Monday, August 31, 2009

Forster's Howards End and Marx's The Communist Manifesto

Having read these two works concurrently, perhaps it was inevitable that I would see a relationship between them. Marx's claim that the "history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles" (473) seems especially true of the society of Howards End. Of course, what English novel does not deal with class on one level or another?
It seems to me that the Wilcoxes in Howards End represent an ascendant middle class (or bourgeoisie) that oppresses a growing lower class (a sort of proletariat), represented by the Basts. The former intellectual ruling class that the Schlegels represent has becomes obsolete, and ridiculous even, in the face of this middle class and its ruthless practicality. While the Mr. Wilcoxes of the increasingly industrializing city have completely lost touch of the personal and think only in terms of the laws of economics, the former ruling class is too concerned with ideals no longer applicable to the conditions of the society in which they are living to accomplish anything.
This plays out most tragically with the interaction between Helen and Leonard Bast. She, clinging to the ideal of justice in a society no longer concerned with justice, is ill-equipped to save Bast from the economic machine that has flattened him. He is at first unable to attain upward mobility because he has such long working hours that he cannot educate himself. When Helen and Margaret mistakenly try to help him with a tip from the impersonal, exploitative bourgeois Mr. Wilcox, he becomes utterly ruined financially. Because his work at the insurance company had been so specialized, he is unfit for working at a bank and loses his position. Helen further demoralizes him by trying to help him gain a position with Mr. Wilcox. Helen, unable to accomplish anything with her ideology, turns to her body as the last resource, making the failed mental unification of the ruling class and proletariat a physical one. Of course, this fails also. The shame derived from these experiences, drives Bast to permanent unemployment and then to death.
Considering the tragic nature of the collisions of these classes, it was disturbing to me that once Leonard dies, the Schlegels and Wilcoxes suddenly live together in harmony. Margaret marries Mr. Wilcox and Helen, pregnant with Leonard's child, lives with them. Is this supposed to be a class reconciliation? How does the senselessness of Leonard's death (a bookcase falls on him and causes a heart attack) lead to the idyllic existence Forster describes at the close of the novel? I guess Forster's solution to class strife is to remove oneself from the city where the economic mechanism operates—it seems to be the house itself that saves them. Still, it seems implausible. I had the same feeling upon reading Marx's solution to the problem and its outcome. For Marx, abolishing private property would destroy the bourgeoisie so that "we shall have an association, in which the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all" (491). In both cases, the violence it takes to get out from under the economic machine would seem to make a peaceful existence impossible.

1 comment:

  1. Very interesting. I am reading Howard's End for a class and came to the conclusion that the book is appropriate for a communist reading especially since the book seems to say that Bast cannot handle the burden of responsibility (his death is very symbolic).