Study Guide

Howards End Themes

  • Love

    The message of Howards End is wrapped up in Margaret's mantra, "Only connect." What, you may ask, does this really mean? It's simple: love. This novel is all about love – all kinds of love: love between siblings, love between husbands and wives, love between kindred spirits, love of home, love for one's country…basically, love for anything and everything. Love may not be all you need (money's pretty important, too – check out another theme, "Wealth"), but it's pretty darn important. The fear that humans don't love each other enough anymore is pressing here, and the novel challenges us to try and love others and ourselves more.

    Questions About Love

    1. What different kinds of love do we see at work in the novel?
    2. Is love truly the most important thing of all, or are there other possibilities presented here?
    3. Do any of these characters actually achieve true love?
    4. How might we define "love" for the different types of people we see here? For Margaret? For Helen? For Mr. Wilcox?

    Chew on This

    Though the idea of love is a central theoretical concept in Howards End, the novel is largely concerned with its failures, rather than successes.

    At the novel's end, the transcendent nature of love (and its capability for forgiveness) presents the only ray of hope for a changing England.

  • Society and Class

    Society makes nothing but trouble for the characters in Howards End. The notion that each of us is socially predestined for a certain kind of life based on who our parents are and how much money we have (or don't have) is incredibly frustrating to accept, but in England in 1910 it's an unavoidable fact of life. Definition by class is an obstacle that all of the characters in Forster's novel face, and it's one that challenges what really matters, individual human relationships.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. How is social class defined in Forster's novel?
    2. We see a society in flux here – what kinds of factors are the cause of the sense of social discomfort or disruption?
    3. Can one transcend one's social class? Do we see any examples of this?

    Chew on This

    Forster makes problematic the very concept of social class itself by revealing a society torn between two competing systems of hierarchy, those of liberalism and imperialism.

    The end of the novel proposes a possibility of a utopian future for England, which can only be attained by the breakdown of social class.

  • Transformation

    Change is scary. And it's all around us in the world of Howards End, which, as you might imagine, makes said world kind of a scary place. It's funny – while a lot of the novel is concerned with the coziness of domestic life and the comforting beauties of the English countryside, the rest of it is filled with a definite sense of menace; though there are things in everyday life that make living worthwhile, like a freshly-mown field or a leisurely lunch, we get the feeling that all of these things are somehow endangered by the social, economic, political, and even geographical changes facing the world Forster presents. England is faced with urbanization and modernity, and in the moment of the novel, it's about to fall off a precipice into a whole new era.

    Questions About Transformation

    1. What kinds of changes or transformations do we see in the society depicted here?
    2. How do the different characters react to change? What is the dominant attitude towards it in the novel?
    3. Is change always a bad thing in Howards End?

    Chew on This

    Change (whether economic, geographical, or social) is overwhelmingly viewed as a negative quantity in Howards End, since it heralds the increasing isolation of individual human beings.

    Two models of change are posed in Howards End: the first, the idea that change is inexorable and inevitable, is negative, while the second, in which the tide of civilization will someday return and undo itself, offers a kind of hope for the future. The end of the novel is unclear as to which model will ultimately rule.

  • Identity

    One of the main questions Howards End asks us to consider is this: how can an English person go about being an English person in the England that the novel shows us? That sounds a little crazy, so we'll take a step back. The world of Forster's novel is rife with change and conflict, and each character we encounter is challenged by these changes and conflicts, not only on a political level, but on a personal one as well. It's up to them to decide, then, how best to reconcile their own personal desires and beliefs to the requirements of the society they live in – and it's a real challenge.

    Questions About Identity

    1. How much does one's social background predetermine identity in Howards End?
    2. How are group identities described here – for example, family identities or national identities?
    3. Is it possible for one to change one's identity? Does anyone here actually undergo significant change in character over the course of the novel?
    4. How much is identity linked to principle?

    Chew on This

    In Howards End, characters' identities are informed largely by their social circumstances, and the only way for any character to change is through a shift in social status.

    Identity is far from individual in Howards End, and Forster problematically groups characters' personas by their identification with families or nations.

  • Dissatisfaction

    Nothing is more frustrating than seeing your own limitations and knowing that you can't get past them – and that's exactly what happens to some of the characters in Howards End. Dissatisfaction is a product of many social factors here – class, gender, profession, among other things – and as a result, all of the characters are dissatisfied in some way. The modern world that Forster depicts, with its changing social norms and political conflicts, makes for a whole lot of unresolved personal troubles…some of which can never really be resolved, no matter how hard our characters try.

    Questions About Dissatisfaction

    1. Are any of the characters in Howards End truly satisfied?
    2. Is there any suggestion of an ideal life in the novel, or are all different modes of living equally problematic?
    3. Is dissatisfaction tied to financial instability?

    Chew on This

    Dissatisfaction, in the world depicted in Howards End, is an inevitable condition of modern life.

    In the capital-dominated, highly economized social world of Forster's novel, money is the only condition upon which happiness is based.

  • Men and Masculinity

    E.M. Forster offers up all kinds of diverse examples of English manhood in Howards End, and it's up to us to pass judgment on all of them. Some are ridiculous, some intimidating, and almost none of them are satisfactory. Masculinity is one of the crises central to this novel, and we have to keep asking ourselves what a "real man" should be like – what are the criteria in the world Forster creates, and are they actually useful?

    Questions About Men and Masculinity

    1. Though Mr. Wilcox is touted as the "real" man in the novel, Miss Avery scornfully suggests that he's not "a real soldier" – what does this mean for our image of masculinity here?
    2. What does a character like Tibby represent? How does Tibby contrast with the other men we encounter?
    3. What does English manhood as portrayed by the novel look like? What, according to the narrator, are its flaws in its current, modernized state?

    Chew on This

    Though the Wilcox men are initially suggested as the reader's model for manhood, they are gradually revealed to be imperfect models, demonstrating that there is a lack of "real men" in the novel's vision of England.

    All successful models of masculinity ultimately fail by the end of Howards End, suggesting that traditional male-dominated society is limping to an end.

  • Women and Femininity

    If you think it's hard to be a strong, independent woman today, imagine giving it a shot in 1910. The female protagonists of Howards End are constantly faced with social pressures, censure, and frustrations that would drive any of us absolutely batty. They're living on the cusp of a world that looks more familiar to us, in which women are allowed to think and live for themselves, but occasionally they're slightly too far ahead of their time, which can make for a very frustrating experience. The novel challenges our perceptions of what traditional male-female relationships are, and how they might limit both genders in the long run.

    Questions About Women and Femininity

    1. Femininity is defined in many different ways by many different characters in this novel. What are some of these definitions?
    2. How do the women in Howards End define themselves, versus how men define them?
    3. Henry often comments that Margaret is not exactly what he thinks a woman should be, while she notes over and over again how he is a "real" man. How do definitions of gender function in this odd couple?

    Chew on This

    Forster consciously establishes Schlegel sisters as models of womanhood in the future – which makes their existence in the present of the novel extremely difficult.

    By defining women as essentially emotional beings, Forster limits their ability to affect the economic world or social system of the novel.

  • Wealth

    The brutal truth is, money matters. Howards End recognizes this horrible fact, though not all of its characters choose to admit it. The novel constantly demonstrates the need to balance ideals and practical concerns, and the main practical concern here is the acquisition, investment, and dispensation of funds. The problem, however, is the failure of some of the characters to see that worldly issues, like wealth, aren't necessarily incompatible with philosophical ones – the struggle they, and we, face throughout the book is how to reconcile these two sides of life.

    Questions About Wealth

    1. Does love or money win at the end of the novel? Or neither?
    2. Does the novel ultimately pose any solutions to characters like Leonard and Jacky, or does it just leave them in the lurch?
    3. Do we get any sense throughout the novel that the dire situation posed here – the rich stay rich, while the poor get poorer – will ever be improved?

    Chew on This

    Though the end of Howards End is seemingly optimistic, it leaves the problem of financial disparity entirely unresolved; while Helen's child may be the spiritual heir to England, the Wilcox-Schlegel family's escape to the disappearing countryside fails to address the problems of social injustice created by the economic circumstances shown throughout the novel.

    While Howards End appears to embrace an idealistic social stance – summed up in Margaret's mantra, "Only connect!" – it is fundamentally pessimistic about the social predetermination of wealth, which it views as inevitable and, furthermore, unstoppable.

  • Principles

    Do you ever get yourself into situations where you know that you're making an argument that's going to come back and bit you in the you-know-where, but you do it anyway, just because you're too proud to admit that you're even a little bit wrong? Of course you have – we all do. And, because they're human, so do almost all the characters in Howards End. The whole novel is basically a long demonstration of the difference between principle and action, and the problems that can come from being inflexible about either of these things.

    Questions About Principles

    1. Does this story have a "moral"? Is there a guiding principle at work in this novel? If so, what is it?
    2. Many of the characters we encounter are principled to a fault – how much idealism is too much idealism?
    3. Is it possible to find a balance between the two extremes we see in the novel of Helen's strictly idealistic principles and Henry's intense pragmatism?

    Chew on This

    Throughout the novel, the notion of "proportion," though dismissed at first, emerges as the only way to balance idealism and the real world.

    The novel's characters enact the need for a middle ground between high ideals and low desires through a spectrum of three characters, Helen, Margaret, and Henry; these characters function in relation to each other as representations of different attitudes.

  • Patriotism

    Written in 1910, Howards End is a classic pre-World War I text, and its setup of English-German tensions is practically a textbook example of the kinds of national anxieties that led to the war. Though your AP Euro book might tell you that World War I started when Archduke Ferdinand assassinated, we can see from Forster's novel and other works of its time that the was basically waiting to happen for a long while; the political issues at hand are illustrated in a more individual, cultural light here as a personal struggle between Englishness and German-ness.

    Questions About Patriotism

    1. Does Forster privilege England over Germany? Or vice versa?
    2. How are both of the competing nations here represented?
    3. How does Forster use his characters to play out the national tensions between England and Germany?

    Chew on This

    While he avoids direct engagement with political situations, Forster's novel is largely concerned with the developing tensions between England and Germany as actors on the imperial stage.

    Forster's depiction of the English and German character types in his novel encourages an idealistic revision of history – national conflict is resolved here through personal connections.