Howard's End by E.M Foster

Howards End, authored by E.M Foster, is filled with philosophical, social and economic commentary of England’s society during the early twentieth century. Foster writes of three families to show the differences in social class: The book shows the conflict as well as the merging between some characters from the various social strata of England. This essay will critically examine two points of the book: (1) The contrast economic differences between the classes; and (2) the contrast between the humanistic ideals of the classes in the novel, specifically between the humanistic ideals of the Schlegel’s versus the modern capitalist ideals of the Wilcox family.

Foster shows the contrast between these three families throughout the book, placing each one into three different social classes: First, the Wilcox family, who were wealthy and modern capitalist: second, the Schlegel family, who love literacy, creativity, art and culture; and third, the Bast family, who are lower middle class. While the Wilcox family are the poster children who best portray England’s works ethics and social principles, the Schlegel family best represents the good nature of the upper middle class and their intellectual ideals.

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As for the Bast family, they represent the lower middle working class, who have no security and struggle economically. Although these classes lead very different lives and may clash, in the book they connect and are forced to deal with each other.

Henry Wilcox represents those of the higher upper class in England’s twentieth century who adhered to the principles of modern capitalism and social morality and had strong work ethics.

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In contrast to the Schlegel family, Henry is born and raised with wealth. Being a wealthy businessman with colonial times, he views the world as a realist and constantly seeks greater power and money, in stark contrast to the ideals of the Schlegel family who are optimists and believe in a world with equality. Foster expresses Henry’s viewpoint, showing that money is important and equal to power and that the world will always run that way and it needs to make progress. As he declared in midst of conversation with Helen:

There always have been rich and poor. I’m no fatalist. Heaven forbid! But our civilization is molded by great impersonal forces . . . , and there always will be rich and poor. You can’t deny it -and you can’t deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward.’ (22.15)

The Schlegel family represent the higher middle class in England, who are characteristically idealistic and intellectual. They are orphans who have some money from inheritance but not as much as the Wilcox’s. Given they had an independent income and needed no one to provide for them, they had a more humanistic and idealistic view of the world; as opposed to the Wilcox’s they are dreamers who want to change the world and help those in need. They use culture and literacy to connect with those outside of their class.

Despite having the same income and being from the same class, the Schlegel sisters have very different viewpoints when it comes to their wealth. Margaret Schlegel is the head of her household and, as a 29-year old woman, she is more responsible and more of a realist. Despite feeling bad for the more unfortunate than her, she realizes what the Wilcox family and Leonard realizes: the power money has and its necessity for survival and happiness, which is the opposite to what her sister believes – that money holds no happiness. In conversation with Aunt Judy, Margaret states ‘You and I and the Wilcox’s stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see someone near us tottering that we realize all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here around the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of the coin.’

In contrast to her sister, Helen Schlegel is sensitive and dramatic and very naive. She doesn’t see the value that money holds and believes that the elegant man would truly be happy if they live for themselves. While in conversation with Leonard, she succinctly illustrates her view of the value of money stating,

if we lived forever what you say would be true. But we have to die, we have to leave life presently. Injustice and greed would be the real thing if we lived forever. As it is, we must hold to other things, because Death is coming. I love Death–not morbidly, but because He explains. He shows me the emptiness of Money. Death and Money are the eternal foes. Not Death and Life. Never mind what lies behind Death, Mr. Bast, but be sure that the poet and the musician and the tramp will be happier in it than the man who has never learned to say, ‘I am I.”(27.19)

Leonard Bast is the opposite of the other two families, a poor insurance clerk who is part of the lower middle working class. He makes just enough money to get by and has nothing left to spare and is in constant financial worry. Leonard represents the lower classes and wishes to improve. He is constantly trying to improve himself and his lifestyle. He, like the other families in higher classes, knows the power that money can hold and dreams to have wealth just like them. Unfortunately, with the little education he has, he has been stuck in the position that he has. Those from the lower working class come to a position and die doing the same job as they began, and if that job is lost, then they have no way of working at all.

Foster condemns Bast to a lifetime of lowliness based on his issues being stuck between classes: he isn’t the poorest but doesn’t have the wealth either. An instance where you can see Foster condone him is in chapter 6: “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. He knew that he was poor, and would admit it: he would have died sooner than confess any inferiority to the rich. This may be splendid of him. But he was inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable. His mind and his body had been alike underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food. Had he lived some centuries ago, in the brightly colored civilizations of the past, he would have had a definite status, his rank and his income would have corresponded. But in his day the angel of Democracy had arisen, unshadowing the classes with leather wings, and proclaiming,

All men are equal–all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas,’ and so he was obliged to assert gentility, lest he slipped into the abyss where nothing counts, and the statements of Democracy are inaudible. (6.2)

Forster has also used the tool of contrast to demonstrate the different attitudes among the different classes. For instance, the novel and the humanistic ideals of the Schlegel’s versus the modern capitalism of the Wilcox’s. When communicating and giving advice to others, these two families have a very different viewpoint on the subject. The upper classes believe in not spoiling their children–one is trained to face the public as a strong person and keeping personal ties to a minimal. These different attitudes bring out the theme between private and public life. The Schlegel family, on the other hand, do not value public life – they value personal relationships, which is in great contrast to the Wilcox family who prioritize the business world and its rules as well as social procedures over close interpersonal relationships.

Foster shows a great deal of Henry Wilcox’s views towards others and business. For example, in chapter 22 when he is confronted by Helen to own-up for what he did to Leonard Bast, he states:

Let me explain the point to you. It is like this. You assume when a business concern is conducting a delicate negotiation, it ought to keep the public informed stage by stage. The porphyrion according to you, was bound to say: I am trying all I can to get into the Tariff Ring. I am not sure that I shall succeed, but it is the only thing that will save me from insolvency, and I am trying. My dear Helen -’

Is that your point? A man who had little money has less – that’s mine.” “I am grieved for your clerk. but it is all in a day’s work. It’s part of the battle of life.

In contrast to the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels love to help others and build relationships with others. As they both take a personal interest in the Basts they try to build them up and to help Leonard in any which way that they can. Margaret, the more grounded one, tries to help him out with his life and income and watch out for his best in a non-dramatic way. In the first of many encounters with him Margaret takes an interest in Leonard – she recognizes that Leonard would be better off living in the country like his ancestors than in the city. However, his love for culture has him be made a joke of him by the middle class. The narrator illustrates this connection she has for Leonard in chapter 14:

One guessed him as the third generation grandson to the shepherd or ploughboy whom civilization had sucked into the town; as one of the thousands who has lost the life of the body and failed to reach the life of the spirit. Hints of robustness survived in him, more than a hint of primitive good looks, and Margaret, noting the spine that might have been straight, and the chest that might have broadened, wondered whether it paid to give up the glory of the animal for a tailcoat and a couple of ideas. Culture had worked in her own case, but during the last few weeks, she had doubted whether it humanized the majority, so wide and so widening is the gulf that stretches between the natural and the philosophic man, so many the good chaps who are wrecked in trying to cross it. She knew this type very well–the vague aspirations, the mental dishonesty, the familiarity with the outsides of books. She knew the very tones in which he would address her.(14.3)

Helen, being very caring and dramatic very opposite to her sister, becomes very much obsessed with Leonard and throughout the story, she tries everything to correct the wrongs that were done to him by Henry. What made Leonard’s misery, injustice life crushed by society’s rules that intrigues her. The narrator demonstrates Helen’s personal interest in Lenard in chapter 41;

Helen loved the absolute. Leonard had been ruined absolutely and had appeared to her as a man apart, isolated from the world. A real man, who cared for adventure and beauty, who desired to live decently and pay his way, who could have traveled more gloriously through life than the Juggernaut car that was crushing him. (41.3)

Leonard Bast connects all these families together. But eventually, Leonard suffers a tragic death from a heart attack caused by Charles Wilcox who pushed the bookcase on top of him. This tragedy of his death symbolizes the dead dreams of the lower middle working-class people, those who are not of the same status nor given the same wealth or power as the upper class are. Regardless of the conflict among the social classes, Margaret was able to work out the differences between her family and the Wilcoxes, allowing them to all live in Howard’s End. This book portrays a vivid view of the coexistence between the social classes in England’s twentieth century despite differences in their practices, values, beliefs, and attitudes.

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Howard's End by E.M Foster. (2022, Apr 09). Retrieved from

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