Undisclosed Desire and Hidden Anxiety: A Rereading of the Gender Relations in E. M. Forster’s
- Author: Chao Meiling
- Publish: Feminist Studies in English Literature Volume 20, Issue3, p125~155, 31 Dec 2012
Howards End(1910), E. M. Forster carries out a highly nuanced exploration of gender relations to highlight the conflicting ideas of liberalism and materialism of the upper‐middle classes in England in the years before World War I. Such readings are predicated on classical gender opposition. However, clear‐cut gender division seems unsettling and hence somewhat crude because the reader is repeatedly baffled by the novel’s out‐of‐character gender performances, which not only defy but transcend established gender expectations. In Howards End, all major characters seem to be overshadowed by some kind of performative failure in their inability to fully realize gender roles as well as to adequately fulfill gender expectations. This paper aims to verify through textual evidence whether or not performative failure actually manifests hidden anxieties concealed behind a novel written immediately preceding Forster’s final confirmation of his own sexual identity. It also attempts to show how the anxieties have been disguised, transformed, or overlaid in more public statements about conventional issues of courtship and marriage in the novel. In other words, Howards Endmay prove to be only deceptively conventional and a key to unfolding Foster’s secret desire.
E. M. Forster , Howards End , gender relations , samesex desire
Many critical readings of
Howards End(1910) concur that E. M. Forster carries out a highly nuanced exploration of gender relations to highlight the conflicting ideas of liberalism and materialism of the upper‐middle classes in England before World War I.1 Such readings are predicated on classical gender opposition: the male aggressive, selfish, and philistine business ethic embodied in the Wilcoxes is juxtaposed with and challenged by the feminine, tolerant, and cultivated manners of the Schlegels. Adopting a more traditional approach, this line of analysis concentrates on gender conflicts ensuing from the mutually incompatible worlds of the Wilcoxes and the Schlegels, which are eventually reconciled through the marriage of Henry and Margaret. This kind of interpretation in a sense connects Howards Endwith one tradition of Victorian novels, centering primarily on conflicts in courtship that, if successfully resolved, will lead to a happy ending.
However, even if marriage embodies harmony and reconciliation, as this novel’s ending seems to suggest, it is ironically also the origin of most conflicts. Moreover, though the conflicts in marriage appear to arise from the difference between husband and wife, classical gender distinction is too limited and insufficient to account for the unique, strong characterization of Margaret Schlegel, who subverts male dominance with the advent of a new form of gender relationship. In addition, even though
Howards Endseems to end with many positive elements, such as the restoration of an old country house, the beginning of a new generation, the reconciliation between husband and wife, and the redemption of the wayward girl, some unsettling issues, which are either bypassed or downplayed, keep disrupting the apparently seamless closure of the novel. Leonard Bast is one of the various divergent elements that can neither be logically accounted for within a patriarchal context, in which conformity to social conventions is prioritized, nor reasonably vindicated by the tenets of modernism, which value individual experience. These disruptive bumps in the novel not only force readers to challenge its parade of familiar form and theme of gender relationships but, more significantly, invite them to unveil the inherent intriguing mystery.
Howards Endtogether with certain biographical notes may serve as a new direction for the interpretation of such a mystery. Monumental in Forster’s writing career, Howards Endcaptures a crucial moment in Forster’s life. As noted by P. N. Furbank, one of Forster’s biographers, it marks “a turning‐point in his career, as it did in his life” (190). That such success would make a big difference in a writer’s life is understandable, but how the novel marked a turning point in Forster’s writing has never been explicitly addressed except for the generalized and vague appraisal of its being one of Forster’s masterpieces. Among the great number of favorable critical receptions, however, loom some noteworthy outréviews. Norman Page considers the work “unconventional” and “even, by the standard of his day, daring” (9). Moreover, it is said that Forster’s mother had been “deeply shocked” (Page 9). These peculiar commendations may seem a little out of focus to most readers, who tend to read it as a logical sequence to his Italian novels.2 Therefore, even though placing Forster in relation to the previous Victorian era and reading him as a transitional writer may serve a handy means in legitimizing and, at the same time, downplaying some of the out‐ofbound elements listed above, no tenable reading can be reached unless these vexing and intractable elements are thoroughly dealt with.
In conducting an analysis to accommodate the novel’s disconcerting elements and the unusual description of the novel as “shock[ing]” and “daring,” one bit of essential biographical background may help shed some valuable light. That Forster is homosexual is no secret to modern readers, but at Forster’s time homosexuality was considered abominable. Practicing homosexuals, as Nigel Messenger observes, were regarded as criminals, liable not only to imprisonment if convicted but also often subject to blackmail (10). For instance, Oscar Wilde was imprisoned for homosexuality in 1895. Therefore, frank and open expression of same‐sex desire as manifested in
Maurice(1913‐14) was dangerous and forbidden. ( Mauricewas published posthumously in 1971.) Consequently, as Messenger points out, any transparent account of private concerns must have been “disguised, reformed or overlaid in more public statements” (10). At the time that Howards Endwas published, Forster’s personal crisis was on the verge of exploding. According to Francis King, Forster was sure of his homosexuality shortly after the publication of Howards End(57). These biographical accounts show that while Howards Endwas being composed, Forster must have been full of unutterable confusion and deep emotional turmoil. D. H. Lawrence, who once tried to cement friendship with Forster but aborted the attempt suddenly due to Forster’s reticence and evasion of his sexuality, criticized him in a letter after he read one of Forster’s works (February 3, 1915): “You are bumping your nose on the end of the cul de sac” ( Letters II, 275). In another letter to Bertrand Russell, he again accused Forster of being “bound hand and foot bodily” ( Letters II, 283). Lawrence’s detection of Forster’s sexual repression in his works serves to confirm the presence of creative as well as existential anxieties. Therefore, it is the aim of this paper to verify through textual evidence that the disruptive and disconcerting elements are actually manifestations of such anxieties hidden behind a novel written immediately preceding his final confirmation of his own sexual identity. It also attempts to show how these anxieties have been disguised, transformed, or overlaid in more public statements about conventional issues of courtship and marriage in the novel. In other words, Howards Endmay prove to be only deceptively conventional and a key to unfolding a secret desire. To find out into what forms Forster’s desire and anxiety are transposed, a close examination of the entangled personal and gender relations in Howards Endmay serve as an apt point of departure.
1This emphasis on personal relations in Howards End and the complexity engendered by the conflict of the major characters with the public world have been the central arguments of quite a few critics. Elizabeth Langland argues that different from his contemporary novelists, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, who devoted themselves to depicting the complexity of human consciousness by means of technical virtuosity, Forster’s novels remain “rigorously focused on the struggles of characters in conflict with their own societies and other cultures” (“Forster and the Novel” 93). Forster’s concept of “characters,” according to Langland, refers essentially to human beings “confronting the dictates of material life in ways that reveal values” (94). Howards End, in particular, highlights this conflict. Evoking Dickenson’s dichotomy between Red‐bloods and Mollycoddles to describe the novel’s duel sets of character, Wilfred Stone proposes that the novel is “a test of the ability of Bloomsbury liberalism to survive a marriage with the great world,” and the novel’s major challenge is whether it can join personal relations and public relations in creative harmony (235). Despite claiming that the novel’s oppositions are contaminated by thematic as well as rhetorical slippage, Perry Meisel acknowledges the centrality of the novel’s dualities which are set in the classic modernist antagonism between self and society, private and public (173). 2Even though Forster is an Edwardian novelist, the theme, style, and narrative technique he used in his novels are often viewed by critics to be more closely connected with high Victorianism. Elizabeth Langland, for example, considers most of Forster’s novels show “temperamental allegiance to the Victorian period,” and holds that Forster depends largely on nineteenth‐century liberal humanism in resolving his novels (“Forster and the Novel” 92). Even Forster himself wrote that he belongs to the “fag‐end of Victorian liberalism” (Two Cheers for Democracy 54).
Even though Langland confirms Forster’s literary allegiance to the nineteenth century, she proposes a radical sexual politics for reading
Howards Endin a way that directly challenges the application of the common assumptions about Forster’s works. Langland’s most compelling argument is that the controlling narrator of the novel, on account of his identification with and sympathy for Margaret, should be female rather than male and thus turns the prevailing interpretation of the novel upside‐down. Moreover, she maintains that through some important textual maneuvers, Forster tries to elude the tendency of the patriarchal form to overthrow the innovation of theme and thus “thwarts the impetus toward closure and seeks an evaluative term that is coded as neither masculine nor feminine” (Claridge and Langland 15). That is, Langland has discerned in the novel an ongoing conflict between plot and theme through which “plot reconstructs what the theme interrogates to deconstruct” (“Gesturing” 255). The presence of such conflict at once severs Forster from the Victorian patriarchal tradition and discredits classic gender distinction. More significantly, owing to this conflict, the theme and plot of the novel are caught in a perpetual state of indeterminacy. Such internal conflict and uncertainty, if proven valid in other aspects as well, may serve to shed clearer light upon the real intent of the novel. That is, instead of an embattlement with patriarchy, the novel actually embodies an embattlement within the writer himself.
The most weighty matter on the mind of a confused Forster must have been his sexual identity ― “What is it like to be a symbol of a power group, yet to find oneself self‐alienated as the result of belonging to, of being constructed by, such a group?” (Claridge and Langland 8). The most feasible aspect of the novel to show the identity confusion of a writer who “works from the outside even as [he] lives on the inside” may be its gender presentation (Claridge and Langland 8). If we take Langland’s observation as a premise, that is, the only possible space for a repressed writer to express the hidden self fully is to preserve the form and the value that he/she questions or intends to subvert, Forster may conceal but, at the same time, betray his sexual perplexity and anxiety through a façade of patriarchal ideology. The Victorian phallic mode could become a hide‐out rather than a homestead for his unsettled sexual identity. Careful investigation into Forster’s attitude towards patriarchy may help release different dynamics of Forster’s representation of gender relations.
Howards Endis constructed within a patriarchal mode, which entails male precedence over the female. In Howards End, the male characters, especially Henry Wilcox, are the key decision‐makers, while the female ones have to be subject to their decisions. However, based on the fact that nearly all the decisions made by the males turn abortive, the novel is actually critical of patriarchy. Three crucial decision‐makings comprise the major action of the novel: the transmittance of Howards End, Henry Wilcox’s proposal to Margaret, and Henry’s rejection of the pregnant but unmarried Helen. These three decisions represent, respectively, three important values the patriarchal society strongly upholds: property, marriage, and morals. In Howards End, the patriarch, Henry Wilcox, has sole responsibility for all these decisions. However, instead of augmenting or upholding his authority, they serve to dismantle the absurdity and hollowness of the phallocentric ideology that Henry Wilcox embodies.
Howards End is the family property that incarnates the novel’s fundamental dichotomy between male and female authorities. Howards End belongs to Ruth Wilcox. Before she dies, she leaves it to Margaret in a scribbled will, which is overturned by her husband and sons. Nevertheless, the country house eventually finds its way back to its spiritual inheritor, Margaret. Ownership of property, which conventionally serves to assert male hegemony, is now turned upside‐down, and the patriarchal heritage of the family mansion is transferred to the female. In a patriarchal society, courtship is an activity that involves both sexes, with the male usually taking the initiative. In
Howards End, however, the reader’s expectation of traditional outburst of romantic sentiments in courtship is considerably downplayed. In the proposal scene, against traditional anticipation of feminine propriety, Margaret always has the upper hand. She is more level‐headed than Henry: “She must show surprise if he expected it” (119). Understanding that Henry fears comradeship and affection, she decides to hold back and hesitate together with him. Therefore, even though Margaret observes the patriarchal convention to play the submissive role in appearance, she has ascendancy over Henry and is more rational all along. Pregnant and unmarried, Helen represents the fallen maiden who is to be shunned in a patriarchal society. However, Henry Wilcox’s sexist language becomes enfeebled when confronted with Margaret’s rhetoric in their debate over Helen’s future. Margaret uses plain language to assert sexual equality. Her argument that a fallen maiden is no less unworthy than a fallen man and should be forgiven and protected overturns patriarchal ideology, and her subsequent actions to put her argument into practice seem to validate an anti‐patriarchal and feminist stance. The result that Helen is safely sheltered and gives birth to a healthy baby further challenges the dominant power structure, in which women are consistently marginalized and victimized. Therefore, the female mastery over the male in the three key decisions in the novel seems to endorse adversarial and agonistic feminist ideas and to dismantle the logical, rigid, and hierarchical patriarchal principles.
However, unlike many feminist writings that attack patriarchy,
Howards Endmaintains an ambiguous attitude. Charles and Henry Wilcox, the two central defenders of patriarchy, are laid low in the end, with Charles imprisoned for manslaughter and Henry breaking down and depending solely on Margaret. However, they never lose their prerogative as patriarchs, though they perform in a more diminutive way. Charles is still the co‐inheritor of his father’s property, and the final verdict of the ownership of Howards End can become legitimate only with Henry’s approval. The novel’s dual standpoints to dismantle the absurdity of patriarchal ideology but, at the same time, to reinstate it precipitate a reorientation of the novel’s seeming embattlement with patriarchy.
According to male literary tradition, patriarchy is men’s “natural” home (Claridge and Langland 18). Narratives written in this tradition often relegate women to an inferior status, either by means of narrative voice or character representation. Novels narrated by masculine voice most often privilege the male. Female narrative voice seldom emerges to steer the plot, and when it does, it often aims at striking out a balance between female desire and the demands of the society without sabotaging male superiority (as in
Jane Eyre). Seldom does a male narrator endorse female perspective and fully reveal the restrictions a patriarchal society imposes upon women, as in Richardson’s Clarissa. Even in texts like these, gender distinction and gender opposition are carefully observed. In Howards End, the controlling narrator has always been identified as male, through whose perspective the life of the central protagonist, Margaret Schlegel, is narrated. However, Elizabeth Langland argues that the narrator has been universally misidentified, based on a problematic convergence of the narrator’s voice with the female in the novel:
According to Langland, the pronoun
usevokes the feminine perspective. She further asserts that Forster is more assured when he focuses on Margaret than when he does on male characters (Claridge and Langland 254). Although this kind of identification only takes place a couple of times, for a male narrator to concur with a feminine perspective even to the extent of endorsing her feminist viewpoint, the traditional division of gender is inevitably made floating and questionable.
Claridge and Langland consider that the narrator’s shifting identification actually encrypts an important characteristic of homosexual writers for they are “ill at ease with their ‘natural’ home in patriarchy” (18). Be it a conscious strategy or unconscious, this kind of shifting identities forces the reader to reconsider Forster’s representation of gender in the novel and to find out more about his uneasiness in patriarchy. In most patriarchal narratives, male and female characters are often presented in a web of stereotypes that serves both to maintain hierarchy and to assert male superiority. In
Howards End, gender is ostensibly represented through the dialectical opposition between male and female. However, rather than mimetic approach, discursive strategy is used for the representation of characters. This disconnected relation to the hierarchical tradition is first manifested in the portrayal of the novel’s male characters, which fall roughly into three categories: the patriarch, the social elite, and the social outcast. At the beginning of the novel, the potency of the patriarch is ubiquitous. In Helen’s second letter to Margaret, she describes how she is captivated by Henry Wilcox’s eloquence and authoritative manner: “The fun of it is that they think me a noodle, and say so ― at least, Mr. Wilcox does ― and when that happens, and one doesn’t mind . . . . He says the most horrid things about women’s suffrage so nicely, and when I said I believed in equality he just folded his arms and gave me such a setting down as I’ve never had” ( HE6). Despite being considered a “noodle,” a foolish person, Helen is so taken by the energy of the Wilcoxes as to disregard her own personality: “I had just picked up the notion that equality is good from some book . . . . Anyhow, it’s been knocked into pieces, and, like all people who are really strong, Mr. Wilcox did it without hurting me” ( HE7). The recurring descriptions that the Schlegel sisters give to the Wilcoxes are that “their hands were on all the ropes, they had grit as well as grittiness” ( HE76). The stuffy, chauvinistic, and materialistic male characters are stereotypically patriarchal and have a long list of counterparts in the Victorian novels. However, this privileged image of the male is shattered immediately after the novel’s overture. Just like her short‐lived romance with Paul, it takes Helen only little time to figure out their real nature under the Wilcox family’s deceptively fascinating veneer: “I felt for a moment that the whole Wilcox family was a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor‐cars and golf‐clubs, and that if it fell I should find nothing behind it but panic and emptiness” ( HE21). Even though Henry Wilcox remains the key male character throughout the novel, his value has already been depreciated from the beginning. It seems that the initial dominant position of the patriarch serves only as a backdrop to its diminishing importance.
With the central male character de‐centered, the hierarchal structure that the novel seems to hold onto also crumbles through the males’ continuing disappointing performance of their duties. Courtship, a privileged male duty, is carried out dismally by Henry Wilcox, especially in his proposal to Margaret. Without much elaboration, the proposal, in Nigel Messenger’s terms, is “impersonal and casual” and “occurs in mid‐sentence” (121). The proposal highlights Henry’s inability to handle the situation as a man. In addition, even though Henry Wilcox initiates the proposal, he ends up being at the mercy of Margaret, who understands Henry’s need and knows how to deal with him. It is also through Margaret’s (or the narrator’s) standpoint that the reader realizes the limitation of Henry’s power: “She had too much intuition to look at him as he struggled for possessions that money cannot buy. He desired comradeship and affection, but he feared them, and she, who had taught herself only to desire, and could have clothed the struggle with beauty, held back, and hesitated with him” (
HE121). In spite of his assumption of the male authority in the proposal scene, Henry Wilcox’s performance falls short of gender expectation. In fact, his failure to assert male hegemony either in domestic or in professional sphere is rather extensive in the novel, including his unethical change of Ruth’s will as well as his unsolicited but bad career advice that leads to Leonard Bast’s loss of means. All these sharp behavioral turns serve to testify to Henry’s failure to live up to his status as a patriarch.
Leonard Bast, another chief male character in the novel, also subverts traditional anticipation of maleness. Living on the bottom rung of the middle class, Leonard personifies a diminutive version of the patriarch and serves as a contrast to Henry Wilcox’s outward display of masculinity. Married to Jacky, a former prostitute, Leonard is a downright failure in the practical world. He is alienated from his own family. Working hard to fulfill his role as a householder, he is plagued by unrealistic and utopian aspirations of breaking through cultural and class boundaries. His aspirations alienate him from his wife and, moreover, contribute to his financial and even existential crisis. As Henry Wilcox remarks unsympathetically, “I am grieved for your clerk. But it is all in the day’s work. It’s part of the battle of life” (
HE137), Leonard is destined to be the victim of a society that celebrates survival of the fittest. However, if Leonard is simply a lame character created to mock the futility of romantic ideas in the practical world, to pose as a testimony to the cruelty of modern society under the influence of materialism, or to typify a lack of masculinity in the patriarchal world, then why is his life worth being reproduced through the birth of a male progeny, an event traditionally considered as a manifestation of manliness? The continuation of his life entails a reappraisal of the life of novel’s underdog.
Leonard’s singular character may annoy those readers who are used to clear‐cut gender representation because it is hard for them to categorize him or to identify him with other familiar male characters in traditional novels. Leonard displays heightened sensitivity, which is hardly found in other male characters. He is selfreflexive, perceptive, and vulnerable though not particularly smart in intellectual pursuits. These attributes are often labeled as feminine. In his marriage with Jacky, he takes care of almost all the domestic affairs, while Jacky idles and gets drunk. In terms of sexual behavior, Leonard is more manipulated than manipulating. In his conjugal relationship, Jacky is so aggressive that Leonard sometimes has to evade her sexual advances. His short‐lived romance with Helen is another example of his inability to live up to the masculinity that a man is culturally required to perform. The one‐night stand in Oniton is narrated solely from Helen’s perspective, whereas Leonard’s side of the story is largely curtailed except that he is “tortured with endless remorse months later” (
HE224). Elizabeth Langland regards the sexual relationship as “a woman’s classic offering of her body in sympathy” (255), but a considerable amount of textual evidence emerges to suggest exactly the opposite. Leonard recalls the incident with vexation because he watches himself turned into “a smaller man, who had less to control” ( HE224). Instead of augmenting his virility, Leonard becomes emasculated by the affair. Rather than male dominance, the affair serves rather to establish female authority. Helen deals with the aftermath domineeringly by compensating Leonard with her inheritance, turning Leonard, instead of herself, into a victim. Or more specifically, Helen seems to assume a role that bears more resemblance to the male, while Leonard is relegated to play the feminine role, and the sexual liaison appears more to satiate Helen’s desire than Leonard’s:
Even though Helen appears like the traditional fallen woman who is punished for her sexual transgression, it is Leonard who is more severely punished and eventually ruined. His final encounter with Margaret also confounds the traditional gender performance expected of the male and the female. The confession that Leonard makes before he dies ― “Mrs. Wilcox, I have done wrong” ― constitutes an act of repentance. But what does Leonard actually have to repent of? He could regret his affair with Helen or his ungratefulness to the sisters. However, judging from the fact that Leonard knows nothing about Helen’s pregnancy and that the confession is addressed to Margaret instead of Helen,3 these two motives are insufficient to account for Leonard’s agitation upon seeing Margaret. Leonard’s confession reminds us of the religious practice through which a sinner acknowledges personal sins. Therefore, if Leonard is performing a religious ritual, considering that he dies immediately after, the confession might be seen as his final effort to absolve himself of some mortal sin that costs him his life.
What is actually the structure of Leonard’s sin? Its ambiguous and shadowy nature resists specific definition, but the aftermath of Leonard’s death might offer some vital clues. Procreation is traditionally considered a testimony of a man’s virility and masculinity. Leonard fathers a child but dies without knowing it, and, therefore, not only is his maleness undermined, but the new life’s connection with him is also undercut. In a way, Margaret replaces Leonard as the surrogate father by providing Helen and her child sanctuary and protection. Margaret and Helen’s final conversation further reveals that Leonard will have no place in their future life, as Margaret advises:
Their discussion also implies that Leonard exists or has existed in a space that has neither past nor future. An incompetent clerk, a failed husband, an ineffectual father, an inadequate lover, and an unfulfilled human being, Leonard violates almost all the traditional tenets of maleness. How then do we justify and validate the existence of a male character who fails almost every aspect of masculinity?
Mary Pinkerton emphasizes the depersonalization of Leonard in the novel. She maintains that Leonard provides an example of Forster’s attempt “to combine visionary and realistic elements in a single novel” (245). In
Howards End, Leonard is literally the only character that transcends class barrier and gender confines while others speak largely for and in accordance with their class and gender. Even though Leonard is a social outcast, constantly victimized by the complexities of modern society, he remains compelling on account of his steady but futile pursuit to expand and to move beyond his social role. He is also the only character in the novel that has the courage to transcend status quo. Pat C. Hoy II argues that Leonard is one of those people who “stand outside class” (226), or, in Mathew Arnold’s words, “ aliens. . . who are mainly led, not by their class spirit, but by a general humanespirit, by the love of human perfection” (V: 146). He is the “unsung anti‐hero” (Hoy II 221) who has the courage to actually make the journey into “ancient night”:
Compared with the patriarch Henry, Leonard possesses something finer and more genuine that makes a better human being. Through his attempt, Leonard is temporarily released from his daily restrictions and is able to relive heroically an ancient nocturnal moment that transcends the temporality of his time that values and celebrates figures like Henry Wilcox. Therefore, even though Leonard’s tragic life underlines his incompatibility with his society, he embodies a kind of transcendental value that is ahead of his time.
Leonard and Henry represent two extreme cases of subjective masculine configuration, and both of them fail to meet the standards of manliness. These two male characters induce disruptions not only on the social level but also in their sexual behaviors. By subverting traditional masculine configuration, Forster seems to jostle for a space that goes beyond the coded masculine role. Through Leonard, Forster presents the reader with an alternative model of masculinity, which is desperate to seek a space of its own. In this respect, the novel seems to offer some blurred but optimistic vision because, instead of allowing Leonard to fail completely, Forster grants him redemption in the end through a new life he procreates.
However, disruption in gender expectations afflicts not only male characters in
Howards End; representation of the female characters is also problematic. The portrayal of Margaret and Helen diverges from that of traditional female characters. First of all, they are of hybrid origins, born out of an English mother and a German father. To their English relatives, they are “not ‘English to the backbone,’” but they are “not ‘Germans of the dreadful sort,’” and to their German relatives, they, “though scarcely English of the dreadful sort, would never be German to the backbone” ( HE22). This mixed heritage makes it difficult to categorize them. Moreover, unlike most oppressed female characters victimized by or dependent on patriarchy, the Schlegel sisters are emotionally, financially, and intellectually independent. Many critics tend to team them with the feminists because they display some of the feminists’ attributes, such as a strong support for women suffrage and a firm stance against social injustice. Their common faith and sentiment make them inseparable from and somewhat analogous to each other at the novel’s initial stage.
The interdependent Schlegel sisters part ways in the event of marriage, and it is also in this issue that they challenge traditional female configuration. Judged by the traditional standards of femininity, Margaret seems less of a heroine than Helen; she is also less eligible for marriage. Margaret is nine years older than and not as pretty as Helen. Once asked by her brother Tibby about her chance of getting married, Margaret admits that compared with Helen who has been asked by plenty of suitors, she is only asked by “ninnies” (
HE81). The novel begins with Helen’s engagement to Paul, a social equivalent, and, while the reader is led to expect a follow‐up development of a perfect match, Helen slumps and ends up in a short‐lived romance with a man far more inferior in every objective condition. Foregrounded instead is the dull and unappealing romance between Margaret and Henry, an older and less attractive couple. Therefore, the issue of courtship, which is the source of passionate yearnings and most often a prelude to a happy ending, is largely debunked in Howards End. By centralizing a marriage that defies romantic expectation and focusing on a woman dispossessed of traditional feminine qualities, Howards Endis destined to tell a different story about love and marriage.
Traditionally, marriage is an ultimate occasion to demonstrate and sometimes to testify to a woman’s femininity, but for Margaret, femininity is not her key strength in buffering the complication of marriage. Like Isabel Archer and Dorothea Brooke, Margaret harbors illusion about marriage initially. When she first enters matrimony, she is determined to become Henry’s helpmate, but her efforts to cater to Henry’s wish and to safeguard his egotism alienate her from Helen. However, after she discovers that patriarchy is killing her subjectivity, unlike Dorothea, who reassumes the traditional selfeffacing role, or Isabel, who rejects marriage to keep her subjectivity intact, Margaret pursues a different course ― to impose her subjectivity upon patriarchy. In her bold and blunt rejection of maternity ― “I do not love children. I am thankful to have none,” Margaret challenges the patriarchal preconception of the primary female achievement in marriage, that is, to produce a male heir for her husband’s family. However, unlike most feminists who bluntly reject marriage and treat it as the principal origin of gender inequality, Margaret by means of her whole‐hearted acceptance of marriage but flat rejection of motherhood projects an image of woman different both from the submissive traditional wife and from the more militant feminist.
An incident in the novel serves to demonstrate how Margaret endeavors to strike a balance between who she is and what role she is expected to play in society as well as in marriage. On the way to Oniton, the Wilcox’s country house in Wales, the vehicle carrying Margaret and the guests runs over a little girl’s cat. The incident immediately triggers off a clear‐cut division of social class and gender. In accordance with social propriety, ladies are protected by men and sent away from the scene while the male serving class is left to take care of the hassles. During this incident and its aftermath, Margaret has undergone several sharp psychological turns. Her initial insistence on going back to the scene meets with strong patriarchal resistance. In her silent protest, “Why should the chauffeurs tackle the girl? Ladies sheltering behind men, men sheltering behind servants ― the whole system’s wrong, and she must challenge it” (
HE153), Margaret lays bare the inhumane and confining nature of the patriarchal system. Her resolve to return to the scene reflects her denial of being subsumed under such a system. The price she pays for her aberrant behavior is an injury she receives as she jumps out of the car. This injury leads to a marked change in Margaret ― she drops her insistence immediately and obeys the men’s command submissively. Any rash interpretation would treat the injury as a symbol of Margaret’s defeat and her return a sign of self‐denial. Margaret’s afterthoughts, however, defeat such assumption: “No doubt she had disgraced herself. But she felt their whole journey from London had been unreal. They had no part with the earth and its emotions. They were dust, and a stink, and cosmopolitan chatter, and the girl whose cat had been killed had lived more deeply than they” ( HE154). Rather than denouncing male prerogative or social injustice, Margaret’s concern transcends class and gender and is extended to the whole human race. That is why Margaret does not feel offended when her behavior is disparaged by Henry and other male guests with their sexually biased views ― “I have been so naughty . . . . Your poor Meg went such a flop” ( HE154). Charles tells Henry that “Miss Schlegel had lost her nerve, as any woman might,” and the Colonel considers it an act “out of devilry,” attributing it to the irrationality in the feminine nature ( HE154). Different from the classical dilemma ― to be in or to be out ― that agitates most independent and unconventional female fictional characters, Margaret’s real predicament is only vicariously presented through a woman’s struggle against male‐dominated society; her real concern is extended to every level of society regardless of class or gender. Every turn of her mind shows her gradual severance from all cultural bonds that have long served to dictate the role of woman and the prerequisites of femininity. Her refusal to follow men’s demands makes her a potential candidate for the feminists, but her eventual compromise resists such hasty categorization. Likewise, her voluntary rather than coerced return to patriarchy helps to foster a fresh attitude towards patriarchy that is no more hostile but understanding. Even though Margaret fails to live up to almost every aspect of patriarchal expectation of a woman, she reveals strong personal traits that surpass the boundary of gender. Therefore, to characterize the centrality of Margaret’s role in the novel, the issue of gender is not only irrelevant but also out of focus.
Vacillating between a contrast and a parallel to Margaret, Helen’s stance constitutes a crucial angle from which Margaret’s character can be more clearly defined. Except for their different dispositions, Margaret and Helen are almost identical in social position, intellectual capability, worldview, and even taste. They also have great sympathy for the socially underprivileged. In the very beginning of the novel, they even strike the reader as potential feminists because of their independence, their active role in woman’s suffrage, and their concern over social injustice. However, they begin to display their true colors in the matter of marriage. While Margaret chooses to become the wife of a man whose public qualities Helen detests, Helen remains outside of matrimony. As Margaret says about their different attitude towards love, “Yours was romance; mine will be prose. I am not running it down ― a very good kind of prose, but well considered, well thought out” (
HE126). From the beginning of the novel, Helen has been characterized as a woman more passionate and idealistic than Margaret. As a strong and prominent female protagonist, Helen (and Margaret, too) is preceded by few counterparts in traditional novels. In life and love, she is always self‐possessed. Her short‐lived romance with Paul and her secret rendezvous with Leonard show her tendency to act on her own initiative in dealing with men. She actively puts a halt to her romance with Paul when she finds out his true character, and she practically abandons Leonard as she detects the absurdity in their union. All her actions and longings show that Helen seems to be modeled on the image of the New Woman because of her dedication to maintaining independence and self‐identity against the tide of male dominancy.4
Helen’s image as a new woman appears to be enhanced when she insists on bearing Leonard’s child alone. Conceived out of wedlock and as a result of adultery, the baby is supposed to be an emblem of the shame and guilt of a fallen woman. However, instead of being ruined by her pregnancy like Tess Derbeyfield or Hetty Sorel, Helen breaks the traditional image of woman as victim and asserts her independence by actively taking up the consequence alone. In addition, Helen chooses a feminist named Monica to see her through her pregnancy. Margaret is intrigued by Helen’s relation with Monica:
This dialogue reveals both Margaret’s concern over Helen’s growing distance from her and her worry about Helen’s proclivity toward the radical side of a woman’s pursuit of liberalism. Margaret’s disapproving stance towards Monica’s type shows that Monica could never be a viable alternative for Helen. To Margaret, Helen’s choice is not made out of the right mind but as a result of confusion: “‘Italiano Inglesiato’ they had named it ― the crude feminist of the South, whom one respects but avoids. And Helen had turned to it in her need!” (
HE209). Margaret’s decision to rescue Helen from her deviant route and to take Helen under her shelter demonstrates her flat dissociation from feminism.
Therefore, Margaret’s real sentiment is neither in favor of self‐effacing women nor on the side of the militant feminists. She cares not so much about the conflicts between liberalism and patriarchy, nor does she heed the opposition between sexes. All the above discussions of the novel’s gender relations help to demonstrate that what she really struggles for is a space that could accommodate diverse people with different ideas at the same time. As previously shown, if Margaret in a very subtle way speaks for Forster, Margaret’s sentiment must to a considerable degree represent Forster’s. This kind of unison is repeatedly demonstrated but particularly at a time when Margaret’s vision is echoed by an arresting alternative proposed by the narrator: “Perhaps it was a third life, already potent as a spirit. They could find no meeting‐place. Both suffered acutely, and were not comforted by the knowledge that affection survived” (
HE210). The concept of “a third life” at first glance seems to be constructed to perpetuate certain unbridgeable chasm between human beings notwithstanding good intention and mutual understanding. More significantly, it embodies and even predicts an alternative mode of existence that is modeled on no previous mode of existence. The possibility of “a third life” as a potential, original, unprecedented way of existence is hazily envisioned at the end of the novel in a new form of family. In the new Wilcox‐Schlegel family, dysfunctional males (Henry, Leonard, Charles) are replaced by compromising but strong matrons (Margaret, Helen, Ruth in the form of Howards End), and the two sisters become the actual parents of the child.
3In the movie adaptation, Leonard gets to find out Helen’s pregnancy before he receives his fatal blow. This ending seems less pessimistic because the child represents a continuity of his legacy. 4“New Woman” refers to those women, especially in the late nineteenth century, who actively resisted traditional controls and sought self‐emancipation as well as social emancipation.
A statement made by Margaret as a response to Helen’s confusion and self‐doubt in a subtle way encloses the novel’s ultimate anxiety ― fictional as well as authorial ― in a nutshell: “people are far more different than is pretended. All over the world men and women are worrying because they cannot develop as they are supposed to develop” (
HE239). This exchange between the sisters is one among various situations in the novel where a more profound issue transcending class and gender is touched upon. Rather than attacking patriarchal ideology or sparking classic gender war, Howards Endshows a more pressing concern over a common frustrating condition shared by all human beings, regardless of gender or social position. Such extension of gender relation to all human condition is exactly the point where transposition takes place. As Christopher Lane remarks, to transpose a sexual secret into nonsexual forms, including literary depictions of marriage and what Forster himself called “democratic affection,” is common in Forster’s creative writings as a means to camouflage homoeroticism (104).5 Lawrence also confirmed long ago in a letter to Russell (February 12, 1915) that Forster’s ultimate desire manifested in his works was not for self‐realization but “for the continued action which has been called the social passion ― the love for humanity ― the desire to work for humanity” ( Letters II, 283). This desire to work for humanity is probably one of the few socially and creatively viable options or strategies with which Forster could smoothly transpose his sexual anxieties but which also, ironically, betrays his sexual secret. Democratic affection, a nonsexual ideal, cannot be achieved without any cost. The side‐effect it produces is that sexuality becomes so volatile in Howards Endthat it destroys gender distinction and kills relationships. Such boundary‐breaking endeavor and its effect are manifested most forcibly in the novel’s gender presentations. Close analysis of characters, males and females alike, shows that while they are constantly caught in hierarchical stereotypes and gender oppositions, they resist hierarchical placement and classical binary opposition. This kind of internal conflict, repeatedly exemplified by the performative failure of the characters to fulfill gender expectations, is exactly the place where the “nameless residue” of homoeroticism could be detected. As Claridge and Langland point out, one of the common strategies writers use to escape from a logocentric and phallocentric discourse is to “work through the coded oppositions to deconstruct them” (7). In Howards End, Forster manipulates Leonard Bast and Margaret Schlegel by means of their failures to fulfill gender expectations so as to challenge the dominant discourse and to reject the ideology coded as feminine and masculine. In Forster’s own words, “Leonard seemed not a man, but a cause” ( HE309), and Margaret, too, seems not a woman, but a cause. Therefore, even though the characters’ performative failure may not amount to a valid narrative strategy to accommodate same‐sex desire, it at least offers a prophetic vision in which failure is neither pessimistic nor tragic but an essential though painful condition for new possibilities.
5The expression “democratic affection” first appeared in the journal entry for December 19, 1910 of “The Locked Journal.” It is quoted in Arctic Summer and Other Fiction, xiv.