Irony and the Narrative in Forster, Howards End Critical Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Dec 24th, 2019


This narrative begins by demonstrating an array of varied experiences and scenarios that affect the lives of people living in three different interlinking English social classes, but with unfavorable consequences.

The two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, are the representative of the bourgeois class, which is financially independent. They are representatives of the intellectual humanists focused on art and literature.

The Wilcox family represents the upper middle class, which is entirely devoted to capitalist interests of accumulation and dominance. Leonard Bast occupies the lower middle class and he is struggling to come out of his current situation.

In various scenarios, the narrator clearly comes out in favor of the higher classes and dehumanizes the lower order, which Leonard occupies. Margaret seeks to mediate amongst the three distinct classes.

Forster’s work represents the struggle between money and morality together with the attention they cause to everyday life (Shirkhani 190). Money and morality, as key factors for the novel’s characters, come out as the narrative’s preeminent objective.

Forster demonstrates his frustration with the means used to accumulate wealth and the increasing importance attached to value. In contrast, the narrator’s voice is anchored in the current state and it reckons that there has to be these differences in a bid to distinguish individuals. The novel illustrates the unnecessary attachment with material goods of all tastes.


It sounds ironical and misleading when one argues that connection forms one of the major themes explained in Forster’s work. Living in the early 20th Century in the English stratified society, one could not imagine of any possible form of connection to happen.

Connection is evident between the personal and public life and that amongst different people living in disparate classes with the opportunistic seeking to sustain the social order.

The Wilcoxs represent and exemplify these complexities to create connections, as they depict the twentieth century via the accumulation of wealth, power, and global competition (Kinley 118).

On the other hand, the Schlegels are presented as being idealistic, imaginative, and seeking inner ideal life. However, as it is highly agreeable that Wilcox represents the physical continuity of man and his material, Margaret’s general principle of social betterment and equal accumulation is highly questionable.

On one hand, she tries to act as if she embodies social betterment by not focusing on accumulation, but her works of art and literature are for profit making and she shows no physical concerns to the less privileged people like Leonard.

Her intimate connection to material possessions is wanting as she realizes that the things she values like art and culture will at one time decline if not supported by economic privileges controlled by individuals such as Wilcox. However, attention is diverted to riches and her purported connection to the lower classes dwindles.

Although he Wilcoxs and Schlegels seem to differ in the way they articulate these connections, the Schlegels are easily moved to act otherwise while retaining some of their beliefs.

The Schlegels believe that personal connections are superior to public ones and individual concerns should always be prioritized ahead of organizations’ concerns.

The narrative introduces tension between the Schlegel sisters, as by associating with males of distinct classes, they demonstrate different understanding and class sentience.

In this case, the narrative tries to show the optimism in bringing hope for equality and justice for people like the Basts. Nonetheless, it is not an easy task with individuals like Wilcox in society.

To Wilcox, social structures and formalities of business stay supreme and these connections lay the basis for personal connections. This notion magnifies the class conflicts existing within the English society.

When Margaret and Henry Wilcox get married, these two distinct experiences are linked. Margaret’s idealistic character is just but a disguise, as her new platform helps her preserve various things that she treasures such as art and culture.

Her realization of staying close to those that can protect what she values adds pain to the lower classes, which appear to have no connection that can help further their wishes.


Struggle and conflict are themes that describe the middle class in the Howards End. The poor are not discussed in this novel, as it only explores the individuals perceived to be high ranking in society. In the opening chapters, the narrator often uses the pronoun “we” when speaking about life in the English society.

The repeated use of “we” implies that the narrator represents a certain group. The group appears to share her class, and it is relatively common to the middle class to which Margaret and Hellen belong. The struggles start to manifest in the way the narrator tries to identify the poor.

In the introductory paragraph of chapter six, she says, “We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or poet. This story deals with the gentlefolk or those who are obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk” (Forster 45).

This assertion reflects the inhumane nature and the difference of the English people. The class struggles are just created and sustained by the people who seek to remain influential and in control of the social order.

The narrator’s later comment about the situation being tolerable is simply ironical. She posits, “The continuous flow would be tolerable if a man of our sort, not anyone pompous or tearful, were caring for us up in the sky” (Forster 108).

In the first place, the situation is intolerable for the poor, and the so-called gentlefolk have amplified this condition. If given the opportunity to carry on with their accumulation, the poor will be deprived further and remain dependent on the upper classes.

Their struggle to climb higher will always be met by unending desire to exploit and suppress them further. Implying that the poor class is tearful is an insult since the upper classes have facilitated this situation.

Therefore, the expected change highly depends on the actions of the lower order and the role of the upper classes is to accept the new order.

The narrator’s attitude to the poor is purely a product of social bias affirmed by the social stratification in society. The narrator’s condescension is directed to the people forming the lower class.

Leonard Bast falls under the category of those who pretend to be part of the gentlefolk, but the narrator does not hesitate to show where Leonard belongs.

She says, “Here he stopped again, and glanced suspiciously to right and left, like a rabbit that is going to bolt into a hole” (Forster 47). This implication is purely unwarranted and Leonard is dehumanized.

This aspect implies that Leonard and his equals are inferior to the rich in all perspectives be it intellectually, health, or courtesy. Leonard’s desire to improve his place is seen as unnecessary since he is where he belongs.

The narrator perceives Leonard as being motivated by the promises of democracy to fight to improve his lot. There is a bias in the way the two classes are conceptualized.

As Shirkhani suggests, Leonard’s objective to improve his lot by acquiring knowledge and culture is just the same thing Margaret seeks to create and sustain (195). The hostility that the narrator creates and maintains in the way she tackles Leonard’s situation is a reflection of the English society’s prejudice about the lower order.

The narrator’s bias against Leonard is further magnified when she ironically supports Wilcox’s decision to offer their home to Margaret.

Although Wilcox’s decision is against the narrator’s expectations, she intentionally supports him claiming that the appeal was made out of illness, or even facilitated by their sudden friendship. The narrator goes ahead to imply that it is natural and expected to reverse the decision and tear the note.

It is clear that the narrator is living in denial of the changes that are emerging across the classes. This aspect reflects the stand of many imperialists of the twentieth century who could not withstand the emergence of the modern civilization (Kinley 121).

The new level of engagement between Margaret and Wilcox shows the increasing decline in class significance and awareness developing among the members of different classes.

Despite the role that Leonard and his equals have played in the connecting process, the narrator still feels that Leonard has no obligation to actualizing any change. The narrator attempts only to acknowledge the likes of Wilcox as having the potential to build the modern civilization.

From this perspective, it is entirely wrong to strip the likes of Leonard the accolades they deserve. Through the struggle of the lower order, the upper order has felt the pressure and compelled to ease its grip on power.

The narrator denies that the capitalist mind is slowly destroying the cultural life in England. The loss of creativity and essence of humanity is gradually causing individuality.

Margaret genuine and clear sighted to some extent because she accepts that the likes of Wilcox support and perpetuate the sufferings of which the likes of Leonard object (Kinley 121). Later in the novel, Charles, who is a member of the upper order, kills Leonard Bast.

The Wilcoxs are undeniably a force for exploiting the weak as indicated in the novel, but the narrator is quick to justify their deeds.

Charles is tried for murder and pronounced guilty, but the narrator defends him by claiming, “It was against reason that he should be punished, but the law, being made in his image sentenced him to three years’ imprisonment” (Forster 334).

Claiming that this barbaric act is justifiable given that it happens to a member of the lower order is the highest show of hate and discrimination. It further suggests that Leonard is worth this death, since he is of poor health and weak to be allowed the pleasure of the England society.

This aspect implies the lack of a sense of humanity regarding the lower class. This assertion creates a bad impression of what is happening in the English society.

In addition, claiming that the law is made to favor the likes of Charles presents the injustices that the rest are ought to receive. Three years’ of imprisonment for manslaughter serves no justice to the victim.

The author tries to express the challenges that might face the society when attempting to reconnect the new economic order with the old morality. The old morality was declining and a new version of exploiting the poor by accumulating huge profits than it is necessary, the society was merely evading the truth.

The profits would at one time come to decline, the poor and exploited would be kicked hard, and more power will be coming their way since the dominant class will now be facing the consequences of capitalism.

Even though preoccupied with the rapid social changes shaking England, the intertwined experiences of the three classes illuminate some hope for every class to be represented in the emerging modernized nation.


The Schlegel sisters fail to take resolute decisions to condemn the ongoing imperialism or the narrow materialism, which Margaret appears to embrace. Just like other imperialists, Margaret upholds the vision of the imperialist as a hard worker and civilizer.

She claims that one has to work hard or otherwise pretend to work and Margaret and other many imperialists do the same. The narrator continues with her passionate defense of the so-called civilizers.

The narrator further implies that if it were not for the work done by the likes of Wilcox, there would be no infrastructure in England and life would have been stagnant for a long time.

Contrary, not only Margaret, who pretends to work, but also the Wilcox, as their energy is focused towards the worry of protecting and accumulating wealth.

All developments that are going on are the efforts of the working class, which comprises the lower order. Leonard works hard to improve his place in society, but the situation put in place is very exploitative.

The hard work of the lower order improves the upper classes that pretend to be very hard working. To indicate the accumulation, Forster says, “The dining room was big, but over furnished with heavy chairs…such a room admitted loot” (159).

This observation is ironical of what the narrator attributes about Wilcox. In addition, this passage indicates that their material possession is not what rightfully belongs to them, but a representation of exploitation.

Margaret’s fight against imperialism lies in her imaginations rather than being idealistic. She seems to be bothered by the accumulation of Wilcox and even animates these material goods, but just later, when she receives Henry’s proposal, she realizes what she needs to protect her culture and art.

She comes out as individualistic since she does not bother anymore about others but herself. This aspect cuts her connection with her sister, Helen, from the Wilcox who value only protecting their wealth. Margaret starts to realize that accumulation never ceases and it cannot be halted in the world of capitalism.

The burgeoning individualism further alienates Leonard from all possibilities of developing himself. When he seems to be emerging from his insurance job, Henry advises him to abandon the job and find another one.

This kind of exploitation is well orchestrated to ensure that the lower order has no chance of inheriting England and only the upper classes will have the chance to define the nation.

Turner presents a different viewpoint and the belief that the likes of Leonard Bast cannot survive the class struggles neither can they present any hopes of shaping the social order in the modernizing society (335).

Leonard himself wishes that he could be a member of a different class, which is evident when he shares tea with the Schlegels after the Beethoven concert. He appears fascinated with their knowledge and the eloquence that they express during conversations.

Unlike other authors, Turner does not believe that in Howards End, class is displayed as a barrier to social mobility or rather as a platform to discover one’s potential, and just like the Wilcox work hard and achieve one’s dream.

Unfortunately, Leonard realizes that what he contemplates is difficult to actualize. Leonard and his equals have very little potential or even chance to acquire the kind of learning that would propel them to higher platforms and share with the Schlegels as equals.

It is not out of choice that Leonard exists in a world that seems unwilling to grant him the chance to prosper because of his class. According to Turner, the social conditions do not prevent lower order people from moving up in the world rather it is their lack of the ability and motivation to work (334).

Turner further shows that the keen selection of a suitable house and good possessions is not necessarily a way of accumulation, but a pure way of creating idealized residential space (336).

Before people and societies can advance, the domestic structure that they reside in and the materials that enclose them should be in order (Turner 340). It is wrong to assume that the lower class individuals do not consider this aspect.

Perhaps that is exactly what they are looking up to, but the conditions laid by the dominant classes do not favor them. The interrelationship amongst the three classes has solely focused on their homes and objects surrounding their architecture.

Even though there are several facets regarding accumulation and the resulting exploitation, homes take a big portion, which cannot be overlooked. Margaret’s desire to have a new house symbolizes a change in the English attitudes towards whom to associate and live with.

To Turner, individual identity is necessary to facilitate civilization of the backward individuals (339). Just as the Schlegels have to be replaced from the Wickham Place in a bid to rehabilitate it, Leonard has to face the same and adjust since modernization is affecting all.

However, it is unsuitable for Leonard’s domestic needs, as they are being suppressed by the constant influx and movement associated with this consumerist community.

Finally, the optimism of having justice and class conscious society starts to manifest at the closing chapter of this novel. Mrs. Wilcox’s estate of Howards End serves as a symbol of unification later on. Each character’s relationship to the Howards End symbolically determines who defines England.

As the novel ends, Henry allows Margaret, Helen, and Leonard’s son to live together at Howards End (Shirkhani 200). In addition, Margaret is pronounced as the heir of the house.

This aspect shows that just like the way the novel is shaping, the classes of England society are connecting with ease and at last, they will be living in a society that defines values of all people. In this context, life becomes not merely a quest for enough capital, but for morality.

It is necessary to have money since it is good for leisure and security, but it is not all that defines life. For instance, Helen discovers that in spite of having material things, they are of no use to other people like Bast.

Out of good moral values, Leonard can be saved from the worldly desolation. This progress reflects that at one point in England class partially ceases to be the barrier to social mobility.


The optimism that Forster wants to instill in the readers is weakened by the irony emanating from his narrator’s acknowledgement of the consequences of the persisting struggles in England.

The narrator is outwardly biased since she excuses the Wilcoxs to behave as they do and further claim that the England’s stability cannot withstand the so-called equality, since some people are weak and out to survive on other people’s fortunes.

This perception is a direct opposite of the message that Forster conveys to the readers. During the 20th Century and especially the early parts of it, the English society was experiencing vicissitudes of socio-economic and philosophical controversies that favored the bourgeoisie classes.

This situation deprived the lower classes of their freedom and power to fight for their lot. The increasing awareness of class shared by Forster and his readers brings hope.

The fact that the narrator lacks that awareness forms the narrative’s main irony. Finally, as three classes freely interact in Henry’s house, it symbolizes the new space that is ought to be shared by the English society.

Works Cited

Forster, Edward. Irony and the Narrative Voice in Forster, Howards End, London: Penguin Books, 1910. Print.

Kinley, Roby. “Irony and the Narrative Voice in ‘Howards End’.” The Journal of Narrative Technique 2.2 (1972): 116-124. Print.

Turner, Henry. “Empires of Objects: Accumulation and Entropy in E.M Foster’s Howards End.” Twentieth Century Literature 46.3 (2000): 328-345. Print.

Shirkhani, Kim. “The Economy of Recognition in Howards End.” Twentieth-Century Literature 54.2 (2008): 193-216. Print.

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