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Howards End

E.M. Forster

Chapters 10-13

Chapters 5-9

Chapters 14-17

Summary

Margaret and Mrs. Wilcox go Christmas shopping together, and Margaret reflects on the muddiness and clumsiness of the Christmas holiday, thinking that it does a poor job of reflecting "the unseen." In conversation, she reveals to Mrs. Wilcox that the Schlegels will be forced to move away from Wickham Place in two or three years. When the lease expires, the house will be torn down and replaced with flats. Mrs. Wilcox is appalled, and invites Margaret to come to Howards End with her right then. Margaret, to Mrs. Wilcox's evident annoyance, declines. After being dropped off at home, Margaret regrets her decision, and hurries to the train station. She meets Mrs. Wilcox, who is thrilled that Margaret has changed her mind. But just then, Mr. Wilcox and Evie arrive back from a drive in their car, having crashed the car and taken the train into London. Mrs. Wilcox returns with them to their flat, leaving Margaret alone.

Not long after, Mrs. Wilcox dies, and is buried near Howards End, in a service observed by many of the poor local villagers. While the other Wilcoxes try to eat breakfast, Mr. Wilcox sits in his room remembering his wife's steady, unwavering goodness during their 30 years of marriage. The others sit downstairs, the Wilcox children in a repressed state of mourning, and Charles' scatterbrained wife, Dolly, in a state of awkward boredom. As Charles stomps about the garage, Dolly rushes out with a shocking piece of news: Mrs. Wilcox has left Howards End to Margaret. Charles and his father confer, and ultimately decide that Mrs. Wilcox cannot have meant it; they decide not to take any action based on the flimsy, handwritten note they were left. Charles is quite critical of Margaret, saying that she is more German than English, but Mr. Wilcox, though admitting that he finds her tiresome, says that he is certain she is honest.

Margaret, unbeknownst to the Wilcoxes, not only had nothing to do with Mrs. Wilcox's note, she did not even know about it. She has grown very fond of the Wilcoxes, and actually feels quite protective of them. When Mr. Wilcox sends her a trinket of Mrs. Wilcox's, she thinks that he is very generous. Helen returns from Stettin, having rejected a marriage proposal, and Tibby applies for a scholarship at Oxford.

Two years pass. Tibby enters Oxford, where he thrives--he does not make friends, but he loves the atmosphere. Soon, Margaret realizes that the Wickham Place lease will expire in only nine months, and that they will have to find a new house. She and Tibby discuss this when he is home on holiday, and also discuss what he plans to do with his life. She thinks he should work, but he says that he does not want a career. Helen runs in excitedly, saying that a bizarre woman has just called demanding to see her husband. This gaudily dressed creature (obviously Jacky, having found the Schlegels' card in Leonard's books) refused to believe that her husband was not in the house. The family tries to put the subject aside, but it lingers underneath their conversation.

Commentary

One of the remarkable stylistic features of Forster's novel is the way certain key images and phrases are repeated throughout it, forming a kind of symbolic shorthand for important thematic ideas. (If one reads the novel over a long period of time, it is possible to miss this repetition entirely, but if one reads it quickly, the repeated phrases quickly begin to stick out.) These phrases include: "the outer world of telegrams and anger," used by the Schlegels to describe the pragmatic life of the Wilcoxes; the "goblins marching across the universe" that Helen perceives in the third and fourth movements of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Chapter 5, used to describe the feeling of desolation and meaninglessness that haunts the edges of the intellectual life and challenges the notion that humanity is capable of greatness; "plain question, plain answer," a notion used by the Wilcox men to imply that the truth is immediate and knowable, but rejected by Mrs. Wilcox as overly simplistic; and the relation of "the seen" to "the unseen," used by both Schlegel sisters to describe the conflict between the actual, material world and the world of ideals and spirit.

The last concept emerges in Chapter 10 as Margaret thinks about the conflict between the practice of Christmas, with its materialism and its decoration, and the spiritual meaning of Christmas. The idea recurs throughout the novel, until Helen finally concludes that it is only the idea of death that makes "the unseen" relevant: If people lived forever, life would be all money and toil, but because people know that they must die, they are interested in meaning. The motif of the goblins reappears in Chapter 13 when it is used to describe the Schlegels' lingering sense of Jacky's abhorrent presence, which, like a goblin footfall, gives Margaret an idea of the abyss of poverty and desolation from which she is separated only by money.

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