Howards End | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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Howards End | Chapters 15–16 | Summary

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Summary

Chapter 15

The Schlegel sisters go to a dinner and discussion group with other women. The topic is how the rich should spend their money. The Schlegel sisters bring up Mr. Bast, who is then used as a stand-in for all poor people in their debate about the obligation of the rich to the poor. Margaret argues that the poor should each be given a large, annual sum of money, in order to learn to become independent, rather than small, irregular bits of charity. The sisters happen upon Mr. Wilcox as they sit outside after the meeting. He is richer and more successful than ever and enjoys hearing about the subject of the debate at the discussion group. He does not venture to add to their ideas except to ask about the man who is its subject. When he learns that Mr. Bast is a clerk for the Porphyrion Fire Insurance Company, he tells Helen and Margaret that they should advise the man to leave and get another job. Mr. Wilcox believes the company will go out of business soon. The sisters are concerned for Mr. Bast and decide to write to him with this news. Mr. Wilcox also tells them that he and his family are not living at Howards End, which they no longer feels meets their needs, but have rented it to a tenant.

Chapter 16

In answer to the Schlegels' letter, Mr. Bast comes to tea. He wants to speak of literature, but Margaret and Helen ask him about his workplace, wishing to convey Mr. Wilcox's warning and advice that the company is likely to close. Mr. Bast thinks of the sisters as "Romance ... and he would not let Romance interfere with his life." He suspects that the sisters are trying to get inside information about the company in order to turn a profit in some way. Just as he is leaving in a huff, Evie and Mr. Wilcox arrive with some puppies. Margaret tries to explain her intentions to Mr. Bast, although he exasperates her. She argues that the Schlegels too "struggle against life's daily grayness." Mr. Bast leaves, and Helen goes after him. Mr. Wilcox doesn't think the Schlegel sisters should interact with people like Mr. Bast, explaining that "they aren't our sort." He also explains that people like Mr. Bast have a right to govern their own lives without interference and may be far happier than others suppose. Mr. Wilcox and Evie are titillated at the idea of Mr. Bast's nighttime stroll, suspecting him of risqué, or indecent, motives. But Mr. Wilcox becomes a bit jealous of Mr. Bast when Margaret insists that he is "a real man" who likes adventure, just like Mr. Wilcox. Evie tells her father she likes Helen a bit but doesn't care for Margaret. The narrator says that a suitor and marriage are in Evie's near future.

Analysis

The question of the responsibility of the rich to deal with the ills of modern society was a very real and disputed one, as illustrated in the differing opinions of the ladies at the dinner party in Chapter 15. Forster explores, rather explicitly, through the ladies' discussion circle, the social responsibility the bourgeois felt so keenly in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. This was a time when the newly super-rich, like railway and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in America, began to set up charitable organizations to benefit society and the less fortunate, believing it the duty of the wealthy to improve society with their excess funds. These types of organizations created large-scale social programs from the Carnegie Corporation's funding of libraries and universities to smaller, more local efforts like soup kitchens and clothing drives. There was a school of thought that held to the worry of the "earnest girl" in the discussion group that giving money to the poor would "pauperize" them or make them dependent upon charity, believing that the rich knew better what was in the best interest of the poor than they themselves. It is interesting to note that in Chapter 16, Mr. Wilcox, a self-made man rather than one born into wealth, disputes such a viewpoint, arguing instead that the poor should have the privacy and wherewithal to manage their own affairs and that they greatly resent interference.

Chapter 16 points up other class differences and how they block the attempt of people to "only connect." Mr. Bast wants to relive the glory of his previous literary discussion with the Schlegels, only to find them trying to warn him about losing his job instead. Once again the author contrasts romance and modernity, this time overtly through Mr. Bast's characterization of the Schlegel sisters as Romance itself. He sees them as an oasis from the grayness of the rest of his life, and he wishes to keep a distance between the two. Margaret claims that even they experience the dull grayness of everyday life, but readers know that everyday life for the Schlegels is a far cry from the difficulties of "Jacky and squalor" awaiting Mr. Bast at home.

Caught between being working class and having aspirations to improve himself through "Romance"—the world of art and literature—that he associates with the Schlegels, Mr. Bast becomes flustered and pretends to be certain that his company is safe and secure. When he originally met the Schlegels, he feared that they stole his umbrella to con him and possibly rob him. Here, he becomes defensive, struggling to maintain his pride and ease his disappointment by accusing them of trying to get inside information out of him about the insurance company for which he works.

In the process, Mr. Bast misses Margaret's compassionate attempt to connect with him. She recognizes his yearnings to improve himself through culture and through his magical nighttime walk as something important: "You tried to get away from the fogs that are stifling us all—away past books and houses to the truth. You were looking for a real home." What Margaret does not understand, however, is Mr. Bast's sense of pride or shame about the class differences between them, which Mr. Wilcox's clear division in his own mind between the haves and have-nots makes evident. In turn, Mr. Wilcox fails to understand Margaret's attempt to create a bridge between themselves and Mr. Bast, warning her that she "behave[s] much too well to people."

Readers see in Chapter 16 the first hints of Mr. Wilcox's romantic interest in Margaret but also an indication that Evie and Charles aren't going to like it. Margaret objects to Mr. Wilcox and Evie's suggestion that Mr. Bast was doing something untoward on his nighttime adventure, proclaiming him to be "a real man." Mr. Wilcox feels jealous of her comments, which suggests that he wishes her to be attracted to him instead. Readers should note that Mr. Wilcox is appalled when Mr. Bast suspects Margaret is trying to benefit financially from him. However, this is precisely what his own son and daughter have felt about Margaret when they learned of their mother's desire to leave her Howards End. Evie announces her dislike of Margaret outright, so readers may consider Chapter 16 as foreshadowing what may come if Mr. Wilcox were to act on his new feelings for Margaret.

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