, and talk of the survival of the fittest, and cut down the salaries of their clerks, and stunt the independence of all who may menace their comfort, but yet they believe that somehow good--and it is always that sloppy 'somehow'--will be the outcome, and that in some mystical way the Mr. Basts of the future will benefit because the Mr. Basts of today are in pain." (22.18)
Helen is opposed to Henry and everything he represents; she sees his way of thinking of things as inhumane and falsely scientific. His point of view, as she sees it, fails to recognize how much harm it does to those discontented lower classes that they theorize about (like Leonard).
"Walking is well enough when a man's in work," he answered. "Oh, I did talk a lot of nonsense once, but there's nothing like a bailiff in the house to drive it out of you. When I saw him fingering my Ruskins and Stevensons, I seemed to see life straight real, and it isn't a pretty sight. My books are back again, thanks to you, but they'll never be the same to me again, and I shan't ever again think night in the woods is wonderful." (27.17)
Poor Leonard. After all of his troubles, he's ready to renounce his ambitions to culture and poetry and real life – he realizes that none of these things are possible without money. His new, harsher perspective on life is grim, to both Helen and us.
Leonard looked at her wondering, and had the sense of great things sweeping out of the shrouded night. But he could not receive them, because his heart was still full of little things. As the lost umbrella had spoilt the concert at Queen's Hall, so the lost situation was obscuring the diviner harmonies now. Death, Life and Materialism were fine words, but would Mr. Wilcox take him on as a clerk? Talk as one would, Mr. Wilcox was king of this world, the superman, with his own morality, whose head remained in the clouds. (27.20)
It doesn't matter how vast and sweeping Helen's fine moral ideas are – Leonard can't help but be worried about the small (but not insignificant) facts of his situation. He can't simply afford to indulge in poetic ideas…he just can't afford it.
Helen loved the absolute. Leonard had been ruined absolutely, and had appeared to her as a man apart, isolated from the world. A real man, who cared for adventure and beauty, who desired to live decently and pay his way, who could have travelled more gloriously through life than the Juggernaut car that was crushing him. (41.3)
Leonard's unhappiness seems to Helen to be all-absorbing – and romantic, in a warped way. It's his complete misery and the apparent injustice of his life, crushed by society's rules, that appeals to her, just for a moment.