Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

E.M. Forster's Impossible Gift in Howards End

Academic journal article Fu Jen Studies: literature & linguistics

E.M. Forster's Impossible Gift in Howards End

Article excerpt

E. M. Forster has been considered a difficult writer to approach because of his ambivalent attitude toward human relations. For example, in Howards End, his novel "most explicitly devoted to the ideal of personal relations" (Rosecrance, "Howards" 108), he advocates, on the one hand, the need to bridge human differences for the completion of man and universal brotherhood through Margaret Schlegel's sermon "Only connect" (159). (1) But, on the other hand, he also demonstrates the insurmountable difficulty such task encounters by presenting her inevitable failure to connect with Henry Wilcox (159). While the novel displays an avowed intention to achieve some kind of reconciling vision, it also explicitly undermines its possibility in action. "The rhetoric affirms connection, but the undercurrent describes collapse" (Rosecrance, "Howards" 110). Such contradictory gesture has led to a radical divide of critical opinions regarding Forster's attitude toward human relations, which can swing from his optimistic espousal of human connection to his pessimistic advocacy of vital disconnection and withdrawal from personal relations. (2) The polarized opinions, however, appear only inadequate to address the contradictory vision that is at issue here because the other side of possibility tends to go untreated. Yet, despite some other critics' attempts at a more inclusive reading of this novel, such as that which regards Forster's contradictory deployment as a literary maneuver to achieve the effect of irony (Bradbury 130) or as a syndrome of his homosexual closet position to "pass for normal even while secretly rebelling against the normative" (Armstrong 309), his view on human relations remains shrouded in irresolvable obscurity. Even around one century after the publication of this novel, Paul Armstrong nonetheless maintains that "the ambiguity of Margaret's project of connection ... is a provocation to ponder this question without promising that it can be answered affirmatively" (322). J. Hillis Miller also admits that "it is not all that easy to figure out where Forster stands" (475). Given Forster's acknowledgement that his books "emphasize the importance of personal relationships" for he believes in them (54) and that he is grinding out Howards End "into a contrast between money and death: the latter is truly an ally of the personal against the mechanical" (qtd. in Colmer 104), it is tempting to inquire what sort of personal relationships is proposed which are so vocally emphasized and yet so contradictorily presented.

This paper therefore is an attempt to have a preliminary study of this issue through a close reading of Ruth Wilcox's bequest of Howards End to Margaret, a deferred gift which is employed to structure Forster's inquiry in Howards End. Early in the novel Ruth tells Margaret during their Christmas shopping that "I should like to give you something worth your acquaintance, Miss Schlegel, in memory of your kindness to me during my lonely fortnight" (68). Though soon forgotten thereafter, this motif returns upon Ruth's sudden death, when the Wilcoxes receive a note from her: "To my husband: I should like Miss Schlegel (Margaret) to have Howards End" (82). Perplexed by the oddity of this bequest, they decide after due debate that Ruth does not seriously intend such a disposition of her property and throw her message "into their dining-room fire" (85). The prospective recipient, Margaret, is therefore denied of the knowledge of it. At the end of the novel, after Henry Wilcox distributes his property to his children and finally gives Margaret Howards End, Forster invokes this issue again by Dolly's words: "It does seem curious that Mrs Wilcox should have left Margaret Howards End, and yet she get it, after all" (292). Upon Margaret's inquiry, Henry reveals to her the old story about Ruth's bequest, and she is shaken by a shiver for it substantiates her former sense that, as she tells Helen, "things I cannot phrase had helped me" (289). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.