Friday, March 25, 2011

Howards End Conclusion

Phew. It feels like it was a long time coming. But we finally concluded our Howard's End book club with a dinner at our friend's new apartment on Waverly Place. Over gazpacho (secret ingredient: pureed avacado) and family style mexican, we discussed EM Forster's novel.
A few of the members of our book club were concerned with Forster's chauvinist depiction of women as option-less. Throughout the book, EM Forster via posh toff Henry Wilcox lampoons the domestic habits of women. Ms. Wilcox before her death gives Helen and Margaret the deed to Howard's End on a mere whim, the Shlegel's luncheon of ideas is lambasted as frivolity, and Margaret and Helen are given to fits of fancy i.e. Margaret jumps out of the carriage to save a runover dog and the men wonder aloud to themselves if perhaps she's been possessed by a devil. WWVWD*?

In the conclusion, EM Forster and the Merchant Ivory Collection provide us with a complex sort of closure. The sisters, Margaret and Helen Shlegel, are reunited once more at Howard's End. Margaret and Mr. Wilcox, the ultimate anti-feminist frat boy, stay together- despite Mr. Wilcox's past infidelity and his present hypocrisy. But Margaret has learned to properly manipulate her man (Yay EM Forster!?). It is she who holds the cards in this sad little family unit. We agreed (bar a few of us who, let's not lie, watched the movie instead of read the book) that the ending was far from happy.

Another point that was much discussed was the character of Leonard Bast. Most people felt that Leonard, despite his poetic soul, a trait that in many novels of the 19th century would be applauded, was sort of pathetic. They thought that his inability to come up with moral grounding for his ideas were to the detriment of his character. When the Schlegel sisters ask him why he chose to walk through the evening and into the day, he can't come up with an answer.

I think that Leonard is just another example of one of Forster's typically robust characters. Leonard isn't an idiot for not being able to base his feelings on anything; he just hasn't been given the same intellectual tools as families such as the Wilcoxs or the Shlegels. It's this degree of subtlety that keeps people returning to Forster. Throughout his body of work, Forster continually gives us characters that are flawed in ways that would have gone against the grain of their literary antecedents. It was an interesting effect to make Leonard a character that pushes the reader to form her (it's an all girls book club okay) own conclusions about the traditionally lauded stereotype 'pauper with a heart of gold' storyline.

EM Forster was, of course, a member of Virginia Woolf's Bloomsbury group and he would have been intimately familiar with early 20th century fiction's cliches and tired storylines. It's like a breath of fresh air to read a novel where the characters, plot, and ending have been turned on its side and reexamined.

*What would Virgina Woolf do?

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