Howards End is E.M. Forster's symbolic exploration of the social, economic, and philosophical forces at work in England during the early years of the twentieth century. Written in 1910, the novel offers an extraordinarily insightful look at the life of England in the years preceding World War I. Preoccupied with the vast social changes sweeping his nation, which was then at the height of its Imperial world influence, Forster set out to address the question critic Lionel Trilling expressed as, "Who shall inherit England?"--meaning, which class of people would come to define the nation? To answer the question, he explores the lives of three different groups of people, each of which represents a particular social class or class aspect: the literary, cultural Schlegel family, who represent the idealistic and intellectual aspect of the upper classes; the materialistic, pragmatic Wilcox family, who represent the "solid" English work ethic and conventional social morality; and the impoverished Bast family, headed by a lower-middle-class insurance clerk who desperately hopes books will save him from social and economic desolation.

Forster explores these three groups by setting them against one another in relief, gradually intertwining their stories until they are inextricably linked. Helen Schlegel has a brief romance with Paul Wilcox; Margaret Schlegel befriends Ruth Wilcox, then marries Henry Wilcox after Ruth's death; Jacky Bast is revealed as a former lover of Henry; Helen has an affair with Leonard Bast and ultimately bears his child. In the end, Mrs. Wilcox's estate of Howards End--a former farm now within distant sight of the outskirts of London--comes to represent England as a whole, and the question of "Who shall inherit England?" symbolically centers around each character's relationship to Howards End. At the end of the novel, Margaret, Helen, Helen and Leonard's son, and Henry all live at Howards End; Henry makes provision for Margaret to inherit the house, suggesting that, like the characters of the novel, the classes of England are mixing beyond recognition, and will be forced to adapt to an England that they can all share.

In addition to the thematic role played by houses in the novel (the Schlegel house on Wickham Place also becomes an important symbol of their class and family identity), Forster explores the symbolic value of other objects and ideas, including money. Continually contrasting the "seen" with the "unseen"--the physical, material world of the Wilcoxes with the imaginative, spiritual world of the Schlegels--Forster posits the possibility that, ultimately, the universe has no meaning, that all of life is simply a struggle for subsistence, represented by toil for money. This is the core of Helen's realization at the performance of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony in Chapter 5, when she imagines "goblins" marching across the universe, observing that there is nothing great in human beings. However, Helen eventually realizes that the idea of death forces people to confront the idea of the unseen and forces them to look for meaning in their lives. In this regard, life is not merely a quest for enough money; money is an important part of life, because it enables leisure and security, but it is not all of life. Then again, Helen realizes this largely because she has money: It does no good for the doomed Leonard Bast.