Howards End


E. M. Forster

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Howards End: Metaphors 14 key examples

Definition of Metaphor
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor can be stated explicitly, as... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other. The comparison in a metaphor... read full definition
A metaphor is a figure of speech that compares two different things by saying that one thing is the other... read full definition
Chapter 1
Explanation and Analysis—Like a Play:

In Chapter 1, Helen describes the Wilcoxes and Howards End to Margaret in a letter, using a metaphor that compares life to a play:

I inflict all this on you because once you said that life is sometimes life and sometimes only a drama, and one must learn to distinguish t’other from which, and up to now I have always put that down as “Meg’s clever nonsense.” But this morning, it really does seem not life but a play, and it did amuse me enormously to watch the W’s. Now Mrs. Wilcox has come in.

As she writes to Margaret, Helen describes Howards End and the Wilcox family as too scenic to be believed. She depicts their house as being like a stage set. This metaphor emphasizes the artificiality of the Wilcoxes and their surroundings, suggesting that they are not genuine or authentic.

In her role as a guest, Helen positions herself as a spectator or audience member, watching the events of the play unfold from the outside. This positioning implies that she is not fully engaged in the events of the Wilcox family’s days. This detachment is reflected in her amusement at watching the Wilcoxes, which suggests that she is not taking them or their lives very seriously.

The contrast between the Wilcoxes and Howards End itself is also highlighted in this quote. Howards End is described as "real" and "substantial," while the Wilcoxes are described as "flimsy" and "theatrical." This contrast suggests that the house itself is benevolent, while the Wilcoxes are insubstantial and false. Howards End represents a more authentic and grounded way of life, while the Wilcoxes represent a more superficial and artificial way of living.

Chapter 4
Explanation and Analysis—A Wall:

In this passage from Chapter 4, Helen expresses her concerns about the Wilcoxes' conservatism and Englishness to Margaret following her stay at Howards End. She uses the metaphor of the Wilcoxes being a "wall" of modern things, which stands in opposition to the more romantic and old-fashioned Schlegels:

“Somehow, when that kind of man looks frightened it is too awful. It is all right for us to be frightened, or for men of another sort—Father, for instance; but for men like that! When I saw all the others so placid, and Paul mad with terror in case I said the wrong thing, 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.”

Helen believes that the Wilcoxes are a "fraud" because they only care for material things like “motor-cars,” while she and Margaret have a rich "inner life" that avoids this “emptiness.” Seeing Paul frightened disturbs the appealing image of his wealthy steadiness for Helen. Her affection for him is disrupted by it. Through this, Forster suggests that a life focused on richness and empire building can lead to "emptiness" inside.

Helen's use of the metaphor of a "wall" to describe the Wilcoxes is significant because it highlights the differences in values between them and the Schlegels. The Wilcoxes represent modernity, wealth, conservatism and a changing England in Howards End. The Schlegels represent the old-fashioned, romantic ideals of art, literature, and social justice that Forster considers to be truly English. The metaphor of the wall suggests that this forms a barrier between the two families that cannot be easily crossed. 

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Explanation and Analysis—Clap of Thunder:

In Chapter 4, Forster uses a combination of simile, metaphor, and auditory imagery to compare Helen's sudden infatuation with the Wilcoxes of Howards End to a "thunder clap.” This outlines the suddenness and intensity of her feelings:

[...] Helen was a more serious patient. New ideas had burst upon her like a thunder clap, and by them and by their reverberations she had been stunned.

The truth was that she had fallen in love, not with an individual, but with a family.

The use of auditory imagery folded into the simile of the “thunder clap” reinforces the shocking and sudden nature of Helen’s regard. Rather than falling gradually in love, the feeling “burst” on her, giving the reader a sense of its mighty power. The use of the word "burst" suggests a sudden and explosive release of feeling, while the reference to "reverberations" evokes echoes and aftershocks that continue to thump through her.

Forster also employs the metaphor of illness to describe Helen's condition, portraying her as a "serious patient" who is "sick" with love for the Wilcoxes. This metaphor emphasizes the extent to which Helen's infatuation has taken hold of her, and suggests that she cannot simply shake it off.

The choice of words used to describe Helen's infatuation and her subsequent "illness" also serves to highlight the intensity of her sudden emotions. By using this language, the author emphasizes the overwhelming nature of Helen's feelings, and the fact that they are not easily contained or controlled. She is so overcome with them that they are making her ill. The use of vivid imagery and metaphor creates a powerful impression of Helen's infatuation and its impact on her. The emphasis on the suddenness and intensity of the feeling also helps to create a sense of tension and drama at this early point in the book.

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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.”

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Chapter 11
Explanation and Analysis—The Internment:

In Chapter 11, the woodcutter observing Mrs. Wilcox's funeral in the churchyard muses on the majesty of the scene and then departs, leaving the lonely grave. Forster employs visual imagery and the metaphor of a ship to describe the scene of this burial:

After him came silence absolute. [...] Hour after hour the scene of the interment remained without an eye to witness it. Clouds drifted over it from the west; or the church may have been a ship, high-prowed, steering with all its company towards infinity.

The church, rather than the dead woman, is the focal point of the scene. It is described as a ship, “high-prowed” and steered by its crew “towards infinity.” This metaphor emphasizes the role that the church plays in guiding some people through the sea of life. Like a ship, the church is powerful, directed by an unseen force, and offers support in navigating the unknown. Church architecture is also often compared to or styled after that of ships, as it is meant to invoke a sense of wonder, power, and strong shelter. The imagery of clouds “drifting” also suggests the wind in the sails of a ship, heightening the reader’s immersion in the scene. The clouds also give the scene a sense of the ethereal and otherworldly, invoking the afterlife which Mrs. Wilcox has presumably entered.

The woodcutter's fleeting observation of the funeral from a distance also highlights the transience of life and the inevitability of death. Forster’s use of majestic imagery on this grand scale also underscores the significance of the moment, echoing the important role Mrs. Wilcox plays in the novel’s plot even after her death.

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Chapter 12
Explanation and Analysis—Mrs. Wilcox's Death:

Margaret is overwhelmed by Mrs. Wilcox's death in Chapter 12. Forster uses the metaphor of bodies of water and the visual imagery of the ocean to describe the importance of the Wilcoxes' presence in Margaret's life:

She was parting from these Wilcoxes for the second time. Paul and his mother, ripple and great wave, had flowed into her life and ebbed out of it for ever. The ripple had left no traces behind: the wave had strewn at her feet fragments torn from the unknown. A curious seeker, she stood for a while at the verge of the sea that tells so little, but tells a little, and watched the outgoing of this last tremendous tide. Her friend had vanished in agony, but not, she believed, in degradation.

The Wilcoxes are like the ocean in this passage, flowing in and out of Margaret’s life with little control on her part. Mrs. Wilcox, who at this point has a stronger influence on her, is described as a “great wave,” and Paul a “ripple.” Mrs. Wilcox's death is also likened to the outgoing tide, leaving behind flotsam from her life “strewn” at Margaret’s feet.

The use of water imagery in this passage is rich with visual language. Through the diction of ebbing and flowing and of the movement of tides, Forster evokes a sense of fluidity and constant change. The use of the word "tide" to describe Mrs. Wilcox's death here also creates a sense of inevitability and finality. Margaret can do little but stand and watch the “outgoing” of this “tremendous” influence on her life. Like the ocean, Mrs. Wilcox also maintained a sense of mystery and dignity until her death. Though her passing was painful, she still reminds Margaret of a powerful natural force that leaves traces behind.

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Chapter 19
Explanation and Analysis—England was Alive:

Helen's musings about England in Chapter 19 weave a rich tapestry of imagery and metaphor. Forster evokes the country’s natural majesty and personifies its geography:

England was alive, throbbing through all her estuaries, crying for joy through the mouths of all her gulls [...] For what end are her fair complexities, her changes of soil, her sinuous coast? Does she belong to those who have moulded her and made her feared by other lands, or to those who have added nothing to her power, but have somehow seen her, seen the whole island at once, lying as a jewel in a silver sea, sailing as a ship of souls, with all the brave world’s fleet accompanying her towards eternity?

The passage is full of vivid visual and auditory details of the ocean. It conjures an intense sense of place, from its “gull sounds” to the "throbbing," vein-like pulses of rivers through estuaries to the sea. England itself is depicted as a "ship of souls," a common phrase at this time of the height of British colonialism.

Forster’s narrator here asks the reader to whom England belongs. They suggest there are two options: it might belong to the people who want to use her power to make her “feared by other lands,” or to those who “have seen her” as a “jewel in a silver sea,” setting a cultural and spiritual example without international menace. The first option seems to be aligned with people like the Wilcoxes, and the second with families like the Schlegels.

Personification also comes into play in this passage, as England is given a gender, emotions, and “complexities.” It is characterized as a living being which can “cry for joy,” and with a multifaceted personality which can be “feared,” admired, or loved. This personification complicates the novel’s narrative of the future “ownership” of England, as the Wilcoxes treat it like inanimate land, but Margaret sees it as a person with emotions and feelings.

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Explanation and Analysis—Swelling Imagination:

In this passage from Chapter 1, Forster’s narrator employs visual imagery and oceanic similes and metaphors to depict the overwhelming experience of looking at England from afar:

How many villages appear in this view! How many castles! How many churches, vanished or triumphant! How many ships, railways, and roads! What incredible variety of men working beneath that lucent sky to what final end! The reason fails, like a wave on the Swanage beach; the imagination swells, spreads, and deepens, until it becomes geographic and encircles England.

The simile of reason being “like a wave” in this passage emphasizes the impossibility of comprehending everything that is happening in the country at once. Forster repeats the phrase “how many” several times, underlining the unimaginable number of things and people that England contains. The metaphor of the imagination "swelling and spreading" refers to the necessity of taking a broad view. Although one can’t get every detail of England, one can expand one's thinking to take in the sheer vastness of the landscape as a whole.

The imagery used in this passage also contributes to the novel’s overwhelming sense of the country's packed fullness. The mention of “villages,” “castles,” and “churches” suggests a rich history that is both visible and hidden. The inclusion of “ships, railways, and roads” also implies a sense of innovation and modernity, which is juxtaposed with the images of older settlements and structures that precede them. The passage conveys a sense of the country's tradition and modernity existing side by side, as well as the diversity of people working to achieve different goals.

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Chapter 20
Explanation and Analysis—Fortress and Mountain:

In Chapter 20, Forster describes the contrast between the personalities of Margaret Schlegel and Henry Wilcox using a pair of metaphors that align them, respectively, with a mountain and a fortress:

A younger woman might have resented his masterly ways, but Margaret had too firm a grip of life to make a fuss. She was, in her own way, as masterly. If he was a fortress she was a mountain peak, whom all might tread, but whom the snows made nightly virginal.

The metaphorical comparison between Henry and a fortress that the author makes here emphasizes his constructed, guarded, and rigid nature. He is walled-in by his conservative values and his urge to protect himself, much like a fortress. Margaret, by contrast, is compared to a mountain peak. She is certainly not less strong or powerful, but is also far more open, a place where “all might tread.” These descriptions suggest that Henry is more concerned with imposing his will on the world around him and keeping his financial resources safe. Margaret, in contrast, is more inviting of company and more able to share herself.

The passage also notes that Margaret is "masterly" in her own way. Forster is suggesting here that she is just as capable as Henry is, but shows it in a different way. This could be interpreted as a subtle critique of traditional gender roles by the author. In a time where men are often seen as the only ones capable of being "masters" or in positions of power, Margaret is a “mountain peak” of strength and sufficiency. In this passage, her strength is seen as something that exists in its own right, rather than imitating Henry’s masculine “fortress.” Like a mountain covered with snow, she is “virginal” and deceptively delicate, underscored by stony resilience.

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Explanation and Analysis—Flux of London:

In this passage from Chapter 20 Margaret expresses her distaste for the city of London and its constant movement and change. She uses vivid imagery to compare London to a river, rushing forward relentlessly and formlessly:

I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst—eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good, bad, and indifferent, streaming away—streaming, streaming for ever. That’s why I dread it so. I mistrust rivers, even in scenery. Now, the sea—

The metaphor that Forster uses here implies that London is too quick, intense, and indifferent to its citizens for Margaret’s taste. These characteristics align with Margaret’s views on her contemporary England, which she sees as galloping forward into an unpleasant and mercenary future. She is concerned that people don’t “connect” with each other, as she says repeatedly. The “continual flux” of the “qualities, good, bad, and indifferent” that London exemplifies is, to Margaret, “the epitome of English people “at [their] worst.”

Margaret's views on London are contrasted with Henry Wilcox's in the same chapter. Henry takes the opposite view, having a deep admiration for industry, development, and the “constant flux” of cosmopolitanism and modernization. This is one of the central conflicts between these two characters in the novel, as they have different perspectives on their country’s potential and purpose. Margaret's regard for the vast and (comparatively) unmoving sea around England is juxtaposed to Henry’s preference for the “streaming” forward motion of London.

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Chapter 23
Explanation and Analysis—Wilcox Estate:

In Chapter 23, when Margaret arrives at the Wilcox estate by herself for the first time, the scene features vivid visual and tactile imagery as well as simile and metaphor:

Then the car turned away, and it was as if a curtain had risen. [...] Tulips were a tray of jewels. She could not see the wych-elm tree, but a branch of the celebrated vine, studded with velvet knobs, had covered the porch. She had seldom been in a garden where the flowers looked so well, and even the weeds she was idly plucking out of the porch were intensely green.

Forster uses the simile of a "curtain" lifting to describe Margaret's transition from the outside, everyday world to the lush garden. This comparison suggests that the beauty and tranquility of Howards End are hidden from view until the “curtain” is lifted. As the car, which represents her modern life in London, “turn[s] away,” she is faced with a new and more appealing vision.

Forster’s metaphorical language continues with the description of the tulips as a "tray of jewels." This metaphor compares the bright and colorful flowers to precious gems, emphasizing their beauty and value in Margaret’s eyes. The vine on the wych-elm—a plant that’s usually wiry and strangling­—is instead soft and appealing, covered with “velvet knobs.” Even the weeds, usually considered an unsightly aspect of a garden, are described as “intensely green,” further emphasizing the “seldom”-seen fertility and beauty of the estate.

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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 31
Explanation and Analysis—A Corpse:

In this passage from Chapter 31, Forster personifies the Schlegels' house, Wickham Place, as a living entity, describing its death as if it were a human being. He also uses the metaphor of a corpse to describe the “death” of the Schlegels' childhood home:

Houses have their own ways of dying, falling as variously as the generations of men, some with a tragic roar, some quietly, but to an after-life in the city of ghosts, while from others—and thus was the death of Wickham Place—the spirit slips before the body perishes. [...] By September it was a corpse, void of emotion, and scarcely hallowed by the memories of thirty years of happiness.

By this point in the novel the house's demolition is imminent, and everyone knows it. Because of this, Forster makes it clear to the reader that its "death" has already begun, as it is described as "dying" before its physical destruction begins. The house is described like a person in their last days of life. As people begin to detach themselves from it, its “spirit slips” out before its “body perishes.” By saying that houses have “their own ways of dying,” Forster furthers this personification, implying that they can “fall as variously” as people can. Houses in Howards End all have a unique character and history. This influences the manner in which they meet their end, whether it’s a “tragic roar” or “an after-life in the city of ghosts.” This comparison to the various ways in which people die highlights the idea that houses, like people, have individuality, history, and personalities.

The metaphor of the house as a corpse further emphasizes the emptiness and lifelessness of the building in its last days. It is hollow inside, “void of emotion” with its spirit already gone. Even the memories of “thirty years of happiness” within it are scarcely accessible to the Schlegels. In this passage Forster’s narrator conveys a deep sense of melancholy and regret for the loss of the Schlegels' home. The language used suggests that the house is not just a physical structure, but a vital part of the family's identity and history.

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Chapter 43
Explanation and Analysis—Life was a Deep River:

In Chapter 43 after the tragic accident with Leonard Bast, Margaret mourns for him and reflects on the nature of life and death. She does so through a series of metaphors and images that stack on top of each other. This language is powerful, varied, and sometimes contradictory, which reflects Margaret's complex emotional state:

Here Leonard lay dead in the garden, from natural causes; yet life was a deep, deep river, death a blue sky, life was a house, death a wisp of hay, a flower, a tower, life and death were anything and everything, except this ordered insanity, where the king takes the queen, and the ace the king. Ah, no; there was beauty and adventure behind, such as the man at her feet had yearned for; there was hope this side of the grave; there were truer relationships beyond the limits that fetter us now.

The metaphor of chess that Forster uses here ("the king takes the queen, and the ace the king") highlights the social games played by the Wilcoxes. Although the games are cruel and unthinking, Margaret sees this "ordered insanity" as a contrast to the randomness and unpredictability of life and death. She compares these two things in a long, rapid list to a “deep river,” a “blue sky,” a “house,” a “wisp of hay,” a “flower,” and a “tower.” These images vary hugely in size, scale, and power, conveying a sense of randomness that defies the Wilcoxes' attempts to impose order on the world.

The last part of this passage reveals Margaret’s complicated feelings about the choices she has made, particularly her marriage to Henry Wilcox. She sees her relationship after this as a “limit” that “fetters” her, and as part of the very social order that she is questioning. She starts to think of "hope" beyond her limited, ordered world, and envisions "beauty and adventure" and "truer relationships" that exist beyond the Wilcoxes and their opportunistic greed.

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