Study Guide

Howards End Society and Class

By E.M. Forster

Society and Class

"Esprit de classe"--if one may coin the phrase--was strong in Mrs. Munt. She sat quivering while a member of the lower orders deposited a metal funnel, a saucepan, and a garden squirt beside the roll of oilcloth. (3.27)

Despite the fact that Aunt Juley is fuming with rage, her class awareness is so strong that she won't let the lower class shopman see her in a state of emotional upheaval.

If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh to acquire culture! Oh, to pronounce foreign names correctly! Oh, to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject that a lady started! But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood? (5.30)

Leonard is overwhelmed by the cultural wealth of the Schlegels – he is limited by his own social background, and feels as though he could never possibly catch up.

The boy, Leonard Bast, stood at the extreme verge of gentility. He was not in the abyss, but he could see it, and at times people whom he knew had dropped in, and counted no more. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly coloured civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, enshadowing the classes with leathern wings, and proclaiming, "All men are equal--all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas," and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible. (6.2)

Poor Leonard. Forster condemns him to a lifetime of inferiority in this single paragraph, based on his problematic existence between classes – he's not at the extreme lower end of the spectrum, and is just genteel enough to have the desire to possess what the rich have…culture.

In the streets of the city she noted for the first time the architecture of hurry, and heard the language of hurry on the mouths of its inhabitants--clipped words, formless sentences, potted expressions of approval or disgust. Month by month things were stepping livelier, but to what goal? The population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born? (13.3)

The "she" here is Margaret, and her observations about the kind of people she encounters in the streets of rapidly changing London are provocative. She wonders (and we wonder with her) what sort of people modern urban life is producing – they barely sound like humans at all, the way they're described here. What is this doing to the overall shape of British society?

He did not want Romance to collide with the Porphyrion, still less with Jacky, and people with fuller, happier lives are slow to understand this. To the Schlegels…he was an interesting creature, of whom they wanted to see more. But they to him were denizens of Romance, who must keep to the corner he had assigned them, pictures that must not walk out of their frames. (14.3)

The Schlegels mean a lot more to Leonard than he does to them – to him, they're symbols of a kind of life he's only glimpsed, but can never really experience. The social gulf between them is impossible to bridge from his perspective, looking up from the abyss of poverty, but to them, it doesn't seem that vast.

A short-frocked edition of Charles also regards them placidly; a perambulator edition is squeaking; a third edition is expected shortly. Nature is turning out Wilcoxes in this peaceful abode, so that they may inherit the earth. (21.3)

This comical, yet rather horrifying vision of the junior Wilcoxes demonstrates just what we've been learning all the way through the novel – society is paving the way for more Wilcoxes, and they're the upcoming, hardy business class that's going to survive in the twentieth century.

But Leonard was near the abyss, and at such moments men see clearly. "You don't know what you're talking about," he said. "I shall never get work now. If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I. I had my groove, and I've got out of it. I could do one particular branch of insurance in one particular office well enough to command a salary, but that's all. Poetry's nothing, Miss Schlegel. One's thoughts about this and that are nothing. Your money, too, is nothing, if you'll understand me. I mean if a man over twenty once loses his own particular job, it's all over with him. I have seen it happen to others. Their friends gave them money for a little, but in the end they fall over the edge. It's no good. It's the whole world pulling. There always will be rich and poor." (26.36)

Leonard knows well what his fate is – he was born poor, and he always will be poor. He basically unknowingly reiterates a comment Mr. Wilcox made a while back (see "Wealth"), that society will always be divided into rich and poor; it's interesting to think that both of these men, despite their differences, have reached the same conclusion.

"No, let us go back to Helen's request," she said. "It is unreasonable, but the request of an unhappy girl. Tomorrow she will go to Germany, and trouble society no longer. Tonight she asks to sleep in your empty house--a house which you do not care about, and which you have not occupied for over a year. May she? Will you give my sister leave? Will you forgive her--as you hope to be forgiven, and as you have actually been forgiven? Forgive her for one night only. That will be enough." (38.24)

Helen's position in society – and society's unfair double standard towards women and men – both become apparent here. Helen is forced to leave England because she'll never be able to have a normal or socially acceptable life there again (but she can in Germany?), and even Henry, her brother-in-law, can't accept her and her situation. However, as Margaret points out, he himself was once in the same position as Leonard as the illicit lover of an unmarried woman, but he never took responsibility for it, and society, like Margaret, has forgiven him for it.

Tom held out his arms.

"That child is a wonderful nursemaid," remarked Margaret.

"He is fond of baby. That's why he does it!" was Helen's answer. They're going to be lifelong friends."

"Starting at the ages of six and one?"

"Of course. It will be a great thing for Tom."

"It may be a greater thing for baby." (44.4-6)

This friendship between Tom and Helen's child is a significant one – for one thing, as Helen comments, Tom (a mere country lad) could benefit from the friendship of a cultured, wealthy boy. Margaret, however, recognizes that being friends with Tom, who's a real person, not just an over-civilized rich kid, could actually benefit her nephew – who himself is interestingly a combination of Helen and Leonard, a kind of microcosm of a more integrated English society and a hope for the country's future.