Sunday, February 05, 2006

 

Roll with Me, Henry

Throughout most of Howards End, Henry Wilcox is clearly emblematic of British Imperialism. Not only does he make his money working at the Imperial and West African Rubber Company, he believes in the social Darwinist ideas behind Imperialism. He firmly believes in the "'battle of life'" (163): everyone looks out for himself, and those who fall behind are meant to stay behind. Mr. Wilcox stays ahead by protecting himself from society and its problems; Forster even observes that his forehead was like "a bastion that protected his head from the world. At times it had the effect of a blank wall. He had dwelt behind it, intact and happy, for fifty years" (77). As such, he has remained safe, but at the cost of being isolated and mostly indifferent.

Ironically, while imperialism acts isolationist, it is also concerned with exerting control; unfortunately, as history has shown, too much force can lead to rebellion and a regime change. This happens to Henry when Helen returns from Germany and he tries to maintain control. For one, his plan to "capture" Helen at Howard's End, "clever and well-meaning as it was, drew its ethics from the wolf-pack" (241). Secondly, when Margaret disobeys his plan, he orders Charles to forcibly remove the Schlegels from Howard's End, citing "'the rights of property itself'" (278). By treating Margaret and Helen like animals to be manipulated, Henry fails to connect with the Schlegels on a human level; in doing so, he causes Margaret to rebel against him, spend the night at Howard's End, and nearly leave him for good.

Clearly, Mr. Wilcox's plans cannot control his marriage and Howard's End. Yet after Charles is sent to jail, "Henry's fortress gave way. He […] shambled up to Margaret afterwards and asked her to do what she could with him" (285). Here, he finally admits weakness and relinquishes control to Margaret. He then begins to connect with the outside world instead of seeing others as things to be controlled or kept at a distance. It is important to note that he continually worries "'dreadfully'" about "'his part of the tangle'" (287), so he accepts some responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Moreover, in forgiving Helen and giving Margaret Howard's End, Mr. Wilcox shows he can eschew isolationism and indifference and show forgiveness and understanding.

On the other hand, is Henry's change of heart entirely satisfying? When he tells Margaret about Mrs. Wilcox's note, he says that she "'scribbled "Howards End" on a piece of paper. I went into it thoroughly, and, as it was clearly fanciful, I set it aside'" (292). Yet when Henry first received the note, Mrs. Wilcox explicitly gave Howard's End to Margaret, and he dismissed it within minutes (82-85). Henry is not clear on whether he has forgiven his wife for writing it, and he does not show much guilt for disregarding his wife's final wish. Since Forster leaves the context of Henry's words ambiguous, his statement could easily be attributed to an old man's forgetfulness. Yet if one interprets this scene as Henry manipulating facts to protect himself, perhaps Forster is presenting another statement on Imperialism: that an Imperialist's habits of control and protection can still linger and prove disabling even after an empire has fallen.

Comments:
Kim, you did a good job of exploring the deeper, underlying messages of the novel. Connecting the characters to what they may be representing adds a dimension to the story that is important in considering what the ending means, and whether or not it is a happy ending. By focusing on Henry being a representation of Imperialism, you make it clear that things aren’t always what they seem to be on the surface, that the reader must probe further before making up her or his mind. I agree with your idea that although Henry had a kind of “change of heart,” it wasn’t complete, or “entirely satisfying.” I was also bothered by Henry’s complete disregard for the note that the original Mrs. Wilcox had written, and even more bothered by Margaret’s subdued reaction in finding out about it. Great job.
 
I think Kim's observations on Henry Wilcox and imperialism are interesting. One of the things that drove me crazy about Henry was that he appeared so "isolationist" in his thinking, and he was representative of the type of men who expand the empire. It is paradoxical and yet makes sense at the same time. His close-mindedness and obtuseness (if that's even a word) continually bothered me. I think he improved in the end, but I still feel dissatisfied with him overall.
 
Kim made some very sharp observations about the underlying imperialistic philosophy behind Henry's character. Her conclusion regarding the ambiguity of his actions at the end is most interesting. Whether it was forgetfulness or being manipulative, Forster, points out two things about Imperialism. The “old man’s forgetfulness” theory shows that the idea of Empire is decrepit and archaic. And the manipulative Henry theory shows, as Kim pointed out “that an Imperialist's habits of control and protection can still linger and prove disabling even after an empire has fallen.” Either of these possibilities are very pertinent to the postcolonial model, the former giving a reason way Empires fall,the later showing the effect on a colony after the fact.
 
Kim has posted an excellent comment on Mr. Henry Wilcox as an emblem of British imperialism. He strongly believes in the Darwinist theory of the “survival of the fittest” and expresses utter indifference towards the less privileged. As a entrepreneur who has acquired his fortune from the Imperial and West African Rubber Company through the exploitation of Nigeria’s resources, Mr. Wilcox resolves to apply the same exploitative techniques he has used in his business enterprise in the manipulation of his wife Margaret and her sister Helen. He, therefore, instructs Charles to remove the fragile Margaret and pregrant Helen from Howard’s End, making it very explicit that they have no legal right to occupy the house, even though they are part of his family. Kim has certainly discovered the ruthless and uncouth nature of Mr. Wilcox, as she declares that he has treated “the Schlegels like animals…[and, hence,] fails to connect with the Schlegels on a human level.” I can certainly how Kim notices that Mr. Wilcox’s resignation to Margaret after the arrest of Charles shows that his “fortress,” his detachment from the world, has crumbled down. Having been an aloof man for most of his life who dismisses the poor as social outcasts, Mr. Wilcox finally acknowledges his own flaws and seeks some kind of reconciliation from Margaret. But is he truly sorry for his past actions? Or is he only trying to further manipulate his wife and family, though in a discreet way, to do what he wants? What does Mr. Wilcox want in life?
 
Kim's comments on Mr. Wilcox and imperialism prove to be very insightful. Most striking to me, was the comment about the link between control and imperialism. Mr. Wilcox, and the Wilcox family in general, I would argue, thrive on the control they have over the other people in the novel. Mr. Wilcox even, inadvertantly controls Leonard Bass's fate (by encouraging Helen and Margaret that he is in an unstable occupation), and consequently Helen's fate (after Leonard is killed by Charles and she is left without a father to her child). It is through this control, exerted by Mr. Wilcox, that Forster comments on the painful side effects of imperialism: that control flows into other areas, perhaps where it is not intended, and the rippling effect continues to be detrimental to people and things that are originally unseen.
 
Thanks for the insight on Henry Wilcox, Kim! Henry's correlation to imperialism dominates his personality throughout Howards End and is definitely worthy of discussion. I am especially interested in what Forester portrays and thinks about imperialism in having Mr. Wilcox's "fortress [give] way" (285). In class, we discussed that Margaret might have accepted Henry’s proposal despite his lack of emotion with hopes of changing him. Forester suggests this imperialistic side of Henry as a weakness, a weakness he eventually admits and begins to overcome. I like Kim's comment about how Henry "begins to connect with the outside world instead of seeing others as things to be controlled or kept at a distance." Henry grows significantly through the duration of the novel, gives up his controlling attitude, and stops assuming the inferiority of others.
 
One thing Kim pointed out that I had not really thought of before, was how Mr. Wilcox felt toward Mrs. Wilcox at the end of the book. In giving Margeret Howard's End he does fulfill Mrs. Wilcox's last wish, but he does it for his own reasons. Mr. Wilcox also does not show remorse for cheating on Mrs. Wilcox; in fact, he is outraged when he believes she has deceived him, by leaving Howard's End to Margeret. While Mr. Wilcox does seem to take responsibility in some aspects of his life, he still evades the injustice he did to his first wife. In this aspect, Mr. Wilcox seems inevitably stuck in the past.
 
I agree with what everyone else has said in their posts and especially with the "change of heart" point. Perhaps I am a skeptic when it comes to people trying to change who they have been their entire lives because it brings up the validity of their actions, thus I also feel that Henry's change of heart isn't complete nor can it ever be complete. What particularly drove me over the edge was the fact that to connect, Henry (as he is) lost some of himself and Margaret also lost some of herself.
 
I don't think I like Henry Wilcox very much. I might even venture to say I dislike him more than I dislike Mr. Rochester. Those of you who were in Dr. Reitz's class last semester, you know how strongly I feel about Mr. Rochester. Anyway I think it is interesting that Kim brought up Mr. Wilcox's "confession" at the end of the novel. Forster could have taken that conversation in so many directions. It seems to me that he chose one that accentuates Henry's cowardice. Margaret gets Howards End in the end, but I'm still left feeling she probably could have done better.
 
Could we read Henry's half-conversion at the end of HE as similar to the house on Sikkam Street in Mr. Biswas: crappy but still standing, to use phrases from class today? Is this just what the happy ending looks like in the 20th century?
 
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