A Case for Umbrellas: Examining Practicality in Howards End
At the end of the Victorian era and into the modern age, everything seemed to be up for debate, including deepest held values. A strong clash was particularly felt between the social and economic classes. The upper class, with the security of wealth, clung to intellectualism and idealistic virtues. The lower classes, without the luxury of financial security, were forced to focus on earning their living. For those in the middle classes, the modern age created an environment of struggle between wanting to improve oneself intellectually but also providing for oneself financially. E.M. Forster wedged his novel Howards End into this age of conflicting values. His characters are forced to grapple with these changing values, particularly the character Leonard Bast, a lower-middle class insurance sales clerk who attempts to better himself. In an encounter with the upper-class Schlegel family, Leonard seeks intellectual stimulation as a way to escape his social and economic disparity. While Leonard may play the part of an intellectual for a short time, in the end, he always returns to practical matters. He cannot evade the survival instinct to keep bread on the table, no matter how wonderful the intellectual world seems. Howards End thus presents a case for practicality. Forster gives space to the seemingly mundane to give it value. Leonard’s character reinstates the value of practical matters behind the veil of intellectualism in the modern period.
Leonard is introduced to the novel by means of an object: a seemingly insignificantumbrella. At a performance of Beethoven music, Helen Schlegel accidentally walks off with Leonard’s umbrella. This umbrella may seem like an ordinary object, but for Leonard, it is of the utmost importance. The umbrella represents the world of practicality, Leonard’s world. An umbrella is an ordinary, simple device that protects us from rain. But literarily, it reveals the underlying separation of the classes. The upper-class would not give the umbrella any second thought. The Schlegels, as part of the upper class, will focus on intellectual debate rather than practical matters. Why should they spend time worrying about such trivialities as an umbrella? But this simple object becomes the center of Leonard’s fixations. We will see that even as he tries to engage in the “higher” form of intellectualism, he cannot fully change his focus. The umbrella, the representation of the practical world, will invade his attempts to “better” himself. Leonard’s attempt to retrieve his umbrella will bring into the open the hidden barriers between the social classes and the philosophical and practical world.
Leonard seeks out the Schlegels’ place of residence to try to retrieve his lost umbrella.What seems like a chance encounter reveals something important to us about Leonard’s character: he does not have the luxury of carelessness. When Leonard finds Margaret, she tells him, “My sister is so careless” (31). Helen is careless about umbrellas because she can afford to be. She causes this problem for Leonard because she does not check to see if the umbrella she picks up is hers. When Leonard informs Margaret that her sister has taken his umbrella, Margaret is apologetic. Leonard responds, “It isn’t of any consequence” (30). However, this statement is simply a formality. The narrator reveals that Leonard is “in truth, a little uneasy about his umbrella” (30). Leonard cannot afford to be careless about his possessions and is naturally uneasy about them. Any member of the upper-class in this situation would buy a new umbrella, not fretting over this small loss. But Leonard does not have this option. For him, every small possession is important. To lose an umbrella may mean a large cut in his paycheck. His attempt to retrieve the umbrella sets Leonard apart from the backdrop of the upper-class characters, casting him into a unique space in the novel, one we should give our attention.
We see some of Leonard’s situation revealed in the simple action of trying to get hisumbrella back. More of his character is exposed in his conversation with the Schlegels. After the concert, Leonard attempts to engage in an intellectual discussion with the Schlegels. The family discusses Brahms and Beethoven, diving into a heated discussion about the merits of art. Tibby, the person in the family who knows music the best, rattles off a series of questions, “What is the good of the Arts if they are interchangeable? What is the good of the ear if it tells you the same as the eye?” (32). To Leonard, these assertions sound like a foreign language. The speeches “fluttered away from the young man like birds” (33). He longs to be able to engage in this conversation, to join the ranks of these upper-class idealists. He wishes, “If only he could talk like this, he would have caught the world. Oh to acquire culture! Oh, to pronounce names correctly!” (33). Leonard idealizes the Schlegels and sees them as a golden embodiment of culture and knowledge. He sees their discussion as access to “the world.” He longs to know of music and discuss with them, not for the sake of knowing music itself, but to be able “to pronounce words correctly.” He wants to have knowledge for the sake of impressing others, for the sake of boosting his cultural identity. Leonard wants to engage in this debate to escape the worries of umbrellas and practicality.
But try as he might to join this conversation, Leonard is unable to escape his place inhis community. He cannot focus his attention on art because “he could not quite forget about his stolen umbrella” (33). Leonard’s umbrella is the “real trouble. Behind Monet and Debussy the umbrella persisted, with the steady beat of a drum.” Talk of Monet and Debussy seems to be a mask Leonard puts on, but behind it remains his true identity in the world of practicality. He talks of art with the Schlegels, but true thoughts center on his umbrella. This representation of the working sphere invades Leonard’s mind and cannot let him forget his true place in society. He belongs to the class who must worry about umbrellas. At the end of the day, it does not matter if Leonard can pronounce names correctly. He needs his umbrella back.
This conversation exposes not only the inner drive towards practicality but also the emptiness of scholarly discussion. The Schlegels devalue art by experiencing it for the purpose of impressing other people. The Schlegels discuss music and recite names of composers, but their conversation does not have any real merit. As readers, we experience the emptiness of their talk. Tibby’s comments, for example, show his knowledge of music but not an appreciation for it. He intentionally asserts his technical knowledge of music for what seems like the purpose of showing off. “But surely you haven’t forgotten the drum steadily beating on the low C, Aunt Juley?” (32). Tibby’s knowledge does not seem to have a use besides inserting itself into conversation. The Schlegels’ conversation is empty, intellectual talk. The center of the plot and the action rests not on the concert and their talk about it but on the stolen umbrella. The umbrella drives the plot, and by centering attention on it, Forster both reveals the uselessness of inflated intellectualism and gives value to the mundane.
Meaningless chatter is not the only way to devalue art. Leonard devalues art by treating it like a to-do list. Leonard wishes he could “catch up” with the Schlegels and their knowledge. He wishes:Oh to be well informed, discoursing at ease on every subject the lady started! But it would take one years. With an hour at lunch and a few shattered hours in the evening, how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been steadily reading from childhood? (33)
But Leonard does not really want to understand great artists; he just wants to able to say their names and impress others. Leonard feels he has to know certain names in order to be properly cultured. But this kind of thinking robs art of any merit. Art and scholarly debate do have a place, but Forster shows us they are not the ultimate reality. Many people do not have the luxury of epitomizing intellectualism. We cannot give our full attention to idealism because in doing so, we lose our umbrellas. We lose our sense of practicality. What seems trivial has worth. The Leonard Basts of the world and their umbrellas have as much value as the Schlegels. Both art and practicality must be in their proper place to receive full value.
Leonard encounters the struggle between arts and practicality at the beginning of the text. In the end, he stops trying to gain footing in the philosophical world because he sees the value of practical matters. Towards the end of the novel, Leonard and Helen argue about what matters most in life. Leonard has lost his job and is forced to focus closely on his financial affairs. He tells Helen, “I can imagine that with regular work we should settle down again” (200). Helen is offended for she wants Leonard to continue to pursue beauty. “And that’s to be life!” she says. “How can you, with all the beautiful things to see and do— with music— with walking at night—” (200). Helen is still transfixed with the philosophical world. But Leonard asserts, “My books are back again, thanks to you, but they’ll never be the same to me again, and I shan’t ever again think walking in the woods is wonderful. . . Because I see one must have money” (200). Leonard is right to make this statement. In intellectual circles, we want to deny our need for money and pursue “higher” causes. But the need to put bread on the table will always be there.
Helen, like many of us, wants to argue with Leonard and says he is wrong. He says to her, “I wish I was wrong. . . the real thing’s money and the rest is all a dream” (200). Perhaps Leonard takes his argument too far. Helen seeks the beautiful things of the world, and this is a good thing. The rest is not “all a dream,” but we can understand Leonard’s sentiment. We can certainly make “the rest” a dream by devaluing art and robbing it of its substance. If we seek beauty for the sake of impressing others and not for the experience itself, we miss the point. We still must give Leonard’s side of things some credit. Helen is upset that “settling down” is “to be life,” but it is a part of life, one we cannot deny (200). Leonard sees that though his “books are back,” he still has to focus on earning a living. Books are of little use when one is out of a job. This is not a welcomed statement in the intellectual community, but it is still true. All the books in the world will not make a decent wage for us. Both books and money must have their proper place.
The umbrellas come back to haunt Leonard once again in this scene with Helen:
Leonard looked at her wondering, and had the sense of great things sweeping out of the shrouded night. But he could not receive them, because his heart was full of little things. As the lost umbrella had spoilt the concert at Queen’s Hall, so the lost situation was obscuring the diviner harmonies now. (201)
The narrator comments here that the “little things” Leonard focuses on take up too much space in his mind for the “diviner harmonies” to fit. But perhaps the little things take up space because they do matter. The “little things” demand attention from Leonard because they are important too. Leonard is upset that he cannot focus on what seems to be higher, but he forgets the value of little things. What seems to be trivial demands its own importance in our lives. If we give our trivialities proper attention, then perhaps we can fit the “diviner” things into the space of our lives as well.
Forster gives unusual attention to “little things,” to umbrellas and to the character of Leonard Bast. The space taken by the seemingly mundane my puzzle readers, but Forster draws our attention to them to once again give them value. We cannot forget the mundane, ordinary things of life. Howards End becomes a voice for people like Leonard, for the middle class struggling in the awkward, in-between place of philosophy and practicality. Somewhere there is a balance between these two worlds. Forster’s characters never seem to find it, but perhaps we can. As readers we can seek intellectual stimulation, but we must not forget about our umbrellas.
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