Howards End


E. M. Forster

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Howards End: Irony 3 key examples

Definition of Irony
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this seems like a loose definition... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how they actually are. If this... read full definition
Irony is a literary device or event in which how things seem to be is in fact very different from how... read full definition
Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—Nonsense:

In this passage from Chapter 4 of Howards End, Helen Schlegel's  character undergoes a brief,  situationally ironic transformation. This is described as a  metaphorical “toppling” of her personal values:

She had liked giving in to Mr. Wilcox, or Evie, or Charles; she had liked being told that her notions of life were sheltered or academic; that Equality was nonsense, Votes for Women nonsense, Socialism nonsense, Art and Literature, except when conducive to strengthening the character, nonsense. One by one the Schlegel fetiches had been overthrown, and, though professing to defend them, she had rejoiced.

The metaphor describes some central Schlegel values like “Equality,” “Votes for Women,” and “Art and Literature” as "fetiches,” meaning in this context “sacred and venerated objects.” These “fetiches” are destabilized by the Wilcox way of life, as “idols” that can be easily toppled. Helen’s brief and intense love for Paul makes her—to the reader’s surprise— able to abandon her deeply-held beliefs and be open to the conservative and unromantic Wilcox perspective. She even enjoys the novelty of being contradicted. The “fetiches” metaphor emphasizes the silliness and superficiality of Helen’s beliefs to the Wilcox family. They don’t prioritize the “inner life” of emotions and intellect, and so they dismiss them.

Of course, this abandonment of “Art and Literature” is temporary, and Helen quickly reasserts her true personality. However, the situational irony of this moment is further amplified by the fact that Helen is, in general, a bohemian rebel who had previously championed her causes even more fiercely than the other Schlegels. The reader finds it odd and funny that she would enjoy being told that her ideas are “nonsense.” This rapid turn of events is evidence of both Helen’s own desire to “connect,” and the seductive power of the Schlegels' wealth and pragmatism.

Her wavering back and forth also adds a layer of complexity to her character. Forster raises questions about the authenticity of Helen’s intellectual beliefs and the extent to which she is willing to compromise her values for the sake of “connecting.”

Chapter 15
Explanation and Analysis—Chelsea Embankment:

In this passage from Chapter 15, Forster employs romantic visual imagery to describe the Chelsea Embankment, a landscaped walkway along the Thames river. As the Schlegel sisters walk along it, the author conveys a situationally ironic moment where the Schlegels' English and European identities clash:

The lamps and the plane-trees, following the line of the embankment, struck a note of dignity that is rare in English cities. The seats, almost deserted, were here and there occupied by gentlefolk in evening dress, who had strolled out from the houses behind to enjoy fresh air and the whisper of the rising tide. There is something Continental about Chelsea Embankment. It is an open space used rightly, a blessing more frequent in Germany than here.

The narrator, as they describe the Schlegel sisters (who are both "English" and "European"), is struck by the “dignity” of the scene. The “plane-trees and lamps” lend a note of “dignity” that they mention is rare in English cities. This is situationally ironic because the Chelsea Embankment is one of the oldest walkways in London, and its “plane trees and lamps” form a quintessentially English scene. The idea that Germany has a monopoly on the “blessing” of the “open space used rightly,” especially in a novel full of elegant public places and rolling green landscapes, is arch and ironic.

The imagery in this passage is vivid, using visual, auditory, and tactile cues to bring the reader into the scene. It evokes the feel of the damp air and the “whispering” of the ocean, painting a picture of a pleasant night in London with all its sights and sounds. The peacefulness of the scene is emphasized by the “gentlefolk in evening dress” who move calmly, strolling through the twilight. This imagery also invokes detachment from the usual noise and bustle of the city, which Margaret often says she dislikes.

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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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