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Impossible Gulfs in Howards End

Analysis of the interpersonal gulfs in E.M. Forster's novel Howards End

Impossible Gulfs in Howards End;


What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate

E. M Forster?s epigraph ?Only connect . . .? represents hope and philosophy, but perhaps not prophecy. The philosophy is perhaps Forster?s; the hope perhaps his hope for England, as well as the Schlegel sisters? for England, themselves, and their families. As the first great division of the 20th century threatened, there was an appalling lack of true connection: between nations, between castes, between individuals?communication failed.
War is not a continuation of diplomacy by other means, war is what happens when diplomacy is inadequate. It is force, plain and simple. It is a massive breakdown of communication, if only because one party does not wish to participate in the diplomatic process.
Or as in the case of Henry Wilcox, because he?s as thick as a brick. But we digress. . . .
There were wide, perhaps impossibly wide, chasms in the social landscape of Britain in the early 20th century. The empire building industrialists and the socialists entertained radically disparate views on wealth; business and culture clashed then as they do now; finally, the barrier between individual members of the human race has always existed and will carry on existing so long as we must attempt to understand one another through words.
The novel Howards End is peppered throughout with passages about ?connexion.? Forster and his Schlegel sisters are the ones consciously exploring the idea.
Margaret and Helen Schlegel are intellectuals at the top of a hierarchy of needs: they alone of all the characters and types of characters in the novel have had the leisure to consider self-actualization, which for them takes the form of interpersonal relationships. The Basts are stuck at the level where food and shelter are still a daily concern and, while Henry Wilcox could ascend if he had the sensitivity, he does not have it and therefore is emotionally tethered to the need to make still more money.
The Schlegel sisters inhabit the ground where wealth and spirituality overlap. The two groups of people in their personal orbit are the Wilcoxes whose sphere is wealth, and Leonard Bast. Granted, Leonard Bast is a group of one, but he represents all of those people who yearn toward culture, sensitivity, and spirituality but will never have time to sit down and rest long enough to attain it.
Margaret and Helen would like to act as a conductor for whatever sort of energy would cause the two groups to see each other as human beings rather than ?the poor? and ?the rich.?
However, that ideal may be an impossibility. There is even a failsafe of sorts built into the text; near the end of the novel Margaret notes that Henry?s obtuseness saved them both, which is probably true. If understanding is indeed a charged energy, then a connection from Margaret to Henry at that instant would have scorched and burned him, leaving little possibility of a happy life in the aftermath of the crisis. Henry speaks of forcing Helen?s seducer, though the term be inaccurate, to marry her:
. . . Margaret hit out for the first time. ?Are we to make her seducer
marry her?? she asked.
?If possible. Yes.?
?But, Henry, suppose he turned out to be married already? One has
heard of such cases.?
?In that case he must pay heavily for his misconduct, and be thrashed
within an inch of his life.?
So her first blow missed. She was thankful of it. What had tempted
her to imperil both of their lives? Henry?s obtuseness had saved her as
well as himself. . . . (241)

In that instance at least, incomprehension helped to avert disaster. For Mr. Wilcox, the past is another country and besides, the wench is married to Leonard.
Henry and Margaret do not share a common frame of reference in this situation. To use a modern semi-cliche, they are not on the same page. In fact Margaret?s book has whole chapters that Henry?s, which is the emotional equivalent of a Louis L?Amour western, lacks.
The idea of mismatched frames of reference recurs many times in Howards End. It is one of the major ways Forster expresses the idea that connection is, at best, extremely difficult. Characters repeatedly make statements they believe to be perfectly clear, only to have them misunderstood.
It is exactly the opposite of telling a partial truth in the desperate hope of being misunderstood without actually speaking falsehood; characters speak the entire truth as they know it, in perfect candor, but still the message is corrupted because the listener does not share the speaker?s map of the world.
It starts as early as page five, which is only the third with words on, but the truly horrible cross purposes begin on page 13 with this seemingly innocuous inquiry: ?Excuse me asking, but are you the younger Mr. Wilcox or the elder??
Two distinct but parallel conversations ensue, and nearly three whole pages later, Charles Wilcox emits the following series of words: ?I?m sorry to be so dense,? [he says] ?But I still haven?t quite understood.? We later find this to be a prophetic summation of his character, but here it serves as the beginning of the end of this particular miscommunication, which might otherwise have continued until they reached Howards End.
Note that it began with a perfectly simple question and the honest answer to same. But Charles Wilcox and Mrs. Munt do not share a common frame of reference.
Likewise they agree that a marriage between Paul and Helen is quite impossible, but Charles because a gold-digging siren has tried to ensnare his brother and Aunt Juley because Helen is special and mustn?t marry one of these obnoxious Wilcoxes.
It might be an agreement of sorts, but it isn?t a connection. Not even remotely. But was either of the participants trying to connect with the other? Perhaps, perhaps not.
Margaret and Helen are certainly trying very hard to connect with Leonard after Helen makes off with his umbrella. That attempt was a failure as well. Again, the spark of understanding does not leap even though the Schlegels are sincere and intend to bridge the gap. Helen?s friendly chatter does not convey the meaning she intends it to carry; it cannot. It is almost as if Leonard Bast and the Schlegels have been raised in cultures as disparate as French Creole settlers in New Orleans and the Mandarin Chinese, though they are all English. Linguistically, the explanation is fairly simple: languages assign arbitrary collections of sounds to signify concepts, and Leonard?s experiences have attached somewhat different meanings to words than have the Schlegel?s. It is rather like the naming of a child; its mother would like to call it Edward because a beloved uncle bore that name, but to its father ?Edward? is the schoolyard bully who beat him every day for three years and deliberately trod on his turtle.
Metaphorically speaking, Helen?s monologue has the unintended effect of (to be a bit psychotic about it) severely damaging Leonard?s turtle:
?Oh, I am so sorry!? [exclaims Helen] ?I do nothing but steal
umbrellas. I am so very sorry! Do come in and choose one. Is
yours a hooky or a nobbly? Mine?s a nobbly?at least, I think it
The light was turned on, and they began to search the hall, Helen,
who had abruptly parted with the Fifth Symphony, commenting with
shrill little cries.
?Don?t you talk, Meg! You stole an old gentleman?s silk top-hat.
Yes, she did, Aunt Juley. It is a positive fact. She thought it was a
muff. . . . What about this umbrella?? She opened it. ?No, it?s all
gone along the seams. It?s an appalling umbrella. It must be mine.?
But it was not. (33)

Ouch. These strange decadent women not only have his umbrella, they have so many umbrellas that they don?t even know what all of them look like! Imagine the giddy luxury of having multiple umbrellae! They have so many umbrellas that they can just . . . just . . . give one away as if it was nothing! As if umbrellas did not cost money, as if losing one would be of no great consequence, as if purchasing another would not mean doing without in some other way . . .
And furthermore, the umbrella that Helen would be ashamed to try to pawn off on a gentleman stranger, the one she pronounces actually appalling, is the one that Leonard has gone to some trouble walking through a damp evening?which accounts for the plenitude of umbrellas?to retrieve.
Helen has revealed what she thinks of Leonard?s umbrella and by extension, Leonard. Appalling. As Forster writes, Leonard and his kind were obliged to assert gentility. The tragedy is that the assertion could not help but fail.
Margaret realizes this and comments:
?And our thoughts are the thoughts of six-hundred-pounders, and
all our speeches; and because we don?t want to steal umbrellas
ourselves we forget that below the sea people do want to steal them,
and do steal them sometimes, and that what?s a joke up here is down
there reality?? (49)

What happens a bit later when Margaret attempts to connect the ethereal Ruth Wilcox with the world is perhaps not tragic, but it is still a failure. The luncheon in Chapter Nine is planned, but even careful planning can?t connect Ruth Wilcox to the other guests. The intellectual world they inhabit is far closer to her world of the imagination than the world of business belonging to Mr. Wilcox and his kind, but not close enough.
Even the most likely connection, that of Margaret to Ruth, is incomplete. One is left with the feeling that if the two women had only gone to Howards End together, then something magical would have happened. There would have been some sort of transcendent understanding, had they walked together in the meadow, picked flowers, and touched the wych-elm. But even Meg falters; she initially declines the invitation into Ruth?s world. Although she recovers her footing, hostile fate intervenes in the form of Ruth?s family. Their premature return scuttles the trip and the opportunity is lost forever.
Forster?s language in that passage is poetic, showing readers how tantalizingly close is that transcendence Margaret seeks:
They began the walk up the long platform. Far at its end stood
the train, breasting the darkness without. They never reached it.
Before imagination could triumph, there were cries of ?Mother!
Mother!? and a heavy-browed girl darted out of the cloak-room
and seized Mrs. Wilcox by the arm. . . . (69)

They are anchored there in the real by the Wilcoxes who, as Forster writes, ?avoided the personal note in life.? (74)
Later, after Ruth Wilcox?s death, Margaret will try to connect the rest of the family to some more meaningful world and the life of the spirit. But the Wilcoxes can?t even put down roots in a place. They care nothing for the Ducie Street house, Howards End, or even Oniton Grange where Evie was married. They form no link with the places or the other people who inhabit the locale. Forster reports it with the narrator?s omniscient voice:
. . . the Wilcoxes have no part in [Shropshire], nor in any place
It is not their names that recur in the parish register. It is not their
ghosts that sigh among the alders at evening. They have swept into
the valley and swept out of it, leaving a little dust and a little money
behind. (197)

Perhaps most hurtful is that this tendency of the Wilcoxes affects Margaret, who is on her way to becoming one of them in name. She loves Oniton Grange and Shropshire, but is never to see it again after the Wilcoxes have done with it. The Wilcoxes also damage Margaret?s tie to Helen, which is perhaps the only true, complete connection in the novel:
Something had come between them. Perhaps it was society, which
henceforward would exclude Helen. Perhaps it was a third life, already
potent as a spirit. They could find no meeting-place. Both suffered
acutely, and were not comforted by the knowledge that affection
survived. (233)

However, Margaret and Helen, owing to the genuine nature of their relationship and their personalities, will eventually be able to repair the damage. Notice, please, that one single instance is most directly responsible for it. It is Henry Wilcox who precipitates Helen?s brief, intense, and disastrous connection to Leonard. Likewise it is his reaction to the results and his proximity to Margaret which contribute to the temporary difficulties between Margaret and Helen.
Interestingly, the events leading to Helen?s pregnancy and the aftermath of it could prove to be the example Henry needs to show him the way. A sensitive man might see a healthy relationship, damaged, recover from that injury and become whole again, and adopt its ways as his own. Of course Henry Wilcox is not a sensitive man. Though his obtuseness does prevent a certain number of brush-fires in his relationship with Margaret, she will eventually tire of what seems to be a futile struggle and deliver to him this tirade:
?Not any more of this!? she cried. ?You shall see the connection if
it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress?I forgave you. My sister
has a lover?you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection?
Stupid, hypocritical, cruel?oh, contemptible!?a man who insults his
wife when she's alive and cants with her memory when she's dead. A
man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other
men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible.
These, man, are you. You can't recognize them, because you cannot
connect. I've had enough of your unweeded kindness. I've spoilt you
long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled
you. No one has ever told what you are?muddled, criminally muddled.
Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don't repent. Only say to
yourself, 'What Helen has done, I've done,? ? (243-244)

For a time thereafter, it seems as if there will be no connections made, none at all. Margaret?s attempts to connect to Henry appear to have failed, the relationship between the sisters is scarred, Leonard will soon be dead, Ruth lived and died in a spiritual world of one, and no one has a permanent home. There are not so very many pages left in which Margaret may achieve the goals that have eluded her for the entire length of the novel. If so, Forster may be telling us that, yearn for it as we may, there is no true bond between us this side of the grave.
But wait. There is something. What Margaret could not accomplish alone, the scale she could not tip in Henry?s soul, is accomplished?the scale tipped?by his love for his son when Charles is beset after his inadvertent killing of Leonard Bast.
Margaret picks up all of the pieces. She repairs the relationships that had seemed beyond help. The end of this remarkable novel finds them all together in Howards End. Those who loved still love, and perhaps more deeply than before. Certain breaches have been mended by civility where love was not possible.
More importantly even than any of those things, an extraordinary connection has taken place, one that none of the characters anticipated. They never knew of it, in fact, although certain of them had parts of the story within reach.
Their story has come full circle; the ends have come together. Ruth?s legacy has come to pass and Margaret is given Howards End. Ruth connects with Margaret and death is no bar to the connection. They all have homes rather than just houses, for an extended family unit has also been born with Helen?s son, and it is centered at Howards End. Spirituality and the material world have blended as well as they ever may.
Most vital of all Forster has connected with readers. Perhaps making them individually pause to consider their own souls and what may be done to bind them to others, as well as the importance of doing it.

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