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  • Only Connect:Moral Judgment, Embodiment, and Hypocrisy in Howards End

Almost all readings of E. M. Forster’s Howards End note the famous epigraph—“Only connect…”—but it is not at all obvious how we are supposed to understand it. Connect what, exactly? Here, I propose a new interpretation: that to connect is to come to terms with one’s own embodiment. This notion ought to be of interest to moral philosophers for two reasons: first, because the failure to connect represents a significant form of moral confusion, and second, because this form of confusion is one to which moral philosophers are particularly likely to be subject.

It is here that the precise point of Forster’s manner appears.

. . . The plot suggests eternal division, the manner reconciliation; the plot speaks of clear certainties, the manner resolutely insists that nothing can be quite so simple. “Wash ye, make yourselves clean,” says the plot, and the manner murmurs, “If you can find the soap.”

—Lionel Trilling1

If a great work of literature is one that admits of many interpretations, then E. M. Forster’s Howards End has—at the very least—a great epigraph. “Only connect . . .”—only connect what, exactly? Various readings have been suggested, most of them plausible: Forster is expressing his wish for “the emergence of a just, harmonious, and whole society” that would overcome the social and political “disconnections” of Edwardian [End Page 399] England; he is drawing our attention to the significance of the emotional connections between individuals; he is implicitly acknowledging the difficulty of connecting “the prose and the passion” of life.2 It is tempting simply to say that all of these readings are correct: each of them identifies an important theme of Howards End, and each is supported by at least one important passage in the novel. The idea of “connection” can be understood in many different ways, and clearly a part of Forster’s aim is to draw our attention to that very complexity and ambiguity. At the same time, however, it seems to me that there is a deeper unity here that is worth exploring. There are many different forms of “connection” in Howards End, but by taking seriously the possibility that there may be something common to these forms, I hope to be able to shed light both on the novel itself and on an important aspect of moral agency that seems to me to have been underappreciated by moral philosophers.

Before we even get into the novel itself, however, we are faced with an immediate problem in interpreting the epigraph: it is not a full sentence. It consists of only two words followed by an ellipsis (“Only connect . . .”). Alistair Duckworth has suggested that an understanding of Forster’s punctuation is essential to an understanding of the epigraph. What the ellipsis should be telling us, Duckworth argues, is that this is an optative construction, not an imperative: we are being presented not with a command, but with a wish.3 This seems plausible enough, but it is not the only possible reading. We might also take the epigraph as a hortative—still not a command, but closer to it; more like an invitation. What I hope to show is that, if we read it in this way, the epigraph can be taken to have a double significance. On the one hand, it announces a refrain: this invitation—the invitation to connect—will be one that is shared (with both success and failure) among the characters in the novel. At the same time, however, the epigraph extends an invitation to us, as readers. What this invitation means, of course, is something that will only become clear once our reading of the novel is already underway.

It is important to emphasize, having said all of this, that this paper is not intended primarily as a piece of literary criticism. I hope that what I have to say about Howards End will not seem unfaithful to the text, but my main aim here is philosophical: I am interested in what the novel may have to contribute to our understanding of certain philosophical problems. It is worth noting right from the start that philosophers have very different ideas about the way in which a literary text may be said to “contribute to our understanding” of philosophical problems. On one well-established view, works of literature aid philosophical reflection by [End Page 400] providing us with case studies: vivid examples of human life that may be adduced as support for one answer to a given philosophical question over another. On another view, however, it is a mistake for a philosopher to approach a work of literature with the assumption that the relevant philosophical questions can be “given” in advance. The study of literature may contribute to philosophy by challenging our understanding of what the questions are; it may bring us to ask new questions, or see the old ones from a different perspective.4

This latter approach is the one with which I am in sympathy. Part of the power of Howards End is the way in which it both opens up a field for certain philosophical questions to be asked and allows us to reflect upon what it means to ask those questions; what our manner of asking them may say about us as questioners. By inviting us to “connect” but leaving it up to us to work out what that might mean, Forster involves us in his story in a way that both invites and presents a challenge to philosophical reflection.

The structure of the rest of the paper will be as follows. I present in section 1 a very brief summary of the main lines of the plot of Howards End. In section 2, I take up the question of what it means to extend the invitation to “connect” by looking at the climactic scene of the novel in which Margaret tells Henry that he “cannot connect.” I consider two possible readings of this criticism that have been discussed in the recent literature, and argue that neither of them is quite right. In section 3, I develop my own reading by looking back through the text to previous instances of “connection,” using these instances to bring out what I take to be the most illuminating interpretation of Margaret’s words. My claim, to put it briefly, is that Henry’s failure to connect is a failure to come to terms with his own embodiment. Throughout the novel, Henry is constantly attempting to struggle free of the connections that bind him to particular people, places, and even his own body. He represents the Kantian ideal of freedom gone haywire: an individual attempting to transcend his empirical self in order to identify himself as pure rational will. From Margaret’s perspective, the problem with Henry is simply that he has forgotten who he really is. In section 4, I return again to the epigraph to consider how we, as readers, ought to understand the invitation to connect. Philosophical interpretations of Howards End have generally assumed that the proper response to a character like Henry is one of straightforward moral disapproval; I will suggest that such a response to Henry puts us at risk of forgetting who we are and thus failing, in our own way, to “connect.” [End Page 401]


Howards End tells the story of two upper-middle-class families in Edwardian England (the novel was first published in 1910, and is given a contemporary setting). The Schlegels—two sisters, Margaret and Helen, and their brother, Tibby—are liberal, intellectual, and of independent means. The Wilcoxes—Henry, the patriarch; his wife, Ruth; and their children Charles, Paul, and Evie—are (with the notable exception of Ruth Wilcox) practical, business-minded, and proudly unsentimental. Over the course of the novel, these two families are brought together in various ways: Helen’s brief relationship with Paul, Ruth Wilcox’s friendship with Margaret, and (after Ruth’s death, which takes place early in the novel), Margaret’s marriage to Henry. Through these interactions, we watch very different personalities and ideals attract and repel one another, and the Wilcox family home—Howards End—becomes both the object of an inheritance dispute and a symbol of the contested future of England.

In the midst of all of this, Leonard and Jacky Bast, a couple of limited means struggling to cling to “the extreme verge of gentility,” initially provide an occasion for the Schlegel sisters’ attempts to seek justice for the lower classes. But the Basts subsequently become the subject of several damaging revelations—Helen’s pregnancy by Leonard and Henry’s long-ago affair with Jacky—that cause havoc among members of the other two families. After a dramatic climax in which Charles kills Leonard in a fit of rage and Henry’s emotional fortress collapses around him, Margaret is left to pick up the pieces and establish an unlikely household of herself, Henry, and Helen (with baby) at Howards End.


Let us begin our analysis with the novel’s climactic scene. Margaret’s younger sister, Helen, has just returned, unmarried and heavily pregnant, to England, and the Wilcoxes—who, as Helen noted much earlier in the novel, are of the opinion that love “means marriage settlements, death, death duties”5—immediately swing into action. Henry demands to know who the father is so that he can be tracked down and made to marry Helen. Margaret, meanwhile, is more concerned about being present emotionally for her sister. She asks Henry’s permission for the two of them to spend the night at Howards End. Henry, failing to see the emotional significance of the house to Margaret and Helen, and [End Page 402] worrying that once Helen is established at Howards End he may never get her out, refuses. He is all too aware of the potential scandal brewing and, as he says, “I have my children and the memory of my dear wife to consider.” At this point Margaret snaps. She had already agreed to forgive Henry when she found out about his earlier affair with Jacky. Now, she can contain herself no longer:

“Not any more of this!” she cried. “You shall see the connection if it kills you, Henry! You have had a mistress—I forgave you. My sister has a lover—you drive her from the house. Do you see the connection? Stupid, hypocritical, cruel—oh, contemptible!—a man who insults his wife when she’s alive and cants with her memory when she’s dead. A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognize them, because you cannot connect. I’ve had enough of your unweeded kindness. I’ve spoilt you long enough. All your life you have been spoiled. Mrs. Wilcox spoiled you. No-one has ever told you what you are—muddled, criminally muddled. Men like you use repentance as a blind, so don’t repent. Only say to yourself: ‘What Helen has done, I’ve done.’”

(HE, p. 308)

What does Margaret mean when she tells Henry that he “cannot connect”? In his article “The Breadth of Moral Character,” Daniel Brudney observes that it is tempting simply to read Margaret as accusing Henry of moral inconsistency. Since he had an extramarital affair with Jacky, he cannot judge Helen for having an extramarital affair with Leonard. The problem with this reading, as Brudney points out, is that Henry never attempts to represent his own affair as morally justifiable. Indeed, when Margaret finds out about his affair, his first reaction is to offer to release her from their engagement. If anything, Henry’s judgment of Helen looks like an entirely consistent application of moral principles. True: what Helen has done, he has done, but as far as Henry is concerned it was wrong when he did it and equally wrong when Helen did it.

Brudney suggests that in order to understand Margaret’s claim that Henry “cannot connect,” we need to understand her to be talking about something more than an inconsistent application of moral principles.

[What] Henry is really blind to is the emotional connection between Margaret and Helen. It is that whose import he ignores. He is rejecting, without understanding, less Helen’s than Margaret’s request. His is a failure not of principle but of sensibility. . . . Henry does not see how [End Page 403] his refusal to let Helen stay at Howards End is a great harm to Margaret: all else aside, Helen is Margaret’s very dear sister, Helen deeply wants to spend the night at Howards End, and Margaret deeply wants to make this possible. Henry’s greatest deficiency is in having a view of the world that inhibits him from understanding what would count as a harm to his wife and so set a moral claim on him. This amounts to a failure of knowledge which is, in context, also a failure of love.6

Call this the “sensibility reading.” (A similar reading of the same passage is also suggested by Alice Crary.7) An advantage of this reading is that it accords with other accounts of Henry’s failings that we find elsewhere in Howards End. Earlier in the novel the narrator describes him as “obtuse”:

He simply did not notice things, and there was no more to be said. He never noticed that Helen and Frieda were hostile, or that Tibby was not interested in currant plantations; he never noticed the lights and shades that exist in the grayest conversation, the finger-posts, the milestones, the collisions, the illimitable views. Once—on another occasion—she scolded him about it. He was puzzled, but replied with a laugh: “My motto is Concentrate. I’ve no intention of frittering away my strength on that sort of thing.”

(HE, p. 187)

I think that Brudney and Crary are right to think that Henry suffers from a defect in moral sensibility, but it is not clear that this defect is really what Margaret is talking about in the passage at issue. When she tells him that he “cannot connect,” she seems to be concerned less with his inability to understand her relationship with Helen, and more with his inability to recognize a true description of himself: “A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognize them, because you cannot connect.” “Connecting” here seems to have an essentially reflexive aspect. Failing to connect is failing to understand something about oneself. Although Brudney’s sensibility reading reflects a genuine shortcoming in Henry’s moral character, it does not really help us to understand the particular point that Margaret is making in this scene. In order to do this, we need to look further back in the novel to previous appearances of the notion of “connecting.” Although Forster uses the term in a variety of different contexts, I hope to show that his understanding of what it means to “connect” has an underlying unity that helps to illuminate what is most [End Page 404] interesting—and philosophically instructive—about the particular kind of criticism that Margaret is making.


One way to understand the idea of “connection” in Howards End is as a refrain that runs through the novel. Just as in the refrain of a poem or song, the words are the same in each case, but the meaning is subtly altered and deepened on each repetition. After the epigraph, the phrase “only connect” appears for the first time in chapter 22, when Margaret, having accepted Henry’s proposal of marriage, plans the reform of his character. Henry is described by the narrator as somewhat half-formed: “Outwardly he was cheerful, reliable, and brave; but within, all had reverted to chaos, ruled, so far as it was ruled at all, by an incomplete asceticism. Whether as boy, husband, or widower, he had always the sneaking suspicion that bodily pleasure is bad, a belief that is desirable only when held passionately” (HE, p. 186). Margaret aims to remedy this situation: “Mature as he was, she might yet be able to help him with the building of the rainbow bridge that should connect the prose in us with the passion” (HE, p. 186). “Connecting” in this case, then, seems to be a matter of connecting the disparate parts of oneself: “Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die” (HE, pp. 186–87).

The problem that Margaret is setting out to solve is not difficult to recognize. Her husband-to-be is a man formed by the English public schools that Forster detested: outwardly committed to a strictly moralistic view of sexual relations, inwardly torn apart by feelings of lust and guilt that, in Henry’s case, culminate in the affair with Jacky (although this episode, having taken place during his marriage to Ruth, is as yet unknown to Margaret). As his wife-to-be, Margaret sees herself as uniquely placed to demonstrate the possibility of a life in which bodily pleasure and high moral ideals are capable not merely of coexistence but connection—connection between two aspects of the same man.

In this case, then, the significance of connection seems relatively clear. For a person to be “disconnected” is for him to be at war with himself in the sense that Plato describes so vividly. Henry, indeed, looks rather like the oligarchic soul of the Republic. Finding himself beset with [End Page 405] desires whose character he is powerless to control, the oligarch chooses to keep them in check “by compulsion and fear.”8 Unlike the aristocrat, who is able to shape his desires in accordance with his understanding of the good, the oligarch can only beat them down by force. Indeed, in an important sense, the oligarch denies that his desires are really his at all—they are alien forces at work within him. Henry, when he speaks of his affair with Jacky (which he is reluctant to do), does so in highly impersonal terms: “I am a man, and have lived a man’s past”; “we fellows all come to grief once in our time.” He admits that, during the time abroad in which the affair took place, he “longed for a woman’s voice,” but attributes this longing to being “far from good influences” (HE, p. 246). Margaret’s task, as she sees it, is to help him to accept his desire for intimacy as his, and to show him a way of living with it that does not require it to be separated off and quarantined.

The second appearance of connecting in the novel arises in a rather different context. Margaret has just returned to London, having visited Howards End for the first time:

Her evening was pleasant. The sense of flux which had haunted her all the year disappeared for a time. She forgot the luggage and the motor-cars, and the hurrying men who know so much and connect so little. She recaptured the sense of space, which is the basis of all earthly beauty, and, starting from Howards End, she attempted to realize England. She failed—visions do not come when we try, though they may come through trying. But an unexpected love of the island awoke in her, connecting on this side with the joys of the flesh, on that with the inconceivable. Helen and her father had known this love, poor Leonard Bast was groping after it, but it had been hidden from Margaret till this afternoon. It had certainly come through the house and old Miss Avery. Through them: the notion of “through” persisted; her mind trembled towards a conclusion which only the unwise have put into words. Then, veering back into warmth, it dwelt on ruddy bricks, flowering plum-trees, and all the tangible joys of spring.

(HE, pp. 204–5)

Here again we have a reference to the “joys of the flesh,” but this time there is no suggestion that sexual desire is at issue. If anything, the joys of the flesh seem to relate to the joys that Margaret experiences on her visit to Howards End: her delight in the proportions of the rooms, the beauty of the meadow outside. The contrast that we are invited to draw is between Margaret’s “sense of space” and the hurrying of the “men who know so much and connect so little.” In the house, Margaret [End Page 406] reminds herself that “ten square miles are not ten times as wonderful as one square mile, that a thousand square miles are not practically the same as heaven” (HE, p. 201).

What exactly is the point being made here? The narrator warns us that “only the unwise” have attempted to put Margaret’s conclusion into words. Nevertheless, it seems safe to hazard at least the following remarks. Margaret’s experience has to do with the sense of being limited in space and time. For the “hurrying men,” these limitations are simply an inconvenience; for Margaret, they offer a way of experiencing something deeper: a connection with “the inconceivable.” On a later visit to Howards End, Margaret reflects (via Forster’s style indirect libre), “In these English farms, if anywhere, one might see life steadily and see it whole, group in one vision its transitoriness and its eternal youth, connect—connect without bitterness until all men are brothers” (HE, p. 269). The idea of “seeing life whole,” of course, echoes Margaret’s appeal to Henry: “live in fragments no longer.” For the “hurrying men,” seeing life whole would require seeing as much of it as possible. For Margaret, on the other hand, seeing life whole is a matter of seeing just one small part of it in all of its distinctness and specificity.

The idea of “connecting without bitterness” that we see in this passage provides another echo, this time of Margaret’s response to Henry’s social circle. Upon being introduced into it, she is surprised at just how bad Henry is at choosing his friends:

She would be told, “Oh, So-and-so’s a good sort—a thundering good sort,” and find, on meeting him, that he was a brute or a bore. If Henry had shown real affection, she would have understood, for affection explains everything. But he seemed without sentiment. The “thundering good sort” might at any moment become “a fellow for whom I never did have much use, and have less now,” and be shaken off cheerily into oblivion. Margaret had done the same as a schoolgirl. Now she never forgot anyone for whom she had once cared; she connected, though the connection might be bitter, and she hoped that some day Henry would do the same.

(HE, p. 208)

Here, the connections at issue seem to be those that are formed between people. Again, however, the issue is one of living within limits. For Henry, a relationship with someone for whom one no longer cares is an inconvenience to be “shaken off cheerily into oblivion.” For Margaret, relationships cannot simply be shaken off—one is connected, even if the connection becomes “bitter.” One can imagine the way in which [End Page 407] such a limitation would strike Henry as intolerable—something to be deplored and if possible overcome. For Margaret, the hope seems to be that some greater good can be realized through those connections, even if the nature of that good is at present obscure.

What light do these instances of “connection” shed on Margaret’s criticism of Henry? In the three cases just examined, connecting seems to involve recognizing oneself as embodied: as subject to the desire for physical intimacy with others; as situated in a specific time and place; as related to particular people. As I have suggested, each of these forms of embodiment comes with the temptation to go beyond the limits imposed by one’s physical, temporal, spatial, and relational being—to deny that these desires, this place and time, these relationships are really mine.

What we see in the novel’s climactic scene is that an equal temptation exists with respect to one’s moral judgments—i.e., the temptation to deny or ignore the fact that I am personally involved in those judgments. Margaret’s outburst turns the focus of the conversation decisively from Helen onto Henry himself: from Helen being forbidden to stay at Howards End, to Henry forbidding Helen to stay at Howards End. That judgment coming from him. Henry’s response—that the two cases are “different”—makes clear that he simply does not understand the move that Margaret is making. He reacts as if she had cited a legal precedent; as if she were pointing out an inconsistency in his reasoning. In other words, he still does not see that the issue concerns him specifically. Margaret is not interested in engaging him on the abstract question of what any reasonable person would be required to do in such a case. She is trying to highlight what she regards as the outrageous absurdity of Henry considering this case as if he were just “any reasonable person.” Henry is not just any reasonable person: he is the man who had an affair that he concealed both from his first wife and from Margaret, and who is now standing imperiously in judgment over Margaret’s pregnant, unwed sister.

We might look at Margaret’s criticism of Henry as a kind of inversion of the Kantian account of moral responsibility. Viewing my own situation as irreducibly particular is associated, on the Kantian account, with the evasion of moral responsibility, since it encourages me to think of myself as a special case—an exception to the rule. What is so interesting about Margaret’s argument, from this perspective, is that her attempt to get Henry to take responsibility is precisely an attempt to get him to see himself as an exceptional case. Others may be able to make that judgment of Helen, but you cannot. Henry’s attempt to conduct the discussion on [End Page 408] an abstract level, to consider what anyone in his position would have reason to do, looks to Margaret like an evasion of responsibility.

One might think that my point here could be put more straightforwardly, simply by saying that Margaret is accusing Henry of hypocrisy. That is true, of course—Margaret explicitly describes Henry as “stupid, hypocritical, [and] cruel”—but it is not all that is going on. Margaret’s use of the word “connect,” echoing the previous passages that we have already discussed, tells us something about the nature of Henry’s hypocrisy. Indeed, it tells us something about the nature of hypocrisy itself. As R. Jay Wallace has pointed out, it is considerably more difficult than one might think to pin down exactly what is morally objectionable about hypocrisy.9 There is often a kind of inconsistency in hypocrisy, of course, but as Wallace points out, simply being inconsistent is not necessarily something that deserves serious moral censure.10

Wallace himself argues that the problem with the hypocrite is a more specific kind of inconsistency—failing to apply the same kind of moral scrutiny to oneself as one applies to others, thus infringing on the “equal standing” of all moral agents.11 As we saw earlier in the discussion of the consistency interpretation, however, Henry does (eventually) look at his own actions with moral scrutiny, even going so far as to deem himself unworthy of marrying Margaret. What is disturbing about Henry is not so much his lack of self-criticism as his response to Margaret’s forgiveness. When Margaret eventually forgives him for the concealment of his affair with Jacky, he makes it very clear that he regards that whole episode as having been struck from the record. After the conversation in which Margaret offers her forgiveness, she goes to the hotel intending to see Helen and the Basts. On her return, the narrator tells us, “the old Henry fronted her, competent, cynical, and kind”: “He had made a clean breast, had been forgiven, and the great thing now was to forget his failure, and to send it the way of other unsuccessful investments. Jacky rejoined Howards End and Ducie Street, and the vermilion motor-car, and the Argentine Hard Dollars, and all the things and people for whom he had never had much use and had less now. Their memory hampered him” (HE, p. 247).

As Wallace (following Judith Shklar) observes, the word “hypocrisy” is originally derived from a Greek root referring to the acting of a part in a play.12 Henry is play-acting: in the world that he has constructed for himself, he is not the man who purchased the vermilion motor car and the Argentine hard dollars, nor the person who formed friendships with those people for whom he never had much use, and he is [End Page 409] certainly not the person who had an adulterous affair with Jacky. He regards Margaret’s forgiveness as having broken a connection between them, releasing him from a bond that might have “hampered” him and restricted his freedom. Margaret, on the other hand, regards the act of forgiveness as creating a connection, one that will be activated when Henry attempts to stand in judgment over Helen. This is why, when Margaret’s patience with Henry finally breaks, she accuses him of having forgotten who he is: “A man who ruins a woman for his pleasure, and casts her off to ruin other men. And gives bad financial advice, and then says he is not responsible. These men are you. You can’t recognize them, because you cannot connect.”

Henry’s hypocrisy consists of a form of role-playing that runs so deep, even he is taken in by it. What makes this hypocrisy so exasperating for Margaret, of course, is that Henry is playing the role of a good and responsible man, sincerely attempting to judge the case before him on its merits. His playacting forces her into the role of the irrational and overly emotional wife—a role that she is no longer prepared to adopt. Her demand for Henry to connect is thus not only a demand for him to see himself as he truly is but also to see her. In order for their relationship to survive, Henry has to drop the playacting and recognize that his denial of his own embodiment is also a denial of Margaret. If he is not the man who was forgiven for the concealment of his affair with Jacky, then Margaret is not the woman who forgave him. Much more is at issue here than a lack of consistency, but also much more than a lack of sensibility. The failure to connect runs deeper than any failure to form the right moral judgments; it is a failure to see the consequences of approaching the situation in terms of moral judgment to begin with.


What kind of lesson might we be able to draw, as moral philosophers, from Henry’s failure to connect? I want briefly to suggest two. First: it is sometimes claimed (and much more often simply assumed) that as moral agents we ought to be aspiring to the kind of objectivity characteristic of scientific inquiry. There is, I think, much to be said for this idea. When one considers the influence of personal biases, tribal loyalties, and cultural prejudice on moral judgment, it is very tempting to think that the first task of moral agency must be to attempt to transcend one’s individual subjectivity—to ascend, as Henry Sidgwick famously put it, to “the point of view of the universe.”13 What Howards End helps us to [End Page 410] see, however, is that the achievement of objectivity is only part of the challenge. Margaret’s objection, as we have seen, is focused less on the content of Henry’s judgment and more on the very idea of him standing in judgment at all. His mistake, as far as she is concerned, is not that he has failed to see something that any reasonable observer would recognize; it is that he is in no place to set himself up as a “reasonable observer.” To say this is not to deny that objectivity may be a worthy aspiration in many cases but simply to maintain that there is more to moral agency than objectivity. As moral agents, we need to come to terms with our embodiment—to recognize that, given who we are as individuals, objective judgment may not always be what is required of us. Indeed, we may need to recognize—as Margaret tries to get Henry to see—that standing in judgment may in certain circumstances constitute a form of playacting that threatens to destroy one’s closest and most valuable relationships with others.

In recent years, moral philosophers have begun to take more seriously the dangers of moralism, but Forster’s text offers a way of understanding those dangers in a very immediate way.14 It is tempting, when reading Howards End, to focus one’s attention on what Lionel Trilling calls the “clear certainties” of the plot: Henry (and by extension the rest of the Wilcoxes) are getting it wrong; Margaret (and by extension the rest of the Schlegels) are getting it right. Even a reader as sensitive as Crary, who has written eloquently on the dangers of moralism, seems to lapse into reading the text in light of these “certainties”: Henry “is, to use the novel’s most famous slogan, unable to ‘connect’ aspects of the situations he now confronts with features of his experience that would render them transparent to understanding. The responses the novel elicits from us are supposed to lead us to the conviction that Mr. Wilcox’s modes of response to the world suffer severe shortcomings, in part by enabling us to make the connections he can’t make.”15

If my reading of the novel is correct, something is not quite right about the idea that we might be able to “make the connections [Henry] can’t make.” Crary’s interpretation seems to rest on the idea that the epigraph’s invitation to the reader—“Only connect . . .”—is an invitation to look at Henry’s situation with the kind of cultivated moral sensibility that he lacks. As I have already said, I agree with Crary and Brudney that Henry is deficient in this respect, but this particular deficiency is not what Margaret has in mind when she tells him that he cannot connect. Henry’s failure to connect is a failure to come to terms with his own embodiment. Coming to terms with my embodiment, however, is [End Page 411] not something that anyone else can do on my behalf. To connect is to recognize something about myself. What the epigraph is inviting us to do is not to look over Henry’s shoulder and solve his problems for him; it is to look back at ourselves and try to discern what it means for us to be standing in judgment on Henry.

What does it mean for us to be standing in judgment on Henry? Given what we have just said, this is not a question that Forster can answer for us; all that he can do is to help us to ask it. The way he does this is through what Trilling calls his “comic manner,” which is nicely exemplified by a scene late in the novel. Leonard and Jacky have just made their appearance at Evie’s wedding, at which Margaret discovers that Jacky had been Henry’s mistress. Helen takes Leonard and Jacky to stay at a local hotel, and after Jacky has gone to bed, sets about explaining to Leonard exactly why she objects to Henry. Henry’s failing, she argues, is that he “lacks the little thing that says ‘I’; if you were to pierce right through him, you would find nothing but panic and emptiness.” Leonard, who is out of his depth as usual, feels himself under pressure to find an appropriate response:

Leonard was silent for a moment. Then he said: “May I take it, Miss Schlegel, that you and I are both the sort that say ‘I’?”

“Of course.”

“And your sister, too?”

“Of course,” repeated Helen, a little sharply. She was annoyed with Margaret, but did not want her discussed. “All presentable people say ‘I.’”

“But Mr. Wilcox—he is not perhaps—”

“I don’t know that it’s any good discussing Mr. Wilcox either.”

“Quite so, quite so,” he agreed. Helen asked herself why she had snubbed him. Once or twice during the day she had encouraged him to criticise, and then had pulled him up short. Was she afraid of him presuming? If so, it was disgusting of her.

But he was thinking the snub quite natural. Everything she did was natural, and incapable of causing offence.

(HE, p. 235) [End Page 412]

The multiple dynamics at work in this passage provide an excellent example of how Forster’s comic manner functions. Helen’s diagnosis of the Wilcoxes’ failings here is genuinely insightful, and yet the way in which she communicates this diagnosis to Leonard embodies a kind of moral failing in its own right. In this passage, Helen seems to be incapable of seeing something that would never escape Henry—i.e., the class division between Leonard and herself that makes the kind of free intellectual exchange that she is attempting here impossible. Helen wants to engage in critical discussion of a philosophical theory, while Leonard simply wants to say whatever will make her happy. Eventually he does precisely what she seems to be inviting him to do—to apply the theory to Margaret and Henry—at which point she seems to accuse him of forgetting his place. In her excitement at the development of her theory, Helen fails entirely to account for the fact that the conversation in which she is engaged is taking place between two limited, embodied, class-bound individuals. To put it in a nutshell: in her brilliant diagnosis of the Wilcoxes’ failure to connect, Helen fails to connect.

This, then, is the second lesson that we may be in a position to draw from Howards End. To the extent that moral philosophers are prepared to take moralism seriously as a vice, it is one that we may have to learn to recognize in ourselves. The drive toward a scientific model of objectivity has brought with it many positive consequences for analytical moral philosophy: increased clarity, rigor, systematicity, etc. One less positive consequence, however, is a curious lack of self-awareness. Philosophers are no less embodied than anyone else, but the drive to objectivity may turn out to carry with it an increased risk of forgetfulness—of playing the role of the detached theoretician while denying our connectedness to the messy social world of race, class, gender, and economic status. The philosophical value of Howards End does not consist in any particular answer to the questions this connectedness poses, but in its ability to make us ask them for ourselves.

Mark Hopwood
The University of the South

I am grateful to Dan Brudney, Candace Vogler, Jonathan Lear, Agnes Callard, Cassie Meyer, and Matthew Teichman for their comments on previous versions of this article.


1. Lionel Trilling, E. M. Forster (London: The Hogarth Press, 1944), p. 12. [End Page 413]

2. See Alistair Duckworth, Howards End: E. M. Forster’s House of Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1992), p. 8; Trilling, E. M. Forster, p. 118; and Daniel Brudney, “The Breadth of Moral Character,” in Fictional Characters, Real Problems: The Search for Ethical Content in Literature, ed. Garry Hagberg (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Other readings of the novel have offered variations on these themes: see Barbara Rosencrance, Forster’s Narrative Vision (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982), chap. 4, and Wilfred Stone, The Cave and the Mountain: A Study of E. M. Forster (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), chap. 10.

3. See Duckworth, Howards End.

4. Here I am indebted to Cora Diamond’s essay, “Having a Rough Story about What Moral Philosophy Is,” in Cora Diamond, The Realistic Spirit: Wittgenstein, Philosophy, and the Mind (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991). Her representatives of the two views I have articulated here are D. D. Raphael and Wolfgang Iser.

5. E. M. Forster, Howards End (New York: Vintage, 1921), p. 27; hereafter abbreviated HE.

6. See Brudney, “The Breadth of Moral Character.” Although I disagree with some aspects of his reading, I am very grateful to Dan Brudney for stimulating my interest in Howards End and for his helpful comments on this article.

7. Alice Crary, Beyond Moral Judgment (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009), chap. 4.

8. See Plato, Republic, trans. C. D. C. Reeve (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2004), 554d.

9. R. Jay Wallace, “Hypocrisy, Moral Address, and the Equal Standing of Persons,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 38, no. 4 (2010): 307–41.

10. Wallace, “Hypocrisy,” p. 328.

11. Wallace, “Hypocrisy,” p. 328.

12. Wallace, “Hypocrisy,” p. 308. See also Judith Shklar, Ordinary Vices (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1984), chap. 2.

13. Henry Sidgwick, The Methods of Ethics (1907; repr., Indianapolis: Hackett, 1981), p. 382. Sidgwick’s view, needless to say, is considerably more complex than this oft-quoted phrase would suggest, but the wording captures nicely the aspirations of many moral theories.

14. On the dangers of moralism, see Crary, Beyond Moral Judgment, and Craig Taylor, Moralism: A Study of a Vice (Durham: Acumen, 2012).

15. Crary, Beyond Moral Judgment, p. 152. [End Page 414]

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