Howards End


E. M. Forster

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Howards End: Allusions 4 key examples

Definition of Allusion
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals, historical events, or philosophical ideas... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to other literary works, famous individuals... read full definition
In literature, an allusion is an unexplained reference to someone or something outside of the text. Writers commonly allude to... read full definition
Chapter 9
Explanation and Analysis—Böcklin:

In this passage from Chapter 9, Margaret makes an allusion to the Swiss Symbolist painter Böcklin at a lunch party. She does so as part of a complaint about the views of the English on German art. She also uses an idiom which expresses her displeasure with English closed-mindedness:

My blood boils—well, I’m half German, so put it down to patriotism—when I listen to the tasteful contempt of the average islander for things Teutonic, whether they’re Böcklin or my veterinary surgeon. ‘Oh, Böcklin,’ they say; ‘he strains after beauty, he peoples Nature with gods too consciously.’ Of course Böcklin strains, because he wants something—beauty and all the other intangible gifts that are floating about the world. So his landscapes don’t come off, and Leader’s do.

The word “Teutonic” in this context refers to Germany, and was in common usage in the 20th century. Margaret here sarcastically says that the English have a “tasteful contempt” for Germans, whether the Germans in question are famous artists or “veterinary surgeons.” In this case she feels angry that English people dismiss German art as “strain[ing] towards beauty,” and that they say that it’s too “conscious” of its contents. Margaret believes that Böcklin's landscapes do not succeed for the English because he is trying to depict something “intangible.” She implies that this "intangible" is too subtle for the English to grasp. She bolsters this claim using the example of the artist Benjamin Williams Leader, who was very popular in England at the time. She says Leader is more suited to English audiences because his paintings are realistic and don’t have to “strain" toward anything hard.

Margaret expresses her self-righteous anger in this moment by saying her “blood boils.” This phrase conveys an intense internal rage. It also refers to Margaret’s national identity. She is “half-German” and partially attributes her loyalty to German art to patriotism. As she has German blood, it “boils” when she hears about ignorant English contempt. The passage also highlights the tension between English and German culture during the period, at a historical high because of all the developments in science, philosophy, and politics happening in both places.

It’s worth noting here that Böcklin is actually not a German painter. He’s Swiss. It seems that either Forster didn’t know that, or he intended Margaret to be—ironically—expressing some English ignorance herself.

Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Oxford:

In this passage from Chapter 12 the author depicts Tibby Schlegel’s reaction to Oxford University, where he is going to take a scholarship exam. Forster makes use of allusion, visual and tactile imagery, and personification to give a sense of place for the reader:

The august and mellow university, soaked with the richness of the western counties that it has served for a thousand years, appealed at once to the boy’s taste: it was the kind of thing he could understand, and he understood it all the better because it was empty. Oxford is—Oxford: not a mere receptacle for youth, like Cambridge. Perhaps it wants its inmates to love it rather than to love one another: such at all events was to be its effect on Tibby.

Oxford and Cambridge are two of England’s “ancient universities,” the oldest and most august seats of learning in the country. This allusion emphasizes the national importance of Oxford as a symbol of intellectual and class privilege. The narrator also repeats a common British stereotype of the time in this description. They imply that Oxford is better than Cambridge in a way that can’t be easily explained, saying that “Oxford is—Oxford.” It’s worth noting here that this is sarcasm on the part of the author, as Forster himself went to Cambridge.

The imagery of Oxford is rich and appealing, invoking the golden stone and ancient quadrangles of the Oxford Colleges. Its lushness and warmth is almost something Tibby and the reader can taste. The visual and the tactile are combined as the university is described as being "soaked" with the wealth and effort of the “western counties,” like a sugary fruitcake.

In addition to this voluptuous sweetness, Forster also personifies the University. Oxford is described as a living thing that enfolds its students, and that wants its "inmates" to "love it." Tibby feels that he can “understand” Oxford’s personality on his own terms. This personification suggests that Oxford is more than just a collection of buildings, books, and traditions; it has a character and a spirit of its own.

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Chapter 23
Explanation and Analysis—A Helping of Africa:

In Chapter 23, Margaret walks around the offices in Howards End where Henry Wilcox does his work for the West Africa Rubber Company and sees a map. Forster alludes to the colonial “Scramble for Africa” of the early 20th century in this passage, using metaphor and simile to characterize Africa as a meal or an animal that can be carved up:

[...] though the map over the fireplace did depict a helping of West Africa, it was a very ordinary map. Another map hung opposite, on which the whole continent appeared, looking like a whale marked out for blubber.

The allusions Forster makes to Africa in the novel all reference Western countries invading, occupying, and dividing up the continent for their own profit. This was happening at a very accelerated rate in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in a period sometimes called “The Scramble for Africa.” The metaphor of a "helping" of Africa that Forster employs suggests that the continent is being treated like food by people like Henry Wilcox. In his mind, it is a treat that the British can take a “helping” of for themselves.

Furthermore, the simile of the continent looking like a slaughtered animal emphasizes the idea of British colonial exploitation. Africa is depicted as a “whale marked out for blubber” here, as if its richest parts are ready to be carved off. This description suggests that the West Africa Rubber Company is exploiting Africa's natural resources for profit, much like whalers would extract blubber from their catch.

Margaret's thoughts about the map reflect her growing awareness of the harmful consequences of imperialism. This map presents Africa as a resource to be tapped. It serves as a powerful symbol in Howards End of the far reach of Britain’s colonizing arm.

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Chapter 26
Explanation and Analysis—Marriage like a Funeral:

In Chapter 26 Forster describes Margaret’s observations of Henry’s behavior while organizing his son's wedding. He uses a simile to imply Henry’s responses would be no different were he arranging a funeral. Forster then emphasizes this point with an ironic allusion. He describes Henry’s behaviour as:

[...] tact, of a sort—the sort that is as useful as the genuine, and saves even more situations at board-meetings. Henry treated a marriage like a funeral, item by item, never raising his eyes to the whole, and “Death, where is thy sting? Love, where is thy victory?” one would exclaim at the close.

Through this simile, Forster implies Henry Wilcox is so cut off from his emotions that he would approach organizing a funeral in the same way as he approaches this event. The simile highlights the unromantic, step-by-step approach that Henry takes toward planning. His useful faux-“tact” is helpful in board-meetings, but is emotionally numbing when things are hard. This approach reflects the way in which the Wilcox family sees any event they attend, as formal occasions rather than events infused with emotion and significance.

The ironic biblical allusion that the narrator makes at the end is a deliberate misquote for comic effect. The verse from First Corinthians Forster is referring to actually reads “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” and alludes to the resurrection of Christ. The narrator’s incorrect allusion to it in Howards End employs verbal irony. Henry Wilcox doesn’t make a distinction between funerals and weddings. The narrator swaps out “grave” for “love” when they say “Death, where is thy sting? Love, where is thy victory?” By replacing “grave” with “love” when imagining what a guest might say about Henry’s attitude, Forster implies that “love” and “grave” would be the same to him.

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