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106 ILLEGITIMATE ORDER: COSMOPOLITANISM AND LIBERALISM IN FÖRSTER'S HOWARDS END By Mary Ellis Gibson (University of North Carolina, Greensboro) E. M. Forster's Howards End is a novel critics love to hate. More even than A Passage to India, Howards End unsettles its readers as it challenges both aesthetic and political premises. The usual tone of response to the novel is mingled delight and disappointment, delight in Förster's ironies and disappointment at his unhappy happy ending. Such delight and disappointment characterize what I would call the liberal reading of Forster's liberalism. They reflect a positive response to Forster's ideal of self-culture but a negative response to the familial and social order the novel finally creates. Forster's liberalism may be defined as a defense of individual freedom and personal dignity—a defense of freedom to "connect"; and connection seems possible in Howards End only as the relationships of power among individuals change at all levels. Howards End is seen to fail as a defense of liberal values when the liberal reader is unable to admit the parallels Forster suggests among personal choice, family structure, and economic structure. Förster's readers turn to his novel even now for an examination of social and political arrangements, but their premises often preclude attention to the novel's importance as a critique of cosmopolitanism and a proposal for an alternative "illegitimate " order. Those critics who praise Howards End usually find it attractive but strained: they argue that the ending of the novel exhibits the triumph of the personal at the expense of "the world" or "society," or the triumph of a not very attractive "feminine" principle at the expense of the masculine .1 Those who find Howards End more strained than rewarding argue that Forster demonstrates the "impotence of the liberal intelligentsia" without offering an alternative to liberal values: while the novel's theme is connection, its implications are collapse and recoil from the "human scene."2 In both these views Forster's novel is taken to offer an unconvincing meliorism, to support an untenable compromise between the outer world and the inner, between the material and the ideal. But while the liberal reading of Howards End calls for an answer to "liberal impotence," it ignores the thoroughness of Forster's critique of the British values. The very terms of the liberal reading—"impotence," "gelding," "the altar of private life"—block a clear perception of the restructuring of order that Howards End implies.3 107 Though Howards End is tinged with nostalgia for a lost rural peace, it can be read as a critique of the British Empire and the British family and as a critique showing the inevitable interdependence of the two. In Howards End Förster does not merely retreat to the sanctum of the personal and leave the public slowly to encroach; rather he explores their connections and begins to suggest a rethinking of the social structures supported by modern personal arrangements. He would replace cosmopolitan ideology and the structures it supports with an order based on "illegitimacy." Forster's own use of the term "cosmopolitanism" furnishes the best point of departure for reading Howards End. Though he does not develop his insight systematically through authorial comment, Forster's narrative voice does warn that "the Imperialist is not what he thinks or seems. He is a destroyer. He prepares the way for cosmopolitanism, and though his ambitions may be fulfilled the earth that he inherits will be gray."4 As Forster develops his cosmopolitans , it becomes clear that if they inherit the earth all inheritances will be measured by one standard. The grayness of cosmopolitanism is the uniformity implied in the binomial or "us-them" relationships of the cosmopolis. The imperial city obliterates differences by viewing all persons or societies from one uncritical, unitary, and totalizing perspective . Deviant or subject persons and societies are submerged in what Edward Said calls the silence about itself in the "metropolitan discourse."5 Forster reserves the term cosmopolitan to two groups of characters in Howards End, to Tibby Schlegel and the Wilcoxes, though only the Wilcoxes exhibit the new cosmopolitan or metropolitan perspective. Although Forster uses the...


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pp. 106-123
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Will Be Archived 2021
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