Study Guide

Howards End Identity

By E.M. Forster


So they played the game of Capping Families, a round of which is always played when love would unite two members of our race. But they played it with unusual vigour, stating in so many words that Schlegels were better than Wilcoxes, Wilcoxes better than Schlegels. They flung decency aside. The man was young, the woman deeply stirred; in both a vein of coarseness was latent. (3.32)

Family is a strong component of identity in this text; we see people classified by what their families represent. Ironically, we see that Wilcoxes and Schlegels are not so very different here, for both Charles and Aunt Juley give in to the same "vein of coarseness."

[Mrs. Wilcox] seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her--that wisdom to which we give the clumsy name of aristocracy. High born she might not be. But assuredly she cared about her ancestors, and let them help her. When she saw Charles angry, Paul frightened, and Mrs. Munt in tears, she heard her ancestors say, "Separate those human beings who will hurt each other most. The rest can wait." So she did not ask questions. (3.39)

Mrs. Wilcox has a kind of strange spiritual wholeness that none of the other characters possess; something about her connectedness with the land and with her English country roots gives her a kind of privileged instinctive knowledge.

Putting her head on one side, Margaret then remarked, "To me one of two things is very clear; either God does not know his own mind about England and Germany, or else these do not know the mind of God." A hateful little girl, but at thirteen she had grasped a dilemma that most people travel through life without perceiving. Her brain darted up and down; it grew pliant and strong. Her conclusion was, that any human being lies nearer to the unseen than any organization, and from this she never varied. (4.11)

Even as a child, Margaret has a kind of Mrs. Wilcox-like tendency to view people as individuals, rather than members of "organizations" like countries, and to imagine that we all have a unique understanding of spirituality that exists beyond the scope of what politics and history want us to think.

Mrs. Wilcox had no idea; she paid little attention to grounds. She was not intellectual, nor even alert, and it was odd that, all the same, she should give the idea of greatness. Margaret, zigzagging with her friends over Thought and Art, was conscious of a personality that transcended their own and dwarfed their activities. There was no bitterness in Mrs. Wilcox; there was not even criticism; she was lovable, and no ungracious or uncharitable word had passed her lips. Yet she and daily life were out of focus: one or the other must show blurred. And at lunch she seemed more out of focus than usual, and nearer the line that divides life from a life that may be of greater importance. (9.5)

This description, one of the odder ones in this novel, demonstrates Mrs. Wilcox's strange separation from the world – it's almost as if the narrator can't figure out how to describe her, except to tell us that she's so mysteriously, mystically amazing that there are no words for it. She's just not of this world, even when she's in it.

To them Howards End was a house: they could not know that to her it had been a spirit, for which she sought a spiritual heir. And--pushing one step farther in these mists--may they not have decided even better than they supposed? Is it credible that the possessions of the spirit can be bequeathed at all? Has the soul offspring? A wych-elm tree, a vine, a wisp of hay with dew on it--can passion for such things be transmitted where there is no bond of blood? No; the Wilcoxes are not to be blamed. The problem is too terrific, and they could not even perceive a problem. (11.38)

Mrs. Wilcox's identification with Margaret is made clear in her final bequest of Howards End; the question of spiritual identity (of a person, of a house) is what's up for debate here. The metaphysical question, however, is lost on the pragmatic Wilcoxes.

"Henceforward I'm going my own way. I mean to be thorough, because thoroughness is easy. I mean to dislike your husband, and to tell him so. I mean to make no concessions to Tibby. If Tibby wants to live with me, he must lump me. I mean to love you more than ever. Yes, I do. You and I have built up something real, because it is purely spiritual. There's no veil of mystery over us. Unreality and mystery begin as soon as one touches the body. The popular view is, as usual, exactly the wrong one. Our bothers are over tangible things--money, husbands, house-hunting. But Heaven will work of itself." (23.1)

Helen declares her independence here, and it's a turning point in the novel – from here on out, she intends to do exactly what she pleases, and refuses to explain herself to anyone else.

"Oh! Well, I took you for Ruth Wilcox."

Margaret stammered: "I--Mrs. Wilcox--I?"

"In fancy, of course--in fancy. You had her way of walking. Good-day." And the old woman passed out into the rain. (23.36-37)

Mrs. Avery's confusion of Margaret with Mrs. Wilcox reminds us that the two women (the two Mrs. Wilcoxes, really) are growing closer and closer – Margaret is becoming more and more like her predecessor. Feel free to be a little creeped out. We are.

When a young man is untroubled by passions and sincerely indifferent to public opinion, his outlook is necessarily limited. Tibby neither wished to strengthen the position of the rich nor to improve that of the poor, and so was well content to watch the elms nodding behind the mildly embattled parapets of Magdalen. There are worse lives. Though selfish, he was never cruel; though affected in manner, he never posed. Like Margaret, he disdained the heroic equipment, and it was only after many visits that men discovered Schlegel to possess a character and a brain. (30.1)

Tibby takes Schlegel individuality to an extreme; he's more isolated than his two sisters in his true disregard for the rest of society. Unlike Margaret, he doesn't care about fitting in, and unlike Helen, he doesn't even care about rebelling in a dramatic way.

Why has not England a great mythology? Our folklore has never advanced beyond daintiness, and the greater melodies about our country-side have all issued through the pipes of Greece. Deep and true as the native imagination can be, it seems to have failed here. It has stopped with the witches and the fairies. It cannot vivify one fraction of a summer field, or give names to half a dozen stars. England still waits for the supreme moment of her literature--for the great poet who shall voice her, or, better still, for the thousand little poets whose voices shall pass into our common talk. (33.2)

One of the biggest unspoken (or partially spoken) questions in this book is that of England's identity – we have to wonder what England and its people have in store for them, and who will tell their stories.

Margaret's anger and terror increased every moment. How dare these men label her sister! What horrors lay ahead! What impertinences that shelter under the name of science! The pack was turning on Helen, to deny her human rights, and it seemed to Margaret that all Schlegels were threatened with her. "Were they normal?" What a question to ask! And it is always those who know nothing about human nature, who are bored by psychology and shocked by physiology, who ask it. However piteous her sister's state, she knew that she must be on her side. They would be mad together if the world chose to consider them so. (35.18)

The Schlegel identity is clearly outside the bounds of what the conventional (Wilcox) world thinks is "normal" – this is the moment of crisis for Margaret, where she's forced to choose between the life she's picked for herself with Henry, and her old identity as Helen's sister.

"I feel that you and I and Henry are only fragments of that woman's mind. She knows everything. She is everything. She is the house, and the tree that leans over it. People have their own deaths as well as their own lives, and even if there is nothing beyond death, we shall differ in our nothingness. I cannot believe that knowledge such as hers will perish with knowledge such as mine. She knew about realities. She knew when people were in love, though she was not in the room. I don't doubt that she knew when Henry deceived her." (40.9)

Mrs. Wilcox (the first one) comes up again at the novel's end, as everything falls into place at Howards End – Margaret ponders the mystery of her identity, which seemed to merge somehow with everything else that was real in the world.