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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 306-328

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The Narrator in the Closet: The Ambiguous Narrative Voice in Howards End

Paul B. Armstrong

Although most of queer theory's attention to Forster has been directed at the explicitly homosexual text Maurice, the epistemology of the closet would suggest that the most interesting and important evidence of this author's secret sexual identity might be found in less obvious places. For the very reason that Howards End has for so long seemed unusually normal, it is therefore a likely site for discovering effects of Forster's duality as a writer who is self-conscious about passing. Eschewing the pyrotechnics of other early modern novels, Howards End has seemed to many a holdover of Victorian conventions of realistic, omniscient narration. Some readers have sensed, however, that this appearance is deceptive. As Elizabeth Langland notes, "Forster is a difficult writer to approach because he appears simple" (252). Pointing to "the unease that lurks below the groomed surfaces of this book" (161), Kenneth Graham finds that "along with the strong sense of masterful control in plot and in general analytic intelligence, there is unsteadiness of an enlivening kind that challenges the reader's attention at every moment" (159). This indirectness and strategic instability manifest Forster's doubleness "as a queer artist, as one who seeks to disrupt the economy of the normal" even as he tries to avoid being exposed, "a Queer Forster [End Page 306] who remains elusive, sharp-witted, and multifarious" (Martin and Piggford 4) and "is far too slippery to be contained within any simple category" (6). The ambiguous narrator of Howards End is elusive in just this way. He invokes the powers of narrative authority even as he undercuts them, he offers definitive wisdom even as he exposes its partiality, and he pretends to mediate oppositions even as he demonstrates the ineluctability of difference. These contradictions convert the double structure of the closeted secret into a way of playing with the reader's assumptions about normative beliefs and normative relations, but in a game so subtle and slippery that it can pass without notice or can seem to be a failure in the use of conventional techniques.

My analysis of these contradictions is first of all an attempt to make sense of formal features of Forster's novel that have been insufficiently appreciated or have seemed flawed or incongruous because their function as expressions of his closeted identity has not been understood. In the end, however, the intent of this formal analysis is to suggest a reconsideration of Forster's politics. I want to work through form to politics because Howards End's most interesting and important commentary on social relations, power, and ideology is located in the contradictory, elusive relation between the narrator and the reader. If the ambiguities of the novel's narrator act out Forster's ambivalences about accepting or refusing his community's conventions, then this is more than a personal drama inasmuch as the games the narrator plays with the reader stage the defining oppositions of Forster's liberalism. This politics is more subtle and complex than is typically credited because it envisions a mode of community based not on unity or solidarity but on nonconsensual relationships of mutuality that do not erase difference and heterogeneity. Such a vision is inherently contradictory and, I think, deeply informed by Forster's closeted sense of belonging to a community with which he was not at one. Forster's contradictory liberalism imagines a mode of nonconsensual reciprocity that is represented nowhere in the text itself but that defines the narrator's relationship to the reader. This is why elucidating the politics of Howards End requires an analysis of form. The contradictions of Forster's narrator make sense of the contradictions of his liberalism (and the reverse is also true).

As is well-known, Forster did not fully recognize his homosexual orientation until after publishing Howards End in 1910, and he did not [End Page 307] have his first sexual experience with another man...


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