Monday 18 July 2011

Howards End by E.M. Forster

“Death destroys a man: the idea of Death saves him." 

There is no denying that E.M. Forster is a shrewd intellect capable of writing gorgeous prose but the problem with
Howards End is that its pompously detached style and rigorously pedagogical nature undermines the actual narrative. This is a novel about ideas – the story is secondary to Forster’s exploration of various political, economic, social and philosophical attitudes pertaining to his native England at the turn of the 20th century. Although Forster may come across as bitter and cynical towards his homeland, he also maintains a passionate optimism where perhaps there is hope for the future (if the ending is any indication). He provides insightful criticism and sophisticated observations of English culture especially pertaining to class warfare, gender roles and the rights of property. 

The novel succeeds as a highly polished academic treatise and with a new emerging social culture, Forster is greatly considered with many questions about the potentially new direction of England. More importantly, the novel attempts to figure out who and what particular social class will now rule this great land. Forster has a great love for humanity but fails miserably at delivering any sort of convincing or engaging story. While he should be commended for his crafty and introspective writing, he is often too clever for his own good, where arguably, the novel takes the form of allegory pertaining to social hierarchy: The Wilcoxes represent the priggish and superficial upper-class, the Schlegel sisters are the over-educated artists of the rising middle-class and the Basts are characterized as the naïve, hard-working lower-class. The soap-opera melodrama that involves these different factions of society is illogical in its design; merely serving as a platform for Forster to implement metaphorical conceits and heavy symbolism of vastly interpretative meanings. Thus, such a novel is daunting in its ambitious scope but I found Forster's haughty writing style to be downright self-righteous at times. Sure, erudite literary academics are bound to drool over this novel but I found it to be an unsatisfying chore to get through. 

However, that is not to suggest that I vehemently despised the novel. There are certain redeeming factors but I still remain highly apathetic. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator smugly asserts that this particular story focuses on the noble gentility and harshly condemns the lower-classes: “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet. This story deals with gentlefolk, or with those who are obliged to pretend that they are gentlefolk” (47). Is the narrator being deliberately ironic or just pompously declaring class superiority? The novel often utilizes irony for dramatic effect along to emphasize the subtext but sometimes this type of rhetorical device falls flat for lacking subtlety. Nonetheless, Forster does manage to effectively portray class distinctions with resonant eloquence: “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” (47). The precarious position of being part of the lower-class and falling into the “abyss” of obscurity is an apt observation. As the narrator previously put it, to be at the bottom of society's rank is to become “unthinkable” which is chillingly full of truth -- the rich stay rich and the poor remain constantly oppressed until they reach oblivion and are forgotten. Unfortunately, it is a shame that Forster’s insightful and wily charm is rendered mostly inconsequential by the the novel’s severe lack of a convincing or emotionally resonant narrative, which is painfully contrived. For example, the major tragic moment at the end involving Leonard Bast is inevitable but there is no emotional weight behind it at all and just incoherently happens without any genuine motive because this scene occurs only to serve as a launching pad for the author's political and social purposes. Granted, the way Forster utilizes conversation in many intriguing ways to emphasize the underlying subtext is worth noting but the pompous diction gets annoying fast in its obnoxiousness. The characters are incessantly dull as metaphorical constructs; prone to engaging in tiresome palaver that is cringe-inducing in its ostentatious vernacular. Did rich English folk really talk this annoyingly back then? I can only hope that Forster was parodying the vain and magniloquent gentry.

The novel’s most famous lines come from Margaret Schlegel who is thrust into a life of gentility by marrying the rich landowner Mr. Wilcox. She struggles to maintain her previous spiritual inner life as an intelligent and independent woman against the new social protocol she is expected to follow. Eventually, Margaret decides to preserve her self-identity and attempts to influence her new husband to change his narrow-minded perspective to save his soul from damnation:

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (195). 

These beautiful lines serve as a major structural component to the story and Forster is keen to emphasize this theme throughout the novel: A meaningful life can be achieved without the blind-pursuit of wealth by connecting to people, places and art. Focusing entirely on capitalist ideals leads to an empty, vapid existence. Considering the historical context of the novel, Forster was surely radical in his ideologies for rejecting traditional conservative values.

It is no surprise that Howards End is a landmark novel of early 20th century fiction that has been extensively studied academically because it is overflowing with ideas and complexities that can be analyzed to the point of no return. For instance, is it just me or are Schlegel sisters involved in some kind of border-line incestuous relationship? They clearly love each other but there are subtle moments that suggest they might be more than just siblings. They spend an exorbitant amount of time together, share the same interests as well as mannerisms and if they happen to be apart, their lives fall into chaos. Also, one particular line left me rather befuddled: “They passed upstairs, kissed, and amidst the endless iterations fell asleep” (330). The key word is “iterations” which perhaps suggests sexual connotations although perhaps I am merely over analyzing what is supposedly just two sisters enjoying each others company.

Personally, I would have preferred if Forster just wrote an essay on these complex issues of class, gender and politics sparkled with his profound philosophical beliefs instead of forcing readers to slog through such an insipid story. If I were take anything valuable from this novel, it would be some of the author's sagacious and elegant diction:

“It is so easy to talk of “passing emotion,” and how to forget how vivid the emotion was ere it passed. Our impulse to sneer, to forget, is at root a good one…But the poetry of that kiss, the wonder of it, the magic that there was in life for hours after it–who can describe that?” (25).

“We recognize that emotion is not enough, and that men and women are personalities capable of sustained relations, not mere opportunities for an electrical discharge. Yet we rate the impulse too highly. We do not admit that by collisions of this trivial sort the doors of heaven may be shaken open” (25).

“Life is indeed dangerous, but not in the way morality would have us believe. It is indeed unmanageable, but the essence of it is not a battle. It is unmanageable because it is a romance, and its essence is romantic beauty” (111).

“One is certain of nothing but the truth of ones own emotions” (178).

“Under cosmopolitanism, if it comes, we shall receive no help from the earth. Trees and meadows and mountains will only be a spectacle, and the binding force that they one exercised on character must be entrusted to Love alone. May Love be equal to the task!” (273).

Pick up this novel if you are interested in early 20th century literature but be forewarned, its slow and methodical structure requires plenty of patience to finish. Despite my indifference, it does leave plenty to ponder and discuss afterwards. 

This novel is part of the Classics Club Challenge.


  1. E.M. Forster was one of the authors I covered during my final year at High School (in Scotland, I did some weird thing that was equivalent to first year at university) and had to write an essay on this in an exam. So all I remember about it is the analysis and don't even know if I enjoyed the story. I do like the Merchant Ivory film though. I can't say he's someone I would re-read now.

  2. Very cool, Ellie. What exactly did your analysis focus on? This is one of those novels that demands rumination. To my mind, it seems damn near impossible to effectively film and stay true to the essence of the book. I'll have to check it out one of these days.