Forster’s wide-reaching social commentary in Howards End includes a sharp critique of sexism as artificial and groundless, but powerfully persistent nonetheless. He shows his female characters to be more than equal to many men in intelligence, bravery, and conviction, contrary to popular belief in women’s inferiority to men. Treating them differently is thus absurd and wrong. Nevertheless, society’s irrational sexism can be extremely difficult to effectively recognize, resist, or reason with. Margaret loves her husband, for instance, but she is unable to change his sexist worldview, and she ultimately accommodates herself to his expectations rather than risk losing him.
Once Margaret becomes engaged to Henry Wilcox, she feels pressured to conform with her fiancé’s ideals of femininity. The occasion of Evie Wilcox’s grand wedding exemplifies this traditionally gendered paradigm that the Wilcoxes and their type live by: “Male and female created He them.” Forster first explains how the Wilcoxes claim this biblical justification for their belief in fundamental differences between men and women, then abruptly pivots to illustrate how secular human society enforces an artificial gender-based differentiation: “[T]he journey to Shrewsbury confirmed this questionable statement, and the long glass saloon, that moved so easily and felt so comfortable, became a forcing-house for the idea of sex.” A popular religious claim becomes “a questionable statement,” one that is manufactured in contemporary social settings like the first-class train car the wedding party travels in. Forster likens this car to “a forcing-house,” or a type of greenhouse where plants are forced to grow unnaturally, for gendered ideology.
The men of the wedding party behave in a paternalistic and patronizing manner to Margaret and the rest of the women throughout the journey: “They raised windows for some ladies, and lowered them for others, they rang the bell for the servant, they identified the colleges as the train slipped past Oxford […] Margaret bowed to a charm of which she did not wholly approve, and said nothing when the Oxford colleges were identified wrongly.” The men’s paternalism initially manifests itself as excessive gallantry, annoying but harmless. Later, however, their patronizing view of women as helpless, foolish, and hysterical creatures causes great insult and injury to Margaret: “‘I want to go back, though, I say!’ repeated Margaret, getting angry. Charles took no notice […] ‘The men are there,’ chorused the others. ‘They will see to it.’ […] ‘Stopping’s no good,’ drawled Charles. ‘Isn’t it?’ said Margaret, and jumped straight out of the car.” When Charles flatly refuses to take Margaret seriously, she tries to go back herself.
Despite the powerfully rebellious spirit Margaret displays, her extended exposure to the Wilcoxes’ sexist ideology begins to wear down her resistance, as Forster suggests how difficult it can be to stand one’s ground against a powerfully dominant culture. When Margaret must negotiate with Henry on Leonard’s behalf, she finds herself conforming to his ideals of demure womanhood: “She was ashamed of her own diplomacy. In dealing with a Wilcox, how tempting it was to lapse from comradeship, and to give him the kind of woman that he desired!” When the revelation that Henry had an affair while married to Ruth Wilcox jeopardizes Margaret and Henry’s upcoming marriage, Margaret resorts to adopting an attitude of meekness and subservience to soothe Henry’s humiliation. She censors herself: “Henry would resent so strong a grasp of the situation. She must not comment; comment is unfeminine.” By indulging Henry’s preference for a deferential wife, Margaret succeeds in preserving their marriage.
Yet she sacrifices her former principles and values when she gradually converts to this wifely identity. As soon as the Basts place her marriage at risk, she abandons them to the desperate situation she is directly responsible for: “Her conscience pricked her a little about the Basts; she was not sorry to have lost sight of them. No doubt Leonard was worth helping, but being Henry’s wife, she preferred to help some one else.” Forster illustrates how the fallout from Margaret’s self-serving dismissal of the Basts leads to their impoverishment and deaths.
Margaret finally becomes infuriated enough to confront Henry about his harmful double standards for men and women when he crosses a critical line: he begins to insult and injure her sister. She exclaims, “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!” Henry stubbornly denies that his transgression is anything like Helen’s, and he refuses to forgive Helen or allow her to stay in Howards End, implying that her affair and pregnancy have left her tarnished and unworthy.
Margaret fiercely objects to her husband’s misogyny and plans to leave him. However, after Charles is sentenced to prison for manslaughter, thoroughly devastating Henry, she relents, giving in to her innate sympathy for Henry and to his desperate need of her. In the end, Margaret does not go off to help raise her nephew in an autonomous female household, but brings Helen and the baby back under Henry’s domain in Howards End, where she forgives him everything. She even forgives Henry’s paternalistic disregard of Ruth’s final wish to leave Howards End to her, assuring him, “Nothing has been done wrong.” She doesn’t sympathize as much with Leonard, the actual dead man, telling Helen to “Forget him.” Readers who are rightfully upset about these wrongs that Margaret easily pardons will object to her apparent readiness to conform to Henry’s chauvinistic ideal of how a woman should disagree with him: “They would argue so jollily, and once or twice she had him in quite a tight corner, but as soon as he grew really serious, she gave in.”
Forster illustrates how Margaret settles for an unenlightened marriage that stifles and trivializes her on the empty grounds of gender. Henry’s preconceived notions of female inferiority may simply blind him to Margaret’s truly exceptional nature, but he likely also finds it to his advantage to treat Margaret as inferior, because he need never feel insecure or weak in front of her. Forster may show his readership all the exceptional women in the world, but he’s also evidently aware of the fact that men frequently fall back on self-serving denial, hampering social progress.
Gender Quotes in Howards End
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.
“I don’t intend him, or any man or any woman, to be all my life—good heavens, no! There are heaps of things in me that he doesn’t, and shall never, understand.”
Thus she spoke before the wedding ceremony and the physical union, before the astonishing glass shade had fallen that interposes between married couples and the world. She was to keep her independence more than do most women as yet…Yet he did alter her character—a little. There was an unforeseen surprise, a cessation of the winds and odours of life, a social pressure that would have her think conjugally.
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.
Nothing could have exceeded the kindness of the two men. They raised windows for some ladies, and lowered them for others, they rang the bell for the servant, they identified the colleges as the train slipped past Oxford, they caught books or bag-purses in the act of tumbling on to the floor…. Margaret bowed to a charm of which she did not wholly approve, and said nothing when the Oxford colleges were identified wrongly. “Male and female created He them”; the journey to Shrewsbury confirmed this questionable statement, and the long glass saloon, that moved so easily and felt so comfortable, became a forcing-house for the idea of sex.
[Charles] described what he believed to have happened. Albert had flattened out a cat, and Miss Schlegel had lost her nerve, as any woman might. She had been got safely into the other car, but when it was in motion had leapt out again, in spite of all that they could say. After walking a little on the road, she had calmed down and had said that she was sorry. His father accepted this explanation, and neither knew that Margaret had artfully prepared the way for it. It fitted in too well with their view of feminine nature.
“I shall never get work now. If rich people fail at one profession, they can try another. Not I. I had my groove, and I’ve got out of it. I could do one particular branch of insurance in one particular office well enough to command a salary, but that’s all. Poetry’s nothing, Miss Schlegel. One’s thoughts about this and that are nothing. Your money, too, is nothing, if you’ll understand me. I mean if a man over twenty once loses his own particular job, it’s all over with him. I have seen it happen to others. Their friends gave them money for a little, but in the end they fall over the edge. It’s no good. It’s the whole world pulling. There always will be rich and poor.”
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.
“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.’”
“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!”