"Only Connecting" with the Family: Class, Culture, and Narrative Therapy in E.M. Forster's 'Howards End.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)

By Womack, Kenneth | Style, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

"Only Connecting" with the Family: Class, Culture, and Narrative Therapy in E.M. Forster's 'Howards End.'(Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism)


Womack, Kenneth, Style


Although David Lodge's Nice Work (1988) provides a surprising narrative of reconciliation between the academy and industry, its concluding pages allude to an even more pervasive cultural dilemma that has haunted English life for centuries - the mostly silent war that rages unchecked between the classes. Robyn Penrose, the novel's academic protagonist, recognizes the acuity of class and cultural distance that separates her students from a young black gardener tending the campus lawn. "The gardener is about the same age as the students," Lodge writes, "but no communication takes place between them - no nods, or smiles, or spoken words, not even a glance. . . . Physically contiguous," Lodge continues, "they inhabit separate worlds. It seems a very British way of handling class and race" (277). Lodge's depiction of the tacit acceptance of England's rigid class structure and the interpersonal distance that it produces in Nice Work signal the narrative's place in an historical tradition of British novels that highlight the social and economic discrepancies of life on the sceptered isle and its principalities. From such works as Daniel Defoe's Moll Flanders (1722) and Henry Fielding's Tom Jones (1749) to Elizabeth Gaskell's North and South (1855) and Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day (1989), British literature echoes with authorial discontent in response to the nation's historical obsessions with rank, social standing, and pedigree. England's dizzying celebration of class and the implicit honor that invariably accompanies it extends to its national folklore as well, from the anti-heroic exploits of Empire and colonialism to disaster at sea. Legend has it, for instance, that as the Titanic sank during the early morning hours of 15 April 1912, Captain Smith implored first-class male passengers to "be British, boys, be British" and surrender the ship's paucity of lifeboats to women and children. Nevertheless, more first- and second-class male passengers, including the White Star Line's derelict chief executive, J. Bruce Ismay, managed to survive the disaster than children from third-class and steerage combined (Wade 58, 67).(1)

Concern for such a corrosive lack of value for the lives and experiences of the lower or disenfranchised classes underscores the narrative agenda inherent in many of E. M. Forster's fictions, including Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), which problematizes English perceptions of the lifestyles and mores of Italians, and A Passage to India (1924), a novel in which Forster surveys the social inequities and atrocities inevitably bred by a class- and race-conscious nation that engages in imperialism. In Howards End (1910), Forster assaults the superstructure of the British class system, peels back its many and variegated layers, and argues that only interpersonal connection and compassion will enable England to modify its deafening social distances, the likes of which Lodge depicts in Nice Work. The parlance of family systems psychotherapy offers a particularly useful means for explicating Forster's illustrations of class and culture and the roadblocks that they erect in England's pathways to the kind of national morphogenesis necessary for its society to bond and endure.(2) In Families and Larger Systems: A Family Therapist's Guide through the Labyrinth (1988), Evan Imber-Black astutely observes that "all families engage with larger systems." Healthy, differentiated families, moreover, "are able to function in an interdependent manner with a variety of larger systems, utilizing information from these systems as material for their own growth and development" (14). Reading the layers of England's class structure as the component parts of a larger, albeit dysfunctional, family system illuminates Forster's critique of class and culture in Howards End. By supplying readers with a critical lens that identifies the nature of the feedback loops existing between the novel's characters and the diversity of their class origins, family systems psychotherapy demonstrates the manner in which Forster employs narrative therapy as a means for challenging his nation - with its collection of disparate classes and cultures - to, if nothing else, "only connect. …

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