The Capitalist in Howards End by E.M. Forster – Novel Analysis
A Case for Henry’s Humanity
“Preachers or scientists may generalize, but we know that no generality is possible about those whom we love…” claims the narrator of E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End (196). While in this particular moment the narrator is suggesting that a general or unclear cause of death, and the equally unclear afterlife that awaits the dying, is unsuitable for the grieving loved ones, the sentiment that a loved one defies a generality or “type” is useful in considering the many characters in the novel. It is the sentiment that allows readers to see Henry Wilcox, who appears to be the epitome of the emotionally stunted capitalist, as potentially more human than other characters, such as the cultured intellect Helen Schlegel, might suggest. Closer reading indicates that the character of Henry Wilcox, and therefore all the “Wilcoxes” of the world, is more nuanced than readers and some of the “Schlegels” of the world may wish to acknowledge.
From Helen’s opening letters, the sense of Henry Wilcox is determined at once: the Wilcox patriarch bullies porters, openly suggests Helen is dimwitted (“…they think me a noodle—at least, Mr. Wilcox does…”), and charmingly denies the importance of women’s suffrage and equality (5-7). The addition of charm only initially makes the many “horrid” things Henry says easy to swallow, and once the charm fades away—that is, when Helen greets the Wilcoxes the morning after she and Paul determine to be married and realizes how disastrous it would be to mention it in front of Henry—Helen is determined to perceive Henry as the focal point in a family obsessed with the material life at the cost of personal relations (21-22). Unfortunately for Helen, this characterization gradually falls through when Henry’s actions, particularly those related to his courtship of Margaret, aren’t filtered through Helen’s bias.
Henry’s courtship of Margaret is certainly not romantic in the traditional sense. He makes his daughter Evie invite Margaret out to dinner, where he “just happens” to show up (110); he invites Margaret to view his Ducie Street house on the pretense that the Schlegels might find it a suitable place to move, when in fact he means to get Margaret alone to propose to her (119); his next encounter with her is almost entirely a discussion of their economic situation; and indeed their marriage ceremony’s most notable quality is that it is “very quiet,” without even the accompaniment of music (184). Barring two sudden outbursts of passion in his life (kissing Margaret in Mrs. Munt’s garden and sleeping with Jacky a decade ago), it seems that no grand gesture of love or devotion effervesces from the stoic capitalist. Here, Helen’s characterization of the man is not far off. However, the fact that Henry actively courts a woman whose personal and economic values clash with his own rejects a simplified or generalized idea of the man.
In addition to his humanizing romantic exploits, Henry gradually appeals to the common sense of his betrothed and, in turn, of the reader. Margaret herself acknowledges that he is “not a rebuke, but a stimulus, and banished morbidity…he preserved a gift that she supposed herself to have already lost—not youth’s creative power, but its self-confidence and optimism” (117). Moreover, Margaret claims, “‘If Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years…[t]here would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even… Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm’” (126-27). Whether it is the competence of experience or if it is simply a driven spirit, there is something intrinsically likeable about the Wilcox patriarch. It’s what makes Helen initially accept his criticism and is what allows Leonard Bast to accept his business counsel. It defies the stuffy, over-simplified “type” that the cultured intellectual might label him and emphasizes his humanity.
Indeed, Henry Wilcox is complex in an aggravating way. He may easily be hated for his dismissal of the Basts’ economic suffering, for his dismissal of women’s moves toward independence, for his manipulative tactics in securing Margaret’s acceptance of marriage, and for so many other qualities that can strike the cultured intellectual like Helen as inhumane and unjust. But to dismiss his own awkward efforts to connect is to dismiss the inherent humanity of all those who have accepted, and now hold dear, that material outer world of “anger and telegrams,” that world of physical and emotional distance, that world of wealth without meaning. Even at its most dispassionate moments, the character of Henry Wilcox subverts the caricature of The Capitalist and emphasizes one of the many iterations of The Human.
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