Howards End: The Idealist of Modernism

April 3, 2019 by Essay Writer

Though it is universally acknowledged that art is subjective, literary critic and philosopher Georg Lukacs offered his opinions on what form art ought to take. In his essay “The Ideology of Modernism,” Lukacs wrote negatively against the modernist movement in literature. He describes traditional art as assuming that there is meaning to human existence (1229), whereas modern literature and art is devoid of substance and meaning, or worse, it promotes an ideal and neglects reality. He states, “in realistic literature, each descriptive detail is both individual and typical. Modern allegory, and modernist ideology, however, deny the typical” (1230). Lukacs does not see human existence reflected back through modernist art. As a result of this, Lukacs concludes “modernism means not the enrichment, but the negation of art” (1232). E. M. Forster wrote his acclaimed Howards End right at a transitional period from traditional Edwardian literature towards literary modernism. Forster writes with the effect to allow the reader to be exposed to and explore modernist ideals behind the safety of tradition. As a result, his novel overwhelmingly reads as a traditional novel, with modernist concerns embodied by certain characters.

Howards End represents the transitional period it finds itself in through its vastly different characters. The Schlegel sisters represent an upper middle class that is able to fit into both an elitist, capitalist society, embodied by the Wilcox family, and a lower class, but modernist way of thinking through Leonard Bast. As much as the Wilcox family represents elitism and “old money,” Leonard Bast fits the description offered by Lukacs of a modernist man. Lukacs explains that, “The ontological view governing the image of man in the work of leading modernist writers is…this. Man, for these writers, is by nature solitary, asocial, unable to enter into relationships with other human beings” (1219). In Howards End, Bast encounters such difficulties with his relationships with others and his attempts to climb the social ladder. From his natural distrust of others, whether this fear is warranted or not, his consistently finding himself in situations he doesn’t want to be in with people he does not want to be with, even feeling “trapped” in his marriage, the reader is continuously told that Bast has an inability to form normal social relationships or to “fit in” with society, even though it does not seem to be for lack of trying.

According to Lukacs, modernism is a form that attempts to capture the demise of capitalism by its focus on individual alienation from society and fellow man. He explains, “Man is reduced to a sequence of unrelated experiential fragments; he is as inexplicable to others as to himself” (1222). Conversely, Lukacs sees realism as the form of writing that offers a true portrait of man in relation to their socio economic standing while rooting them accurately in a historical setting. Traditional literature places a character within context, yet the absence of place is a trend in modernist literature. Lukacs explains, “By destroying the complex tissue of man’s relations with his environment, it furthers the dissolution of personality” (1223). However, Forster’s text does not destroy potential problems the characters may feel with their environment, in fact, his text highlights the importance of place for all characters, many of whom have their identities entangled with their homesteads. In Howards End, both the upper class Shelegels and the lower class Bast experience a lack of place, in both physical homesteads, and through blurred class identities. These feelings of disillusionment are reflective of the re-urbanization of London, and the loneliness felt by its inhabitants as a result. The narrator of Howards End describes the city with the following scene:

A block of flats, constructed with extreme cheapness, towered on either hand. Farther down the road two more blocks were being built, and beyond these an old house was being demolished to create another pair. It was the kind of scene that may be observed all over London… bricks and mortar rising and falling the relentlessness of the water in a fountain, as the city receives more and more men upon her soil. (41)

Howards End makes modernist commentary on the disintegration of London. Old buildings are demolished to make room for an expanding middle class, and it negatively affects the characters that are currently situated in upper middle class and high class society. Describing London, Margaret Schlegel notes that, “the population still rose, but what was the quality of the men born” (99) and later decries “I hate this continual flux of London. It is an epitome of us at our worst- eternal formlessness; all the qualities, good and bad, and indifferent, streaming away…” (167). Though Ms. Schlegel is an upper middle class woman, she will find herself married to an elite man by the end of the novel. It is fitting, therefore, that she finds the socioeconomic unrest in London to be an unstable setting for her, as it allegorically represents economic shifts taking place in her own life.

In addition to removing the character from a significant setting, modernist literature wipes away a character’s unique history. Lukacs explains, “Negation of history takes two different forms in modernist literature. First, the hero is strictly confined within the limits of his own experience… Secondly, the hero himself is without personal history. He is ‘thrown-into-the-world,’ meaninglessly…(Lukacs 1220).” In Howards End, characters are shaped by their history, class, money, and politics. An overview of the last ten years of Margaret’s life is provided by the narrator, who asserts “surely, if experience is attainable, she had attained it” (67). Even Leonard Bast has hints of a history, though his character is the one that appears most “thrown into the world,” his helplessness evokes sympathy and drives the plot. Forster does not remove characters from their history, although his modern London often coincides with a modernist one, and his characters learn the hard way that history cannot compete with the present moment, which is all there is in modernism.

Perhaps the most notable characteristic of modernism is how the movement addresses the idea of potentiality. According to Lukacs, “Potentiality, seen abstractly or subjectively- is richer than actual life… Modern subjectivism, taking these imagined possibilities for actual complexity of life, oscillates between melancholy and fascination” (1220). While Lukacs condemns modernism for its inability to appreciate “real” life, he discounts the fact that melancholy, nostalgia, and anxiety of the future are all real experiences of the human condition, and should be regarded as so in literature. Forster uses his traditional characters to speak against this idea of potentiality by removing some of the glamor from the elite Wilcox family. According to Helen Schlegel, “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” (21). Here Helen attributes the Wilcox’s material possessions and class as a smoke screen, hiding the real human fears and emotions the family has buried. The family uses their materialism to mask the experience of living actual life, unable to communicate or relate to one another. The Schlegels, one step lower economically than the Wilcox family, are able to see that the grass is not always greener, and with a modern sensibility they see living up to ones potentiality as potentially empty.

Modernism alone does not simply root an individual in a state of dissatisfaction and unrest, and heroes of traditional literature experience the same desires that Lukacs discredits as casualties of modernist potentiality. In Howards End, Leonard Bast best exemplifies this unrest and desire for potentiality from a modern perspective. Internally Bast laments, “Oh, to acquire culture!.. But it would take one years… how was it possible to catch up with leisured women, who had been reading steadily from childhood? (34),” and he is able to admit to himself that he will never quite reach that potential. Of course, one issue holding him back is the fact that he was not raised with money. Money undoubtedly effects potential. The Schlegel sisters understand this, seen with the following statement. Margaret comments, “But Helen and I, we ought to remember, when we are tempted to criticize others… the poor cannot always reach those whom they want to love, and they can hardly ever escape from those whom they love no longer. We rich can” (54). Both modernist Bast and the traditional Schlegel’s must acknowledge the role that money, or lack thereof, plays an enormous role throughout their lives. The rich are privileged in their wealth, and the poor are truly in want of it.

The narrator describes Leonard Bast’s unrest with his socioeconomic position in life. He is written as “inferior to most rich people… not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as loveable. His mind and his body had alike been underfed, because he was poor, and because he was modern they were always craving better food” (40). Bast fails to reach his “potential” as a condition of being modern. The narrator seems to be commenting that this drive for “something more” seems to be the exact thing that holds his character back. Despite his attempts to fall into the right crowd socially, make the right career moves, and to find love, nothing goes exactly the way Bast had planned, he often seems lost and out of control of his own life.

This too falls in with Lukacs ideas of modernism, and the critic explains that “As the ideology of most modernist writers assert the unalterability of outward reality… human activity is…rendered impotent and robbed of meaning” (1227). Though Bast more represents the “modernist man” in Howards End, other characters in seem to find humanity lacking in importance, especially the wealthy. Of Mrs. Wilcox, the narrator notes that her voice “suggested that pictures, concerts, and people are all of small and equal value” (63). Additionally, Margaret states, “I believe we shall come to care about people less and less, Helen. The more people one knows the easier it becomes to replace them. It’s one of the curses of London” (119). In Forster’s novel, human activity is only lacking importance when one is wealthy enough to afford to see life as meaningless. In that case the individual, something so important to the modernist man, is replaceable, and even worse, a commodity to collect.

Lukacs may fall somewhere in between when examining the text of Howards End as an Edwardian or modernist piece, however, it is important to note some of the downfalls of his theories on modernism. His belief that writing must be written realistically in order to accurately portray man does not allow for change, growth, or the evolution of the written word. It pigeon holds the artist and humanity creatively, and artist have always charismatically rallied against having rules imposed on them when it comes to their art.

Without the freedom to break rules, novels like Howards End would never get written. Though it is arguable where Forster’s loyalties really lie, he writes his characters in a way that embodies many voices that were in a “modernist” London. Perhaps Forster’s overall views on capitalism and elitism are summed up in a passage near the end of Howards End. The narrator states, “…the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer. He prepares the way for cosmopolitanism, and though his ambitions may be fulfilled, the earth he inherits will be grey” (300). Forster and Lukacs both interpret the materialist world the modernist man inhabits as a bleak and unfulfilling one driven by capitalism. Assuming the unnamed narrator is Forster’s voice of reason interjecting into the story, the reader hears the same message Lukacs delivered in his essay. Materialism is unfulfilling, elitism is empty, modernism is riddled with flaws, and yet the unrest within tradition cannot be ignored. Forster presented such topics hidden behind the veil of a traditional novel, allowing readers to become exposed to modernist sentiment, perhaps whether they realized it or not.


Forster, E.M. Howards End. 2013: CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, London.

Lukacs, Gyorgy. “The Ideology of Modernism.” The Novel: An Anthology of Criticism and Theory 1900-2000. Ed. Dorothy J. Hale. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2006. 394-412.

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