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Howards End | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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Howards End | Chapters 17–18 | Summary



Chapter 17

Margaret has not found a new home, and she is anxious to secure a place before they leave for their yearly visit to their aunt's in Swanage. The September deadline of the end of their lease also looms over her. Just as she resolves to really buckle down to the task she receives an invitation to lunch from Evie. Although she doesn't like Evie, she is touched by the personal invitation. She meets her, and her new fiancé Mr. Cahill, but the two only have eyes for each other. Mr. Wilcox joins the group for lunch, and Margaret deduces the whole thing has been his idea. Twice he overrides Margaret's choices from the menu and she submits to his decisions for her. Listening to her real-estate woes, he advises her to decide where she wants to live and what she wants to pay. She complains that she has no such control over her choice because "houses are alive." She suggests that Mr. Wilcox visit an amusing restaurant offering "body-building dishes" to patrons interested in the spiritual plane. After assuring himself that Margaret only finds such things amusing, she asks him about Howards End. She says he should kick out the current tenant and rent it to the Schlegels. The intimacy between Mr. Wilcox and Margaret continues to grow, and the two do visit the restaurant Margaret suggested, with Tibby as a chaperone. The Schlegels leave for Swanage, Mrs. Munt's vacation home.

Chapter 18

At her aunt's for vacation, Margaret receives a letter from Mr. Wilcox offering to rent her his home on Dulcie Street, which he plans to leave due to Evie's marriage. He instructs her to come see the house at once to make her decision. Margaret's intuition tells her that Mr. Wilcox has an ulterior motive and may be interested in getting her alone to propose. She travels back to London and goes with Mr. Wilcox to see the house. She greets Mr. Wilcox's chauffeur, Crane, by name, to Mr. Wilcox's surprise. She says she knows the name of his maid, too. As he shows her around, Mr. Wilcox asks her to be his wife. She pretends to be surprised because she thinks that is how he expects her to react. She handles the situation delicately as she knows "he must never be bothered with emotional talk, or with a display of sympathy." Although she is filled with happiness, she says only that she will write to him her answer. She imagines Mrs. Wilcox "surveying the scene" as "a welcome ghost."


Modern readers may be annoyed or alarmed at what seem like chauvinism or controlling behavior on the part of Mr. Wilcox toward Margaret, as well as her submissive, self-effacing responses. In Chapter 17 he overrules her food choices, not once but twice, ordering something different for her. She seems happy enough to let him. In Chapter 18, although she suspects he is going to propose to her, she acts surprised because she thinks that's what he wants, and she doesn't share her happiness at his proposal because "he must not be bothered with emotional talk." She gives up what she wants and hides her real responses in deference to his desires and needs. Readers may speculate that such behavior is a product of social expectations and gender norms of the day, or they may interpret her submissions as a more calculated performance to get what she wants. In light of Margaret's sincerity and genuine feelings of love for Mr. Wilcox, if the narrator is to be believed, other readers may conclude that she behaves in this manner out a spirit of affection and concern for Mr. Wilcox's feelings.

The third-person narrator of Howards End, in addition to providing readers with access to various characters' thoughts and emotions, often acts in this way as a moral go-between for readers. The narrator reminds readers not to condemn a character too quickly, but to see that character as flawed, but human, even admirable. For example, the narrator acknowledges that "some day ... there may be no need for [Mr. Wilcox's] type," but continues, "homage is due [to him] from those who think themselves superior, and who possibly are." This comment manages to balance criticism of Mr. Wilcox (as a "type" who will one day disappear, and as inferior in some respects) with an admonishment to readers to show him some deserved respect. In this way, the narrator often helps keep the moral ups and downs of the novel and its characters in balance.

In Chapters 17 and 18 Margaret is also revealed to be deeply intuitive. She deduces the real reason behind Mr. Wilcox's letter easily, as she has had an inkling of his feelings since their lunch with Evie. Her intuition about his feelings recalls Mrs. Wilcox's knowledge of Paul and Helen's affair. As she perceives Mrs. Wilcox's "welcome ghost" in the current Wilcox home in the moments after Mr. Wilcox has proposed, it seems clear Margaret, perhaps to become the new Mrs. Wilcox, is truly the "spiritual heir" Mrs. Wilcox desired.

In Chapter 18 the author creates a major plot point in Mr. Wilcox's proposal to Margaret. As readers are already aware, the novel centers around the connection between their two families. First they were connected when they met casually as travelers, then more closely by the kiss between Paul and Helen. Their connection grew with the friendship of Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret, then with Mrs. Wilcox's secret bequest to her of Howards End. Now the two families may be united through marriage. This development promises to unite their two narratives into one, although there are storm clouds on the horizon given the dislike and suspicion the Wilcox children have of Margaret and her siblings. Helen too has expressed dislike for Mr. Wilcox. Readers are left to wonder, at this point, what the effects of this development in the plot will be.

Despite his proposal of marriage, Mr. Wilcox has yet to reveal his deceased wife's bequest of Howards End to Margaret. She has told him the Schlegels have yet to find a new house, and even suggests that he should rent Howards End to them. Throughout their discussions, he makes no comment whatsoever about the fact that Mrs. Wilcox wanted Margaret to have it. In fact, they are going through the house on Ducie Street because he has proposed to rent it to the Schlegels. A man who is eminently practical, Mr. Wilcox's hesitation to share the information with Margaret is disturbing: does he want to marry her because he loves her or because, in doing so, he will ensure that Howards End remains within his family?

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