Connecting is perhaps the most important theme of the novel, as the words "Only connect" make up its epigraph. Connections are necessary on many levels. Connecting within oneself is highly important, which is seen most clearly in Mr. Wilcox's personal development. Margaret knows Mr. Wilcox could be a better man if he could just connect the prose and the passion inside of himself rather than devoting his life to practicality and business. Forster also demonstrates the importance of connecting with others in a meaningful rather than superficial way. To achieve this, one must penetrate the inner life rather than relying on the outer life. For example, when Leonard Bast speaks with the Schlegels after his all-night walk, he references many authors and books, but the Schlegels are only interested in his personal view of the experience.
The Schlegels and Wilcoxes represent different approaches to life, that which celebrates the inner life, and that which celebrates the outer life. The novel works to bring these two concepts together, and finally unites them through Margaret and Mr. Wilcox's marriage and eventual settling at Howards End. The path to this final connection is fraught with drama and tragedy, but the end result is one of peace, happiness, and stability. Thus, in connecting to each other and embracing differences, Margaret, Mr. Wilcox, and Helen are able to find satisfaction.
Inner Life vs. Outer Life
Margaret and Helen Schlegel celebrate the inner life. In their opinion, the inner life is what defines and shapes a person. Therefore, embracing and understanding it is fundamental to developing identity and confidence. Embracing the inner life encompasses a wide variety of things, such as Margaret working to understand Mr. Wilcox, the celebration of grounding oneself in a home as Margaret and Helen do when seeing their furniture unpacked at Howards End, or expressing one's honest opinion as Leonard finally does when noting the sunrise he witnessed was fairly disappointing. Throughout the novel, the outer life is often portrayed as related to "telegrams and anger." The Wilcoxes, especially Charles, embody existences dominated by the outer life. For instance, after a brief romance with Helen, Paul immediately returns to his outer life focus, and regrets allowing his emotions to rule his action. In fact, the entire Wilcox family, except Mrs. Wilcox, is astounded and upset by Paul's impulsive actions. Similarly, when Helen and Margaret see each other after eight months of not speaking, discussion, explanations, and questions fail to reestablish their bond. To reconnect with each other, they must access aspects of their inner life, which they finally do through seeing their furniture unpacked in Howards End and reminiscing over their childhoods.
At the conclusion of the novel, the concepts of inner and outer life are finally united as Mr. Wilcox, Margaret, and Helen live happily in Howards End. Margaret and Helen embrace the new Mr. Wilcox, who develops an appreciation for the inner life, and Helen, once solely focused on an inner existence, begins to understand the importance of the outer life. Margaret, who has always been open to accepting different approaches to life, acts as the unifier between her sister and Mr. Wilcox, who began the novel at different extremes.
Daily Life; the Unseen vs. the Seen
Throughout the novel, Forster describes daily life with the color grey. Especially for Helen, life is flat and boring when there is no romance, passion, or excitement. Mrs. Wilcox, on the other hand, easily finds magic in daily life, preventing the greyness from dominating her existence. She takes pleasure in small things and makes sacrifices where and when she feels she should. As Margaret grows older, both her friendship with Mrs. Wilcox and her relationship with Mr. Wilcox help her learn to embrace daily life as something special and revered. In a letter, Margaret reminds Helen to cherish the seen as well as the unseen. One of Helen's flaws is that she is unsatisfied with the present. To grow as a person, she must learn to live daily life without such constant passion and without isolating so many people. By the end of the novel, Helen has tamed her approach, and begins to understand her sister's advice. In fact, this unification of the seen and the unseen mirrors the theme of combining the inner and outer life.
Balancing the inner and outer life and the seen and the unseen requires accepting the importance of proportion and compromise over extremism. In an early conversation with Mrs. Wilcox, Margaret mentions that proportion should be embraced only as a last resort, but soon learns that she is incorrect. There are in fact several points in the novel when characters are living in an all-or-nothing way. The characters that end up happy in the end, however, have learned that proportion is a necessary element in life. Margaret has found proportion in her roles as Helen's sister and Mr. Wilcox's wife. Mr. Wilcox has learned to set aside some of his more uptight ideals and finally leave Howards End to his second wife and then her nephew, and Helen has learned that passion is important, but should not dominate one's existence. In contrast, Charles is unable to compromise his views. He never trusts Margaret or Helen, and sees Helen's situation as one that can be rectified with violent revenge. For this extreme behavior and inability to respond proportionately, Charles goes to prison.
Howards End presents an examination of English life shortly before World War I. At the time, England was in the middle of great social change while simultaneously at the height of its global influence. Many have suggested that in writing this novel, Forster was truly trying to answer the question: "Who shall inherit England?" Therefore, in Howards End Forster carefully presents three different classes of English society. The Schlegel family represents the idealistic, literary and cultured upper class, the Wilcox family represents the materialism and excessive intellectualism of certain sections of the upper class, and the Basts represent the lower middle class of English society, struggling to maintain influence and to avoid falling into poverty. At the end of the novel, these three groups are intertwined permanently. Margaret Schlegel marries Henry Wilcox, and Helen Schlegel bears Leonard Bast's child. Margaret, Henry, Helen, and her baby boy end the novel living together peacefully at Howards End. Thus, Forster seems to suggest that all parts of English society must learn to coexist on equal ground.
Class and Culture
There are cultural differences between them, but both the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are well off enough to live comfortably and pleasurably. However, this is an impossibility for Leonard Bast. He must struggle to gather enough money to attend a single concert, while the Schlegels have attended so many that they have lost count. Leonard longs desperately to be cultured, and is most happy when having intellectual, culturally centered conversations with the Schlegel women.
This disparity between the rich and poor appears many times, and various opinions of how to assist the struggling poor are provided. When Margaret, Helen, and their friends gather for a social occasion, this topic arises in conversation. Margaret says that the less fortunate should be given money - a means to figure out their ideals - rather than have a way of life imposed upon them. Later on, Mr. Wilcox maintains that there will always be rich and poor in the world and that that is not necessarily a bad thing, but simply a way of life. For Helen especially, Leonard humanizes the issue of poverty, and she wants desperately to help him. The novel's conclusion does not provide a final response to if and how the poor should be assisted, as Leonard dies, ironically buried under a pile of books.
Gender Roles; Sexuality
The differences between the Wilcoxes, primarily a family of men, and the Schlegels, consisting mostly of women, are undeniable. There is something harsh and unyielding about the former and a certain softness and romance about the latter, which suggest specific differences in gender roles. Undoubtedly, in the novel, women are expected to behave in a certain way. Mrs. Wilcox, though her true pleasure is Howards End, has learned how to put her family first no matter what. Similarly, Margaret plays the role of the 'silly' female when her actions at Oniton are deemed bizarre, and her mistakes are quickly excused.
Throughout the novel, it becomes clear that in 1910 England, women are expected to submit to men. For example, before staying at Howards End with Helen, Margaret must ask her husband's permission. However, even when he denies her use of the house, she rebels against him and stays there anyway. Margaret appears unwilling to accept a lesser place in society as a result of her womanhood. Similarly, Helen bravely bears an illegitimate child in a time and place where such things are unheard of, while Mr. Wilcox is simply chided for his affair with a prostitute. Clearly, men are permitted far greater liberty than women, but the Schlegel sisters are unwilling to submit entirely to society's expectations.
Howards End Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Howards End is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Tibby is just sixteen when the novel begins, and is therefore barely consequential. As he grows older, he becomes more of a presence. He attends Oxford, where he isolates himself in his studies. He sometimes finds it difficult to be looked after...
Thematically, Forster's sole concern in the book can be seen in the epigram: "Only connect" as this echoes differences between the classes that Margaret seeks to bring together. But this becomes secondary when we see some of the...