Public School Mentality in Howards End and Passage to India

January 9, 2019 by Essay Writer

Examine the importance of public-school mentality in Howards End and A Passage to IndiaThe public-school system remains unique because it was created by the Anglo-Saxon middle classes – how perfectly it expresses their character – with its boarding houses, its compulsory games, its system of prefects and fagging, its insistence on good form and on esprit de corps –
(E.M. Forster, ‘Notes on the English Character’, 1936.)Forster perceived the public-school system to be at the centre of the English middle-classes, defining their set of core values and moulding their behaviour. He was particularly intrigued by the notion of emotional repression being indoctrinated into public-school pupils, and the effects of this ‘stiff upper lip’ mentality is keenly considered in both Howards End and A Passage to India. While several of his male protagonists unquestionably display solidity and efficiency, their lack of imagination and inclination towards hypocrisy inevitably undermine any potentially positive characteristics. Their personal relationships with others are consequently affected, and in A Passage to India the failure of Anglo-Saxon relations is significantly contributed to by the small-minded selfishness of the English. Forster’s skilful use of contrast means that those removed from the public-school mentality, such as the colourful characters of Leonard Bast and Aziz, can serve to expose its flaws.The extreme importance of maintaining an unruffled sense of composure, or ‘good form’ in all situations, even if done in an illusory manner, is an element of public-school mentality much explored by Forster. Margaret Schlegel is subjected to this when travelling in a train with the Fussells, and somewhat bemusedly notes how they raised windows for some ladies, and lowered them for others – identified the colleges as the train slipped past Oxford, they caught books or bag-purses in the act of tumbling to the floor. Yet there was nothing finicking about their Public School touch, and though sedulous, was virile – Margaret bowed to a charm of which she did not wholly approve – (p.209)She is largely unimpressed by these acts of courtesy, which are performed almost mechanically and unthinkingly: the naming of the colleges is not even correct. The fact that the Fussells’ vigorous politeness clearly stems from a sense of duty makes Margaret somewhat wary of its allure. She perhaps suspects that whatever lies beyond the unnatural pleasantries is not similarly decent, something which is certainly true of the Wilcox men.They seem fixated with the idea of domestic harmony, eating civilised breakfasts together while reading The Times, for instance. This apparent ‘good form’ does not correlate with their actual personalities, however, especially with regard to Charles and his violent nature:Charles had just been scolding Dolly. She deserved the scolding, and had bent before it, but her head, though bloody, was unsubdued – (p.186)The way in which Forster alerts the reader to the fact that Dolly has been physically attacked is cunningly subtle: the word ‘bloody’ is mentioned in a quiet subclause among a barrage of detail, and the incident is not alluded to afterwards. This partial obscuring of the truth is perhaps in itself a satirical look at the superficiality of public-school mentality, while the comment that Dolly ‘deserved the scolding’ is surely a sarcastic illumination of the manner in which coarse behaviour can be justified or overlooked blindly in order for ‘good form’ to remain prevalent.Ronny Heaslop’s superior behaviour towards Aziz in A Passage to India displays similar preoccupations with external appearance. When speaking to Mrs Moore, he mentions smugly thatAziz was exquisitely dressed, from tie-pin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar-stud, and there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race. (p.97)Ronny makes much of a simple defect in appearance, using it to make a contemptuous generalisation of the Indian race. The fact that the reader has been told that Aziz kindly lent his stud to Fielding is a prominent example of Forster’s clever use of irony: Ronny criticises Aziz for inattention to detail while he himself is inattentive to the logical reason for Aziz not having his collar stud. Forster rather cruelly exploits Ronny’s ignorance of the matter in order to intensify the unsympathetic light in which the reader views him, and so criticism of Ronny’s shallow values is actively encouraged.Forster does not suggest that he is intrinsically corrupt, however, and Mrs Moore’s observation of his callous behaviour, and the ‘self-satisfied lilt’ of his words, is very telling:How he did rub it in that he was not in India to behave pleasantly, and derived positive satisfaction there-from! He reminded her of his public-school days. The traces of young-man humanitarianism had sloughed off, and he talked like an intelligent and embittered boy. (p.70)This is surely a potent criticism of the harmful effects on a potentially noble young boy of a public-school upbringing, suggesting that he has been encouraged to act in an unpleasantly over-confident manner. Forster is also suggesting that – perhaps as a direct consequence of this – the English middle classes do not feel obliged, much less prompted, to act civilly towards foreigners, even when they are living in the native country of these people.The claustrophobic Chandrapore Club, into which ‘Indians are not allowed – even as guests’ (p.45), is reminiscent of a school boarding house, with its strict policy on visitors and in the way it coldly segregates itself from outside influences. Similarly, the farce that is the Bridge Party has strong undertones of the compulsory boarding school games, which Forster alludes to in the opening quotation. The Collector, despite trying to evoke a pleasant atmosphere, ‘knew something to the discredit of nearly every one of his guests, and was consequently perfunctory’: here he can be seen as a supervisory teacher-like figure of whom all the pupils are afraid. Indeed Aziz fears the worse by missing the party, believing that ‘he was going to be cashiered because he had not turned up’ (p.78). The distinct lack of enjoyment associated with the party, stemming from the fact that nobody (excepting Adela and Mrs Moore) wants to be there, is characteristic of the effects of public school rituals.In the novel it seems that most English are disinterested in displaying true ‘good form’ when it is directed towards the Indians, suggesting that the English will only make an effort to be pleasant to those whose opinion they are interested in. This obnoxious attitude, personified in Ronny and most of the English ladies in A Passage to India, clearly has a negative impact on the Indians. Towards the start of the novel, Aziz behaves admirably when Mrs Callendar and Mrs Lesley take his tonga:Aziz lifted his hat. The first [lady], who was in evening dress, glanced at the Indian and turned instinctively away.
‘Mrs. Lesley, it is a tonga,’ she cried.
‘Ours?’ inquired the second, also seeing Aziz, and doing likewise – both jumped in –
‘Go, I will pay you tomorrow,’ said Aziz to the driver, and as they went off he called courteously, ‘You are most welcome ladies.’ They did not reply, being full of their own affairs.’ (p.39)The abominable behaviour of the women only serves to emphasise the courteousness of Aziz: he values polite behaviour over an assertion of his own sense of self-respect. Interestingly it seems that the stereotypes of the two races are subverted in this passage: although the ladies are attired in ‘evening dress’, they comport themselves in a fundamentally antisocial manner by ignoring Aziz. He, in turn, displays typical ‘English’ charm, offering to pay for their ride and addressing them in a respectful manner of which they are undeserving: the behaviour of both parties is evocative of the ‘prefect and fagging’ system, in which the former has the right to be treated and treat others in any way he sees fit. The opinion that the Indians are not worthy of the English is thus being portrayed in a satirical light, while the incident with the tonga is in itself evidence of the flaws in this view.Aziz’s commendable values begin to alter soon after this event, particularly when he is antagonised by Ronny. When the latter interrupts a party between Adela, Godbole and Aziz, he insists on only addressing his remarks to the girl, and this time Aziz is ‘in no mood to be forgotten’. Until Ronny’s insolent arrival he has behaved perfectly decorously, but now he becomes ‘offensively friendly’. The reader is told that ‘Aziz was provocative. Everything he said has an impertinent flavour or jarred – [Adela] was puzzled by the sudden ugliness (p.93-4)’. This abrupt transformation of character indicates that Aziz has become less accommodating and more focussed on his rights and dignity: the haughtiness to which he has been rigorously exposed has been detrimental to his selflessness. It could therefore be argued that this public-school mentality has a dangerous capacity to reproduce itself.Another negative consequence of the public-school mentality is that it leads to an undeveloped capacity for emotion. This can be seen most clearly in the character of Henry Wilcox in Howards End, who ‘desired comradeship and affection, but feared them’ (p.168). He has been taught to repress his feelings, and the prospect of dealing with them is too overwhelming for him to contemplate. Margaret ultimately tries to offer support and understanding regarding his affair with Jackie, for instance, and his reaction is to try and release her from their engagement, insisting that ‘I can’t bear to talk of such things. We had better leave it’ (p.241). This suggests that he would rather lose his fiancÈe than face his conscience. His refusal to let Helen stay at Howards End because of her affair with Leonard is predominantly hypocritical, displaying hidden guilt about his own misdemeanours. Henry’s breakdown at the end of the novel is described as his ‘fortress [giving] way’ (p.325), and Forster is thus implying that extreme inhibition can be mentally injurious. Margaret is seen as a threat by Charles precisely because she connects with her emotions, something which he also is incapable of doing. When he runs over a cat, for instance, he continues driving while Margaret feels the need to jump out and attend to the animal. Charles is frustrated by her impulsive behaviour, complaining that ‘that woman means mischief’ (p.216). His inclination to forget the incident as soon as it occurred is debatably a metaphor for his way of glossing over emotional problems, and so he is perhaps secretly jealous of Margaret’s ability to come to terms with her sentiments.The character of Leonard Bast provides another contrast to this public-school mentality: although he clumsily attempts to adopt middle-class manners (his obsession with his ‘umbrella’ as a symbol of gentility is laughable), he is one of the most sensitive characters. His telling of his walk through the night, even if partly concocted, demonstrates a real sensitivity of emotion, while his assertion that ‘you ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all’ (p.127) conveys a desire – lacking in the male Wilcoxes – to connect with one’s soul. Admittedly, Leonard’s fate is gloomy and he is the only character to die, but the implication that his offspring will inherit Howard’s End is perhaps a way for Forster to applaud his emotional maturity: in contrast, Henry reaches a dead end with no prospects.The fact that Forster is clearly opposed to the public-school system and its values is responsible for much of the effectiveness of his writing, especially in Howards End and A Passage to India. His rigorous scepticism of rigid, middle-class behaviour leads to particularly vivid characterisation, and enhances the exciting tension prevalent in both novels. While he is hesitant in explicitly condemning public-school mentality – which is, incidentally, never clearly defined by Forster – his sly observations and cunning implications regarding the subject are significant. Even if one is reluctant to draw firm conclusions about his viewpoint, there can be no denying that it is a powerful vehicle for Forster’s wry wit.

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