Howl was equally patient and polite with customers from Porthaven, but,
as Michael anxiously pointed out, the trouble was that Howl did not
charge these people enough. This was after Howl had listened for an hour
to the reasons why a seaman's wife could not pay him a penny yet, and
then promised a sea captain a wind spell for almost nothing. Howl eluded
Michael's arguments by giving him a magic lesson. (6.13)
The funny thing about Howl is that he refuses to explain himself, no
matter if what he is doing is good or bad. Here Howl is doing something
charitable—he's giving away his magic for less than its value to people
who really need it—but Michael only sees that Howl isn't bringing in
enough of an income. And instead of explaining what he's doing, Howl
just distracts Michael with a magic lesson.
In a way, this just
adds to our sense that Howl is secretly the best guy in the novel: he
doesn't boast about his good deeds, even though he appears to be doing
them quite often.
If you knew the trouble we've had because Howl will keep falling in love like this! We've had lawsuits, and suitors with swords, and mothers with rolling pins, and fathers and uncles with cudgels. And aunts. Aunts are terrible. They go for you with hat pins. But the worst is when the girl herself finds out where Howl lives and turns up at the door, crying and miserable. Howl goes out through the back door and Calcifer and I have to deal with them all. (6.40)
Sophie believes that Howl literally eats girls' hearts, but of course that's really just a metaphor for what he actually does: he's incredibly fickle, and he likes to make girls fall in love with him… and as soon as they do, he loses interest.
This character flaw has two interesting plot functions: first it encourages Sophie to delay admitting how she feels about Howl, which keeps up the suspense of their weird, bickering relationship; and second his emotional unreliability turns out to be a symptom of his contract with Calcifer. Once Howl gets his heart back, we assume that he won't be so irresponsible and that Sophie can trust him. Howl gets to be the romantic hero of the book because Howl's ethical flaws regarding women turn out to have an explanation: after all, he can't help it.
Sophie thought of Howl on one knee in the orchard, posing to look as handsome as possible, and she knew they were right [that Howl is not truly in love with Lettie]. She thought of going to the bathroom and tipping all Howl's beauty spells down the toilet. But she did not quite dare. Instead, she hobbled up and fetched the blue-and-silver suit, which she spent the rest of the day cutting little blue triangles out of in order to make a patchwork sort of skirt. (9.13)
Howl's vanity is a serious factor in his love life. He always seems to think about how handsome he is and how he can look his best, as opposed to thinking about the woman he's actually talking to. The reason that we know that he and Sophie are meant to be together is because Sophie sees all of Howl's worst sides—his selfishness, his vainness, his childishness, his drama-queeny-ness—before she will actually admit that he has been kind and generous to her.
"I do not know, nor do I wish to know, about such contracts," [Mrs. Pentstemmon] said. Her cane wobbled again, as if she might be shuddering. Her mouth quirked into a line, suggesting she had unexpectedly bitten on a peppercorn. "But I now see," she said, "what has happened to the Witch. She made a contract with a fire demon and, over the years, that demon has taken control of her. Demons do not understand good and evil. But they can be bribed into a contract, provided the human offers them something valuable, something only humans have." (12.56)
This idea of demons as creatures that do not understand good and evil—as opposed to creatures that are by their nature evil—is intriguing. This distinction is what allows Calcifer to be such a positive character in the novel despite his demonic nature, but it is also what permits Miss Angorian to be the main villain behind the Witch of the Waste. Demons appear to have the same differences in personality and moral value that humans do in Ingary.
Given the lack of a moral dimension to demonic nature here, what makes demons special in this book? Is there much material difference between Calcifer's character and Howl's or Michael's? Can you tell that he's a demon from anything other than his appearance?
More about Howl? Sophie thought desperately. I have to blacken his name! Her mind was such a blank that for a second it actually seemed to her that Howl had no faults at all. How stupid! "Well, he's fickle, careless, selfish, and hysterical," she said. "Half the time I think he doesn't care what happens to anyone as long as he's all right—but then I find out how awfully kind he's been to someone. Then I think he's kind just when it suits him—only then I find out he undercharges poor people. I don't know, Your Majesty. He's a mess." (13.16)
Poor Sophie is all turned inside-out over her man. Howl sends her to the King to make him look bad, but Sophie is so honest that she has to tell the King the exact truth as she is trying to blacken Howl's name—and maybe even more truth about what she thinks of Howl than she has totally admitted to herself.
All of the traits she lists here—that Howl is "careless, selfish, and hysterical" but that he is also "kind"—are fair assessments of Howl. But these kinds of contradictions are also what make Howl appealing as a character, both to Sophie and to us as readers. Howl seems more human and well-rounded because he has a good mixture of flaws and strong points—and because the book gives us time to get to know those strong points, instead of presenting them right off the bat.
"Make me young again and I'll run up [the stairs to the palace], even in this heat."
"That wouldn't be half so funny," said the Witch. "Up you go. And if you do persuade the King to see you, remind him that his grandfather sent me to the Waste and I bear him a grudge for that." (13.66-67)
Both Howl and the Witch of the Waste have fierce reputations in their neighborhoods. And both do have ethical failings: much as we love Howl, he is careless, untrustworthy with women's hearts, and extremely self-centered. But the Witch actively enjoys watching people suffer. She forces Sophie to go up the stairs to the palace in the glaring heat because Sophie is an old woman and it will be difficult for her to do so. The Witch's active cruelty obviously makes her a villain in this novel, whereas most of Howl's worst traits come from his irresponsibility, which is more self-destructive than anything else.
By the time Howl arrived in the shop, in a black apron to match his suit, he usually found it quite busy. He made it busier still. This was when Sophie began to be sure that the black suit was really the charmed gray-and-scarlet one. Any lady Howl served was sure to go away with at least twice the number of flowers she asked for. Most of the time Howl charmed them into buying ten times as much. (18.5)
We keep talking about how forgivable Howl's sins are, but c'mon—he can be kind of sleazy. His use of the gray-and-scarlet suit—which, as a professional wizard, he must know is enchanted—to draw in girls definitely isn't fair. And while he doesn't seem to be taking particular advantage of this suit's charms, we notice that he hasn't disenchanted it either.
Sophie dragged. Miss Angorian hung on. The guitar gave out horrible, out-of-tune jangles. Sophie jerked it out of Miss Angorian's arms. "Don't be silly," she said. "You've no right to walk into people's castles and take their guitars. I've told you Mr. Sullivan's not here. Now go back to Wales. Go on." And she used the guitar to push Miss Angorian backward through the open door.
Miss Angorian backed into the nothingness until half of her vanished. "You're hard," she said reproachfully.
"Yes, I am!" said Sophie and slammed the door on her. (18.56-58)
Sophie's strong reaction to Miss Angorian here is fascinating because we may know more about why she is being so unsympathetic than Sophie herself does. By this point, we have already begun to suspect that Sophie has fallen hard for Howl. And Miss Angorian's story of woe over the disappeared Ben Sullivan gets exactly no sympathy from Sophie because Howl is really into Miss Angorian. Clearly Sophie is jealous, and her jealousy makes her behave with less sympathy than she normally would.
I don't know how I knew her, because Lettie said she's never seen me when I went to Upper Folding. But I knew all about her—enough so that when the Witch made me tell her about Lettie, I said she kept a hat shop in Market Chipping. So the Witch went there to teach us both a lesson. And you were there. She thought you were Lettie. I was horrified, because I didn't know Lettie had a sister. (19.53)
To us, it makes it worse that Sophie's transformation into an old woman comes about because of a case of mistaken identity. We think that Sophie would probably feel worse if the Witch of the Waste had transformed Lettie as she intended, but still—to know that Sophie got cursed almost by accident makes the Witch's casual cruelty seem even less fair.
"But you should have told me where you were, love!"
Sophie knew she should have. She had taken Martha's view of Fanny, whole and entire, when she should have known Fanny better. She was ashamed. (20.39-40)
See? Sophie isn't perfect either. Her regret over not talking to Fanny before running away is totally fair: she was regarding Fanny as a tyrant and a bully without thinking about the hat shop situation from Fanny's perspective. Often Sophie feels bad for things that aren't real: she thinks that she is doomed to be a failure because she is the oldest daughter in a family of three sisters and that's how fairytales go.
But Sophie's worry over her birth order is a totally invented thing to feel bad about, which she has to let go. Here her guilt over her treatment of Fanny is justified, but she is also taking a healthy approach to that shame by learning from it and improving her future relationship with her stepmother.