Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Howards End

Forster’s Howards End demonstrates a very powerful sense of the modern and modernity as a growing force in London and represents Forster’s attempt to confront and assimilate it into a stable world view. One of the more salient ways in which Forster frames his discussion is through Margaret’s impulse to connect. Modernists confronted a fracturing world, and though they recognized the reality of the situation, they yearned to piece it back together—they sought some form of unity among the pieces as a defense against the instability epitomized in the continual flux of London. Thus as Eliot famously wrote, “these fragments I have shored against my ruin,” so Margaret agonizes over the possibility of “building . . . the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion[, without which] we are meaningless fragments” (134). There is a seemingly innate desire to collect/connect the pieces of a broken modern world in such a way that will create some saving meaning. And it is within this paradigm that Forster makes his rhetorical power plays.

As already mentioned, Forster represents London as undulating, almost seething, not in the positive image of a living body full of activity, but as suffering from erosive decay, buildings being “swept away in time” as the waves of “humanity piled . . . higher and higher on the precious soil of London” (8). Howard’s End provides a very strong contrast in that (though it changes, significantly, because of the intervention of the masculine and with the implication that it would have been better off if left alone—the stable being turned into a garage particularly), it remains a stable and safe space immune to the flux as well as the prying and oppressive eyes of a hypocritically moralistic society. The great wych-elm tree with its embedded pig’s teeth roots the house deeply in the past, an image somewhat connected with the women of the house as they are the only ones who notice it; however, Forster denies a strict binary: “house and tree transcended any similies of sex. . . . To compare either to man, to woman, always dwarfed the vision. Yet they kept within the limits of the human” (148). The emphasis again falls on connection, here a connection between, not preeminence of, the sexes.

Addressing that constructed preeminence of the male, Forster does challenge the social structure of gender. Henry’s inability to connect his failure with Helen’s largely derives from his (and contemporary society’s) view of gender, the cause of the double standard of sexuality for men and women inherited from the Victorians. Margaret clearly elucidates the male (and societies) response when she contemplates a butler at the Evie’s wedding: “he, as a handsome young man, was faintly attractive to her as a woman—an attraction so faint as scarcely to be perceptible, yet the skies would have fallen if she had mentioned it to Henry” (176). Forster here dares to acknowledge and justify female sexuality.

On a different level, Forster also challenges an elitist aesthetic in the character of Leonard Bast. He makes concerted efforts to prevent “Romance [from] interfere[ing] with his life” (101). He wanted to maintain forced boundaries between the culture he revered and the life he lived. Margaret thought that he “tried to get away from the fogs [the daily grey] that are stifling us—away past books and houses to the truth[, but Leonard] fail[s] to see the connection” (104). Thus in reality he is left only with the “husks of books” (106), the external vestiges of culture, the essence of which he can never realize. Thus he exemplifies an abortive culture that fails to banish that daily grey that continuously resurrects itself throughout the novel.

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