The energy of the Wilcoxes had fascinated her, had created new images of beauty in her responsive mind. To be all day with them in the open air, to sleep at night under their roof, had seemed the supreme joy of life, and had led to that abandonment of personality that is a possible prelude to love. She had liked giving in to Mr. Wilcox, or Evie, or Charles; she had liked being told that her notions of life were sheltered or academic; that Equality was nonsense, Votes for Women nonsense, Socialism nonsense, Art and Literature, except when conducive to strengthening the character, nonsense. One by one the Schlegel fetiches had been overthrown, and, though professing to defend them, she had rejoiced. (4.3)
Here we see the conflict between Wilcox principles and Schlegel principles begin. Helen is at first seduced by how very different the Wilcoxes are – she's so intrigued that all of her favorite issues initially fall by the wayside (as Margaret's will later).
"I've often thought about it, Helen. It's one of the most interesting things in the world. The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched--a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I'm clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one--there's grit in it. It does breed character." (4.7)
Margaret articulates the difference between the interior Schlegel world and the world that everyone else exists in (the "outer life"). The problem of the novel is basically the need to negotiate between the interior and exterior, which proves to be extremely difficult to work out.
"Inexperience," repeated Margaret, in serious yet buoyant tones. "Of course, I have everything to learn--absolutely everything--just as much as Helen. Life's very difficult and full of surprises. At all events, I've got as far as that. To be humble and kind, to go straight ahead, to love people rather than pity them, to remember the submerged--well, one can't do all these things at once, worse luck, because they're so contradictory. It's then that proportion comes in--to live by proportion. Don't begin with proportion. Only prigs do that. Let proportion come in as a last resource, when the better things have failed, and a deadlock--Gracious me, I've started preaching!" (8.30)
Here, Margaret tries to explain her life philosophy to Mrs. Wilcox – she tries, it seems, to just be as kind and honest as possible, and to take things as they come. When she refers to proportion, she's basically rebelling against the Wilcoxian idea that one can figure everything out rationally and mathematically.
The Wilcoxes continued to play a considerable part in her thoughts. She had seen so much of them in the final week. They were not "her sort," they were often suspicious and stupid, and deficient where she excelled; but collision with them stimulated her, and she felt an interest that verged into liking, even for Charles. She desired to protect them, and often felt that they could protect her, excelling where she was deficient. Once past the rocks of emotion, they knew so well what to do, whom to send for; their hands were on all the ropes, they had grit as well as grittiness, and she valued grit enormously. They led a life that she could not attain to--the outer life of "telegrams and anger," which had detonated when Helen and Paul had touched in June, and had detonated again the other week. To Margaret this life was to remain a real force. She could not despise it, as Helen and Tibby affected to do. It fostered such virtues as neatness, decision, and obedience, virtues of the second rank, no doubt, but they have formed our civilization. They form character, too; Margaret could not doubt it: they keep the soul from becoming sloppy. How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes, when it takes all sorts to make a world? (12.3)
This, to Margaret, is what the Wilcoxes stand for – the "grit" and practicality of the real world. While the Schlegels live in their equally necessary sphere of ideals and intellectual principles, the Wilcoxes represent the flip side of that kind of life.
"What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives? They have never entered into mine, but into yours, we thought--Haven't we all to struggle against life's daily greyness, against pettiness, against mechanical cheerfulness, against suspicion? I struggle by remembering my friends; others I have known by remembering some place--some beloved place or tree--we thought you one of these." (16.32)
Margaret, frustrated by Leonard's own frustration, tries to express her desire to infuse ideals into actual life, rather than keeping the two worlds separate. She had hoped that Leonard also wanted to rise above the humdrum drone of the everyday.
"My motto is Concentrate. I've no intention of frittering away my strength on that sort of thing." "It isn't frittering away the strength," she protested. "It's enlarging the space in which you may be strong." He answered: "You're a clever little woman, but my motto's Concentrate." (22.5)
This is the essential difference between Henry and Margaret – he believes in focusing intently on his own goals and just seeing what he wants to see in the world (or rather, what's beneficial to him), while she thinks that looking outwards and making connections and observations about others is the best way to go through life.
"That there are two kinds of people--our kind, who live straight from the middle of their heads, and the other kind who can't, because their heads have no middle? They can't say 'I.' They AREN'T in fact, and so they're supermen. Pierpont Morgan has never said 'I' in his life." (27.3)
Helen, lecturing at Leonard, rails against the Wilcoxes and everything they represent – that is to say, a mode of life that's focused on the exterior (on money, on business, on politics) rather than the interior life, or the "I," as she calls it. The Pierpont Morgan she references here was a famous American financier of the nineteenth century.
"If we lived for ever what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived for ever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love Death--not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. Never mind what lies behind Death, Mr. Bast, but be sure that the poet and the musician and the tramp will be happier in it than the man who has never learnt to say, 'I am I.'" (27.19)
Helen's refusal to believe in the power of money (despite the fact that she herself relies upon it for everything) shows just how naïve and idealistic she still is – she has the luxury to believe in the poetic vision that the artist and humane man will be happier in the long run because they truly live for themselves.
"So never give in," continued the girl, and restated again and again the vague yet convincing plea that the Invisible lodges against the Visible. Her excitement grew as she tried to cut the rope that fastened Leonard to the earth. Woven of bitter experience, it resisted her. (27.23)
Helen's attempt to break Leonard free from the shackles of his worldly concerns is bound to fail – after all, he's been shown nothing but rough treatment from the world, while she's been coddled all her life. How can she, with all her innocent, well-meaning idealism, possibly undo everything he's experienced?
As is Man to the Universe, so was the mind of Mr. Wilcox to the minds of some men--a concentrated light upon a tiny spot, a little Ten Minutes moving self-contained through its appointed years. No Pagan he, who lives for the Now, and may be wiser than all philosophers. He lived for the five minutes that have past, and the five to come; he had the business mind. (29.21)
Unlike Helen, who tries to see everything in terms of the big, cosmic picture, Henry sees everything from the small frame of his own concerns, both personal and financial. Time, for him, is rather limited in scope to his immediate past and immediate future. This is indicative not only of the way he deals with everyday life, but with capital-L Life in general.
Tibby was silent. Without intending it, he had betrayed his sister's confidence; he was not enough interested in human life to see where things will lead to. He had a strong regard for honesty, and his word, once given, had always been kept up to now. He was deeply vexed, not only for the harm he had done Helen, but for the flaw he had discovered in his own equipment. (39.4)
Tibby's own moral code is a matter of intellect – he has a certain belief in the concept of honesty, but he doesn't really have feelings or sympathy to match. For this reason, he's only partially upset that he's betrayed Helen's confidence, but mostly alarmed that his own system is not as watertight as he thinks.
Morality can tell us that murder is worse than stealing, and group most sins in an order all must approve, but it cannot group Helen. The surer its pronouncements on this point, the surer may we be that morality is not speaking. Christ was evasive when they questioned Him. It is those that cannot connect who hasten to cast the first stone. (40.3)
Helen doesn't seem to fall into any conventional definition of morality – and the narrator throws the very identity of morality itself. What makes morality, and who defines it? Who can dare to speak for all of humanity, or even society? The narrator concludes that it is not those who are part of a community, but those who fail to connect with one that make accusations.