As a novel set in turn-of-the-century England, a time of ongoing industrialization and urbanization, Howards End criticizes the capitalist forces behind England’s prosperity. A society solely driven by the free market, purely intent on maximizing profit and opposed to any kind of intervention, promotes cold self-interest and the consolidation of power while producing extreme suffering in the masses. Through the unfortunate fates of Leonard and Jacky Bast, Forster demonstrates how difficult it is for those born into disadvantaged circumstances to attain a better quality of life in an unregulated system where influence and information are hoarded.
Earnest and idealistic Leonard Bast exemplifies the model working-class Londoner striving to secure a modestly comfortable life for himself and his wife. However, without a more sophisticated education, he is unable to advance beyond menial desk work, and left ignorant of the higher forces that control the market and exploit unwitting consumers and workers alike. Leonard’s vulnerability to the greedy heads of business is symbolized by his poor understanding of his own company, the Porphyrion. When Margaret and Helen Schlegel try to help him by passing on Henry’s report that the company may go bankrupt, Leonard cannot judge for himself if the company is truly in danger. Forster writes, “Leonard had no idea […] To him, as to the British public, the Porphyrion was the Porphyrion of the advertisement—a giant.” The majority of people know as little about how the company operates as they do about a mythical being. Forster continues, “A giant was of an impulsive morality—one knew that much […] But his true fighting weight, his antecedents, his amours with other members of the commercial Pantheon—all these were as uncertain to ordinary mortals as were the escapades of Zeus.” The Porphyrion prefers to keep the public in the dark about its affairs as much as possible, in order to profit off of consumers’ ignorance. Better to be seen as abstract and “impulsive” rather than cold and calculating; consumers can’t object to companies’ private interests if they’re not conscious of them.
As an all-too-replaceable worker who has no job security and no social protections to fall back on, Leonard is utterly dependent on the discretion of men of greater means. After various failed attempts to assert control over his own life and change its course—actively switching to a supposedly secure job, and privately studying books to grasp their lessons and values for humanity—Leonard realizes that his volition is ultimately meaningless in the face of the tyrannical authority of those who hold all the money and power. Leonard concludes that developing his own philosophical ideas about life is useless when he has no power to exert his own influence, and instead is entirely subject to the will of others: “Talk as one would, Mr. Wilcox was king of this world, the superman, with his own morality, whose head remained in the clouds.”
Indeed, Henry would rather keep his head in the clouds than acknowledge the terrible suffering of his fellow human beings—or his own part in it. Through willful shortsightedness, he observes only the present instant, declining to identify the source of a problem or to anticipate what may result of his actions: “As Man is to the Universe, so was the mind of Mr. Wilcox to the minds of some men—a concentrated light upon a tiny spot […] He lived for the five minutes that have past, and the five to come; he had the business mind.” The business mind, according to this example, is generally careless, rash, and remorseless. Compared to minds which could encompass “the Universe,” his view is narrowed to his immediate interests.
Henry tellingly exhibits this selective awareness with regards to the foul-smelling mews, or horse stables, that neighbor his London residence. When he is in a position to make a profit by renting his house, he conveniently forgets to mention the mews to a potential renter, but later complains about them freely. Forster writes, “[I]f any one had remarked that the mews must be either there or not, he would have felt annoyed, and afterwards have found some opportunity of stigmatising the speaker as academic. So does my grocer stigmatise me when I complain of the quality of his sultanas […] It is a flaw inherent in the business mind, and Margaret may do well to be tender to it, considering all that the business mind has done for England.” While Forster would appear to conclude that England is greatly indebted to this shrewd “business mind,” likening Henry to a penny-pinching grocer subtly undercuts any impression of his glory. The business-minded are merely hypocrites, deceitful and unconscienced.
Forster shows Henry to be a man who, if he has a conscience at all, easily silences it by attributing the great hardship caused by the country’s ongoing “civilisation” to impersonal, abstract forces rather than the active participation and collusion of private individuals. After Henry gives the Schlegels catastrophically bad advice to share with Leonard, he insists that he is in no way obliged to make amends for the severe disadvantage in which Leonard now finds himself. He declares, “The poor are poor, and one’s sorry for them, but there it is. As civilisation moves forward, the shoe is bound to pinch in places, and it’s absurd to pretend that any one is responsible personally.” The dire perils of homelessness and starvation are hardly equivalent to the “pinch” from a new shoe, as Forster illustrates in Leonard and Jacky’s tragic fates. Ascribing the suffering of the poor to impersonal “civilisation” denies Henry’s complicity in choosing to profit from rather than reform a system of modern industrial capitalism that badly exploits people like Leonard. In a world without true giants and mortals, one can only stay giant by keeping others powerless.
Capitalism Quotes in Howards End
They were all silent. It was Mrs. Wilcox.
She approached just as Helen’s letter had described her, trailing noiselessly over the lawn, and there was actually a wisp of hay in her hands. She seemed to belong not to the young people and their motor, but to the house, and to the tree that overshadowed it. One knew that she worshipped the past, and that the instinctive wisdom the past can alone bestow had descended upon her.
“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.”
“The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched—a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here my difficulty. This outer life, though obviously horrid; often seems the real one—there’s grit in it. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?”
“Oh, Meg—, that’s what I felt, only not so clearly, when the Wilcoxes were so competent, and seemed to have their hands on all the ropes.”
“It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness, to think that a thousand square miles are a thousand times more wonderful than one square mile, and that a million square miles are almost the same as heaven.”
It will be generally admitted that Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is the most sublime noise that has ever penetrated into the ear of man…you are bound to admit that such a noise is cheap at two shillings. It is cheap, even if you hear it in the Queen’s Hall, dreariest music-room in London, though not as dreary as the Free Trade Hall, Manchester; and even if you sit on the extreme left of that hall, so that the brass bumps at you before the rest of the orchestra arrives, it is still cheap.
And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard’s life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
“You and I and the Wilcoxes stand upon money as upon islands. It is so firm beneath our feet that we forget its very existence. It’s only when we see some one near us tottering that we realise all that an independent income means. Last night, when we were talking up here round the fire, I began to think that the very soul of the world is economic, and that the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin.”
They did not make the mistake of handling human affairs in the bulk, but disposed of them item by item, sharply…It is the best—perhaps the only—way of dodging emotion. They were the average human article, and had they considered the note as a whole it would have driven them miserable or mad. Considered item by item, the emotional content was minimised, and all went forward smoothly.
To speak against London is no longer fashionable. The Earth as an artistic cult has had its day, and the literature of the near future will probably ignore the country and seek inspiration from the town. One can understand the reaction…Certainly London fascinates. One visualises it as a tract of quivering grey, intelligent without purpose, and excitable without love; as a spirit that has altered before it can be chronicled; as a heart that certainly beats, but with no pulsation of humanity. It lies beyond everything.
…[Leonard’s] outburst ended in a swamp of books. No disrespect to these great names. The fault is ours, not theirs. They mean us to use them for sign-posts, and are not to blame if, in our weakness, we mistake the sign-post for the destination. And Leonard had reached the destination. He had visited the county of Surrey when darkness covered its amenities, and its cosy villas had re-entered ancient night. Every twelve hours this miracle happens, but he had troubled to go and see for himself. Within his cramped little mind dwelt something that was greater than Jefferies’ books—the spirit that led Jefferies to write them.
“It is so slurred over and hushed up, there is so little clear thinking…so few of us think clearly about our own private incomes, and admit that independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means. Money: give Mr. Bast money, and don’t bother about his ideals. He’ll pick up those for himself.”
It was the first [Margaret] had heard of the mews behind Ducie Street. When she was a possible tenant it had suppressed itself, not consciously, but automatically. The breezy Wilcox manner, though genuine, lacked the clearness of vision that is imperative for truth. When Henry lived in Ducie Street he remembered the mews; when he tried to let he forgot it; and if any one had remarked that the mews must be either there or not, he would have felt annoyed, and afterwards have found some opportunity of stigmatising the speaker as academic. So does my grocer stigmatise me when I complain of the quality of his sultanas, and he answers in one breath that they are the best sultanas, and how can I expect the best sultanas at that price? It is a flaw inherent in the business mind, and Margaret may do well to be tender to it, considering all that the business mind has done for England.
Whether as boy, husband, or widower, [Henry] had always the sneaking belief that bodily passion is bad…Religion had confirmed him. The words that were read aloud on Sunday to him and to other respectable men were the words that had once kindled the souls of St. Catherine and St. Francis into a white-hot hatred of the carnal. He could not be as the saints and love the Infinite with a seraphic ardour, but he could be a little ashamed of loving a wife. Amabat, amare timebat. And it was here that Margaret hoped to help him.
…Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.
[Margaret] was glad to go there, for Henry had implied his business rather than described it, and the formlessness and vagueness that one associates with Africa itself had hitherto brooded over the main sources of his wealth. Not that a visit to the office cleared things up…even when she penetrated to the inner depths, she found only the ordinary table and Turkey carpet, and 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.
Now and then [Henry] asked [Margaret] whether she could possibly forgive him, and she answered, “I have already forgiven you, Henry.” She chose her words carefully, and so saved him from panic. She played the girl, until he could rebuild his fortress and hide his soul from the world. When the butler came to clear away, Henry was in a very different mood—asked the fellow what he was in such a hurry for, complained of the noise last night in the servants’ hall. Margaret looked intently at the butler. He, as a handsome young man, was faintly attractive to her as a woman—an attraction so faint as scarcely to be perceptible, yet the skies would have fallen if she had mentioned it to Henry.
As is Man to the Universe, so was the mind of Mr. Wilcox to the minds of some men—a concentrated light upon a tiny spot, a little Ten Minutes moving self-contained through its appointed years. No Pagan he, who lives for the Now, and may be wiser than all philosophers. He lived for the five minutes that have past, and the five to come; he had the business mind.
All was not sadness. The sun was shining without. The thrush sang his two syllables on the budding guelder-rose. Some children were playing uproariously in heaps of golden straw. It was the presence of sadness at all that surprised Margaret, and ended by giving her a feeling of completeness. In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect—connect without bitterness until all men are brothers.
“You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognise them, because you cannot connect… Only say to yourself, ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”
Here men had been up since dawn. Their hours were ruled, not by a London office, but by the movements of the crops and the sun…They are England’s hope…
At the chalk pit a motor passed [Leonard]. In it was another type, whom Nature favours—the Imperial. Healthy, ever in motion, it hopes to inherit the earth. It breeds as quickly as the yeoman, and as soundly; strong is the temptation to acclaim it as a super-yeoman, who carries his country’s virtue overseas. But the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer.
“You go on as if I didn’t know my own mind,” said Mr. Wilcox fretfully. Charles hardened his mouth. “You young fellows’ one idea is to get into a motor. I tell you, I want to walk; I’m very fond of walking.”
…Charles did not like it; he was uneasy about his father, who did not seem himself this morning. There was a petulant touch about him—more like a woman. Could it be that he was growing old? The Wilcoxes were not lacking in affection; they had it royally, but they did not know how to use it.
Margaret was silent. Something shook her life in its inmost recesses, and she shivered.
“I didn’t do wrong, did I?” [Henry] asked, bending down.
“You didn’t, darling. Nothing has been done wrong.”
From the garden came laughter. “Here they are at last!” exclaimed Henry, disengaging himself with a smile. Helen rushed into the gloom, holding Tom by one hand and carrying her baby on the other. There were shouts of infectious joy.
“The field’s cut!” Helen cried excitedly—“the big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!”