Money’s Role in Society, as Depicted in Howards End by E. M. Forster

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer

In Howards End, by E.M. Forster, the reader is provided with a view into the world of early twentieth century England. In 1910, the year of this novel’s publication, England was dealing with some of the most stratified wealth distribution the country had ever seen; by 1909, the void between the various classes was so great that David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the time, proposed a radical new budget, stating that it was “…a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness. I cannot help hoping…that before this generation has passed away, we shall have advanced a great step towards that good time, when poverty…will be as remote to the people of this country as the wolves which once infested its forests’ (Pettinger, biographyonline.net). The Wilcoxes, the Schlegels, and the Basts represent different layers of this existing society. Through them, Forster shows the way in which the society of the time was defined by wealth.

Despite Margaret’s belief that “Money…is the second most important thing in the world” (118), wealth is identified as the defining factor in Edwardian English society; whether one acknowledged it or not, one’s personal affluence, or lack thereof, drove one’s life – where and how one resided, what one did with their time each day, and, ultimately, if one was able to achieve happiness in their lives. By analyzing each of these three households, the direct, unbreakable connection between money and societal standing and happiness will be identified. The Schlegels and the Wilcoxes are both from the same class within society, the middle class, but their place within this class differs. The Schlegel sisters are not wealthy, but can support themselves with finances from their family; thus they are the middle of the middle class. They are focused on the arts, as seen in their attendance at Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony in Chapter Five, and humanitarian interests, such as the Society for the Preservation of Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty, which we see in Chapter Fifteen.The Wilcoxes, on the other hand, are members of the upper middle class as they can be defined as wealthy by the measuring tool of land ownership; they are concerned with completely different components of life, with an eye on societal and economic advancement.

At first glance, this class rank seems to be where their similarities end. The Schlegel sisters were born in Germany but now reside in England, thus adding a political component to their story as British and German relations were four years away from war at this time and there were already unlying connections between social standing and the belief in British superiority. While the sisters support themselves with interest earned from family investments, the Wilcoxes are a family of successful British-born businessmen. These families struggle to understand each other, as their views on wealth appear divergent. The Schlegels’ money funds their interest in travel and the arts; it is while traveling that the Schlegels first meet the Wilcoxes. This ability to support one’s self without the restrictions of work also allows for time to be concerned with the plight of those seen in need of financial assistance, like Leonard Bast.

Henry Wilcox, on the other hand, personifies the historical architects of the British Empire. He is an upper-class man who is defined by his financial success. Wilcox’s only concern is status and money; in his mind “there always have been rich and poor… and there always will be rich and poor. You can’t deny it…’ (179). Wilcox’s only goal is making money and maintaining his standing in society; whether that is on the backs of hard working clerks, of which Bast is one, does not matter to him. It also does not matter to him how he maintains his social standing; when it becomes known, for example, that his deceased wife, Ruth, left her family’s home, Howards End, to Margaret Schlegel, Henry cannot abide by this decision as it would lessen his wealth. He then, in essence, steals the house from Margaret, never informing her of his deceased wife’s wishes. This singular focus on status is also why, when Margaret asks for Helen to stay at Howards End, Helen’s scandalous state makes the request “the crisis of his life” (284). Margaret starts the novel with the same mindset that was indicative of her father, who once told his nephew, ‘You only care about the things that you can use, and therefore arrange them in the following order: Money, supremely useful; intellect, rather useful; imagination, of no use at all… It is the vice of a vulgar mind to be thrilled by bigness… That is not imagination. No, it kills it” (27). She is able to recognize, at a very early age, “a dilemma that most people travel through life without perceiving” (28); both the German Nationalist view and the British Imperialist view were in direct contrast to each other, yet both were based on the same desire for bigness, as equated to money and, by association, possession. Margaret, just like her father, does not share this mindset, preferring to strive for greater happiness in her life through compassion and intellectualism. This can be seen in her tenet: “Only connect!” (174). She aspires to find happiness in life, not through avarice or the oppression of others, but through personal fulfillment.

Speaking honestly to her aunt, Margaret comments that “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” (57). Margaret is acknowledging the fact that, despite her viewpoint that all classes should be equal, it truly is not the case and even they depend on money for some of the happiness they experience. The use of the word islands, however, makes one see her thought that this money can be alienating; an island can be a lonely place, thus moving her away from what she yearns for – love and happiness. What the Schlegels also forget to think about is where the money that funds their open heartedness is actually coming from. “Independent thoughts are in nine cases out of ten the result of independent means” (119), Margaret tells her dinner party peers, and this is true of the Schlegels. Ironically, the investments they benefit from are directly connected to the hard labor of those less fortunate than themselves; we are seeing the hand of Imperialism at play.

The greater the Imperialist exploitation of other nations’ poor and subjugated was, the greater the profits for people like the Wilcoxes and, less directly and less obviously, the Schlegels. In the case of Henry Wilcox, it is clear the exploitation he has taken part in; he is described at one point as “the man who had carved money out of Greece and Africa, and bought forests from the natives for a few bottles of gin” (262) due to his work for companies like the West African Rubber Company. The Schlegels have invested in this company, and other foreign interests like it, as Mrs. Munt finds out “to her horror, that Margaret…was taking her money out of the old safe investments and putting it into Foreign Things…[the] year Helen came of age…exactly the same thing happened in Helen’s case” (13); the sisters are profiting from this same exploitation. This connection is not acknowledged by Margaret, possibly on purpose, so that she does not have to face the hypocrisy of her position. For all the care and sympathy they try to show to the less wealthy, the Schlegels are still a part of the same economic strata as the Wilcoxes and enjoy the benefits of this social level.

As much as Margaret may seem to represent a different take on wealth than Henry, similarity is also revealed when we look closely at the reason why Margaret married a man with such a differing attitude towards the less fortunate. While Margaret’s compassion makes her care for the less fortunate, Henry has a very different view of the poor; he tells her that one shouldn’t “take up [a] sentimental attitude over the poor…The poor are poor, and one’s sorry for them, but there it is…There are just rich and poor, as there always have been and always will be…our civilization is moulded by great impersonal forces…and there always will be rich and poor. You can’t deny it..and you can’t deny that, in spite of all, the tendency of civilization has on the whole been upward'(179). Despite this difference, there is definitely a draw of safety and stability that Henry’s money represents. Long before Margaret marries Henry, her fears of becoming part of the lesser class have already invaded her thinking. After Jacky Bast comes calling for Leonard’s umbrella, we see Margaret’s “thoughts turn[ed] sadly to house hunting. Wickham Place had been so safe. She feared, fantastically, that her own little flock might be moving into turmoil and squalor, into nearer contact with such episodes as these” (107). She recognizes that her place in society can only be maintained through finances and is therefore willing to turn a blind eye to how Wilcox has behaved in the past. There is a stability that money brings when one knows they can pay the rent; without stability, it is difficult to ever feel as if you have a true home – that place to flourish – and Margaret strives to find that, at any cost.

It is only Leonard Bast, the poor clerk, who truly sees the way wealth and society are symbiotically related since he lives with the societal shortcomings that come with being a member of a lower society class. He is described as “…inferior to most rich people, there is not the least doubt of it. He was not as courteous as the average rich man, nor as intelligent, nor as healthy, nor as lovable” (43). These descriptors are all by-products of being impecunious. He tells Helen, ‘I wish I was wrong, but…Miss Schlegel, the real thing’s money and all the rest is a dream’ (221). The Leonard Basts of society have their very lives and problems directly connected with the actions and decisions of the Henry Wilcoxes; while they are directly linked, the Schlegels of the world are comfortable observers from afar. Bast truly realizes this when he loses his job at the bank, a job he only took at the urging of Henry Wilcox. When the sisters step in, hoping to help by giving him a little money and encouraging him to get another job, he tells them, “You don’t know what you’re talking about…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… Miss Schlegel…your money, too, is nothing, if you’ll understand me…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’ (210-211). The inevitable discovery from examining the lives of these three families is that, whether we want to admit it or not, money holds primary significance in society and one’s emotional success. As Margaret correctly comes to realize, “the world is economic, and the lowest abyss is not the absence of love, but the absence of coin’ (57). While Margaret begins the narrative believing there is more to life than money, even she must eventually come to recognize that without one (money), the other (fulfillment) might never occur since society is built upon wealth; Leonard Bast was reminded of this on a daily basis while Henry Wilcox lived his life by the mantra of money equals status.

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