Margaret Schlegel, approximately 29 at the start of the novel, has been responsible for raising her sister, Helen, and brother, Tibby, after the early deaths of their parents. She is part of a privileged class of people who draw money annually from investments, enough to keep her from worrying about finances or having to work. This grants her a degree of independence. She is free to continue her enjoyment of the "inner life" through literature, philosophy, and music, tastes her parents instilled in her from a young age. Margaret is generous, wise, and spiritual. She strives to empathize with others, although her comfortable income sometimes insulates her from a full understanding of what it means to be poor. Nevertheless, her unique ability to connect the romantic and modern, the idealistic and the practical, the intellectual and the emotional, allows her to be a force for reconciliation and understanding. Margaret's sensitivity to place, especially to what makes a house a good home, causes her to fall in love with Howards End, the Wilcox's modest country house, which itself is a symbol of healing and rejuvenation. Despite the fact that she realizes some of the limitations of her suitor, Mr. Wilcox, a practical, ruthless businessperson who avoids emotion, Margaret comes to love the widower. She marries him, against the wishes of both his children and her beloved sister, Helen. During her marriage, however, she struggles to retain her compassionate, independent spirit. Mr. Wilcox is also sexist, and Margaret gradually takes on a more submissive, feminine role, which enables her husband to maintain his sense of dominance and control. Over time, she becomes caught up in his world and even begins to share his sensibility, losing her sense of herself. After he shows a lack of empathy when Helen becomes pregnant out of wedlock, Margaret realizes how lacking in empathy and integrity her husband really is, leading her to rebel against him. In the end, her urge to "only connect," or to favor compassion over exclusion, leads her to continue to live with her husband at Howards End.
Leonard Bast, 20 years old when the novel begins, like so many young men after the Industrial Revolution, has come to London from the countryside for work. He works as a clerk at an insurance company, which barely makes him enough to survive, and marries Jacky, a former prostitute, despite his family's objections. In the novel, Mr. Bast represents the lower classes, the terrible struggles they face, and the chasm that divides the rich and poor. Mr. Bast aspires to more than the day-to-day monotony he faces in the city. Inspired by books and music, he longs to experience the poetry, adventure, and freedom to be found in the beauty of nature. To talk about the ideas and books with the Schlegel sisters, who he looks up to as cultural role models, is thrilling to him. He is wracked with guilt after sleeping with Helen, as though he had spoiled a work of art. Mr. Bast is conscientious even in his despair, when he rejects an offer of money from Helen and is reduced to begging his family for money in order to keep him and Jacky from starving. It is his desire to confess his mistake with Helen to Margaret that leads to his death, when circumstances lead him to cross paths with Charles Wilcox.
Helen Schlegel, a vivacious young woman of independent means, embraces life and enjoys cultural and intellectual pursuits, prizing them above almost anything else. She passionately defends her convictions and is easily moved, whether by art or social injustice. Like her brother and sister, she is somewhat insulated by her comfortable lifestyle, but is open to exploring the social realities of others who aren't so lucky. When the Basts are starving, it is Helen who steps in to offer them food and money. Helen values the inner life, also known as the "unseen." This is the world of ideas and imagination that art and culture represent. She and her siblings are half-German and half-English. They benefit from their late father's European education and tastes, which broadened their exposure to culture. Helen's love of the "inner life" and "the unseen," however, makes her idealistic, and sometimes inflexible or rash. She is willing to step forward to right a wrong, as in Mr. Bast's case, but may go about it in a headstrong way that is less helpful than she intends. Life experience, including an unexpected pregnancy, tempers her impulse to go to extremes and broadens her empathy and self-awareness by the end of the novel.
Henry Wilcox is "a man of business," the calculating owner of a very successful rubber company, which is the product of the Industrial Revolution and Britain's colonial expansion. He has made a fortune, and he and his family enjoy multiple houses, cars, and other material goods. Mr. Wilcox avoids all things emotional whenever possible, preferring to focus on generating ever-greater money and status. In his drive for power and success, Mr. Wilcox lacks the ability to empathize or take responsibility for the negative effects of his actions on others. This "obtuseness" persists despite all his second wife Margaret's efforts to show him how to connect one's inner and outer lives, to balance emotion with rationality. Mr. Wilcox is a misogynist, which was more common than not in Edwardian society. He believes women to be generally hysterical, weak, and incompetent, and therefore in need of male guidance and protection. For this reason, Margaret "plays the girl" in their marriage to protect her husband's need to feel dominant.