Friday, April 23, 2010

E.M. Forster's Howards End

Howards End
by E.M. Forster

(10: 19/50)

"Only connect,"

The entry below will openly analyze E.M. Forster's Howards End and address specifically its possible themes, symbols and intent. No plot-related spoilers will be divulged.

Something that has come to my attention through writing about each book I read is that, though I read many modern classics, great authors, and well-reviewed pieces of new fiction, I am perhaps too prone to overstatement. Certainly novels such as Maurice, or The Irresistible Henry House are worthy of high praise, but It occurs to me that too often I am perhaps too distracted by literary technique for objectivity. Perhaps. These are the thoughts that come to mind as I sit down and try to explain why Howards End is such a fantastic novel, and how I can possibly give its greatness adequate perspective.

Howards End is a wonderful, successful, and undeniable true literary classic. Now 100 years old, it still has charm, and its characters are still funny. Henry Wilcox is still absurdly obtuse, Leonard Bast still endearing in his skittishness, Dolly Wilcox still a blundering gaffer. These characters are very real, and very flawed. Their dialogs make coming to the novel a pleasure because they are consistent, well-rendered characters. The last time I explicitly mentioned character was when discussing Chabon's The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, and what strikes me now as it did then is what good are characters without true eccentricities? If one were to meditate on the number of-- truly-- rather dull characters in even great literature, the effect would be crushing. Most characters lack the spark of the hyper-real, and its that particular spark that continues to imbue Howards End with life a century later.

That Forster's novel is plotted with equal deftness is another great relief. He allows fate to guide his narrative and does not clutter up the novel with passing, irrelevant years. Forster moves swiftly, and echoes important ideas enough for clarity but never approaching a bludgeon. Here is a master at work.

Howards End is, as one might expect of Forster, concerned with humanistic ideas. Literary critic (and great admirer of Forster's) Lionel Trilling summed Howards End up thusly:
Bringing together people of different classes and nations by way of sympathetic insight and understanding, Howards End eloquently addresses the question "Who shall inherit England?"

Trilling is here as succinct as one can possibly hope to be. Like Forster's other work, Howards End is concerned with personal connection and empathy. It suggests that the only way to live is to put people first but also that we must first understand ourselves before we can understand those around us. The salvation of everything we know is dependent upon it. This is the second point that Howards End argues: That salvation is not only dependent on the connection between people but between our ideals and practicality; the poetry and the prose as Forster calls it; personified by the Schlegel sisters and the Wilcoxes respectively.

Howards End is an immensely complex novel, my grasp on which I am only tenuously certain. Regardless, it is an outstanding, and touching achievement and one of the finest novels I've ever had the pleasure to read. The more I read E.M. Forster the more I come to believe as he believes-- and also I hope the more compassionate and tolerant I become of others-- and the more I want to emulate him in life and in writing. He makes me want to be a better person. I do not know of a clearer sign of a great writer.

Up Next: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

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