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Howards End by E.M. Forster

February 2, 2010

Have you ever finished a book and then wanted to flip the book right around and start it again? I don’t know how I went so many years without reading any Forster. Howards End examines the relationship between two families who meet in a hotel: the Schlegel sisters (Margaret and Helen) and the Wilcox family. The two groups couldn’t be more different, yet once they are both back in England, life keeps throwing them together. Chance meetings lead to involvement in the others’ lives, and by the end of the novel, the two families are entirely intertwined with each other.

The odd thing about this novel is that although I know very well what happened, plot-wise and character-development-wise, I am not quite sure that I know what I am supposed to think about what happened. I suppose that some of that uneasiness that I feel is because I read so many heavy Victorian books and have become accustomed to an author being quite clear about the right point of view and the wrong point of view. In Howards End, however, I was never sure whether I was reading a character’s thoughts or the narrator’s opinions. In A Room with a View, it was quite clear who was supposed to be laughed at, who was supposed to tut-tutted to for being wrong, and who was supposed to be the one with the “right” thoughts. But Howards End is much more ambiguous. At certain times, it seems like Mr. Wilcox’s practical approach to life is satisfactory, but then at other times, he’s obviously perfectly crazy. Likewise, Margaret’s opinions about beauty and connecting seem so eloquent and ideally true. Yet, we see her falter several times herself.  And some of her opinions about how a woman should act around her husband change dramatically at the end of the novel. And what of Mr Bast, a lower middle class man that the sisters sort of befriend? He certainly has strong opinions about the way life should be lived, but I could never tell if the narrator was treating Bast with sympathy or contempt. This is why I wanted to reread the book so soon after finishing it–now that I know what happened, I want to read slowly so as to understand the smallest details of each character. Surely, though, one of the things that makes this novel such a great work is that raises more questions than it answers. Here is this unusual situation with all of these unique characters, and what can the reader learn from all of them? All I can say is that several days later, I’m still pondering that question, and I occasionally find myself thinking about these characters and agreeing or disagreeing with things that they thought or did. Howards End is certainly a door into a different time, culture, and society. I look forward to picking this book up again when I’m at a different stage in life to see how I may react differently.

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6 comments

  1. You exactly describe my response when I first read this novel in 1998 (in fact, I think I did read it twice in a row). Now, at a very different time of life, you’ve inspired me to pick it up again. Thank you for the review and the memories.


    • I’m glad that I brought back some good memories! I hope you enjoy it if you decide to read it again.


  2. And what about that odd, pastoral ending where they’re all friends together in the remnants of the Merrie Olde English countryside? I didn’t know WHAT to think about that!

    Your thoughts on Howards End are so interesting to me because I came at it from a perspective of reading mostly Modernist & Post-Modernist lit, and it wasn’t immediately obvious to me why the book wasn’t Victorian. But you’re right – there is a lot more ambiguity there than in Dickens or Eliot. Thanks for the post!


    • Yeah, that ending was really pretty crazy. Pastoral is exactly the right way to describe it, even with a little toddler playing in the tall grass!


  3. The book just embodies class difference in England. Forster envisions a society where all the conflicts and understandings created by division of class will disappear as the different values and ideals will resolve the differences and complement one another. As James Ivory, director of three Forster films, has stated, “the love of humanity also has its own vices and the love for truth its own insensibilities.”


    • Yes, the class divisions are so very important in HE. Your idea actually explains a lot about that crazy ending mentioned in the comments above. That idyllic, pastoral scene at the end could be how Forster imagined a class-less Britain would be like. Although, interestingly, the poorer classes (like the Basts) don’t fare so well as the others.



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