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This is an A-Level essay that explores the character of Leonard and the idea of social class difference — especially the distinctions between the upper, middle, and lower classes.

It’s based on the CIE Cambridge A-Level Literature syllabus, but it’s suitable for anyone studying EM Forster’s Howards End at a higher level.


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THE QUESTION

In Leonard’s last moments, Forster writes that ‘Squalor and tragedy can beckon all that is great in us, and strengthen the wings of love.’ How far do you agree?

THE ESSAY

In some ways, we could perceive Leonard as a great figure: he refuses to accept his unlucky circumstances and is determined to better himself. However, Leonard is also a pitifully tragic character who is unlucky both in love and ambition; his unhappy marriage with Jacky and later tryst with Helen is enhanced further in tragedy by the poverty of his existence, and only made worse by the Schlegel’s attempts to help when he is made redundant from the job they find for him. Though Leonard’s attempts at self-improvement are in many ways admirable, and it can be argued that he does achieve some success, Forster ultimately demonstrates through his character a greater spectrum of social impediments that stand in the way of the lower middle classes gaining access to true culture, greatness, and love.

Firstly, Forster does incite great pity and even a little admiration for Leonard and his struggle to overcome both mental and physical poverty. Through his interactions with the Schlegels, he challenges Aunt Juley’s entrenched yet outdated ‘esprit de classe’, her staunch belief (widely held at the time) that the classes should not intermingle and that the upper and upper-middle classes are superior to all others. We are told early on in the novel that he ‘stood at the extreme verge of gentility’, a metaphor that enables Forster’s audience to conceptualise true civilisation as existing on a boundary or border which is very difficult to cross. Yet this description is full of potential, and perhaps provides hope for Forster’s audience that Leonard will be able to become a true gentleman by the end of the novel. This, in turn, arguably exemplifies Forster’s own sense of moral responsibility; he aligns himself with the artistically-minded Schlegels, whose duty it is to attempt to lessen the gap between the classes, and to battle against Leonard’s own ironically fatalistic assertion that ‘there will always be rich and poor’. The early 20th Century was a time of great turmoil and disruption to the traditionally established order, and many modernist writers of the period sought to differentiate themselves from haughty Victorian values which tried to justify the degenerate nature of the lower and the superiority of the higher classes through culture and education. Therefore, it could be interpreted that Forster is attempting to embrace more modernist sensibilities and intending to persuade his audience to give aspiring individuals such as Leonard the opportunity for social mobility. He states ‘the Angel of Democracy had arisen’, a personification of the socialist concept of democratic equality which suggests that he feels Edwardian society has the potential to progress beyond its entrenched hierarchical structure, and that at least some underprivileged individuals do have the capacity for greatness and love.

Yet despite the idealistic tone inherent in Forster’s prose, he is perhaps resigning himself to a more realistic outcome for the pitiful figure of Leonard. The glorious conception of the ‘Angel of Democracy’ soon after declares ‘All men are equal — all men, that is to say, who possess umbrellas’, creating a sense of bathos and disrupting the initial sense of idealism with its descent into irony and sarcasm. The use of anaphora, a typically rhetorical device used often in public speeches, perhaps reinforces the notion that this is a central message of the novel, which coincidentally provides insight into Leonard himself. Santanu Das has argued that one of the novel’s central questions is ‘How democratic is culture’, and we can see this question at work most effectively through Leonard’s struggle for greatness, or at least betterness than his current position. Forster is asserting that yes, perhaps Leonard has tried to improve himself, and perhaps he, like many, are full of idealism for a better, more equal future. Yet, the reality is that Edwardian society is still very far from equality and that even Leonard in his abject poverty is still lucky enough to ‘possess an umbrella’ — to be in a position where he can afford small luxuries and be able to attend concerts in order to absorb the culture. The omniscient narrative voice’s intrusion that ‘we are not concerned with the very poor…this story deals with gentlefolk, or those who are obliged to pretend they are gentlefolk’ betrays a similar attitude that is at once both ironically humourous yet deeply pessimistic. The eloquently genteel phrase ‘obliged to pretend’ arguably reinforces through its exclusively formal register the message that Leonard is doomed from the offset and that he will never achieve true love or greatness. Furthermore, the lack of a voice given to ‘the very poor’ in the novel provides readers with some perspective; we realise that even Leonard’s tragic situation is still far preferable to many of the lower classes, who live in true squalor, and perhaps are truly tragic in the deepest sense of the word. Howards End has been critically termed a ‘condition of England’ novel, implying its true power lies in its exposure of social and cultural hypocrisy, and its capacity to enable the educated classes to develop a deeper sensitivity towards the plight of the poor. Therefore, through Leonard’s tragedy and squalor, and even further still the squalor of the ‘very poor’ which is only hinted at and not explicitly dealt with, we are able to better understand the cultural mechanisms which reinforce class distinctions and poverty.

Leonard is most certainly a tragic figure from the offset, and, like all tragic figures, contains the potential for greatness, yet is doomed to fail. His attempts to read ‘Ruskin’ and engage with ‘Beethoven’’s symphonies are far beyond the scope of his humble origins, and with these, it could be argued that his striving for greatness is somewhat achieved through his connection to the Schlegels, and his illegitimate child with Helen. However, his sorry ending has a poetic situational irony to it, in that he is crushed under the weight of the same ‘books’ that he struggled so hard in life to understand, and through this irony, we could interpret that Forster’s comment is also ironic; he was never set up for true greatness, nor was he meant to find true love. We are told that they ‘fell over him in a shower’, which could represent symbolically the sheer intellectual weight of arts and culture, that Forster feels is insurmountable for those not lucky enough to be born into the upper classes and immersed in since birth. Therefore, though Leonard’s attempts at self-improvement are in many ways admirable, the reader is left feeling that they are somewhat in vain, and in the end, they only serve to enhance Leonard’s tragic demise. We realise that he is neither suited to Jacky with her inane repetitions — ‘you do love me don’t you’ — nor Helen, with her refined sensibilities. It could be argued therefore that the strict social hierarchy of Edwardian society for Forster functions as a tragic mechanism, much as fate or destiny does for traditionally tragic plays: it provides the rigid structure through which an individual can never transcend, no matter how much effort they make to improve themselves.

Ultimately, Leonard’s ambitious forays into art and culture serve only to enhance his tragic condition; they highlight the painful barriers to true greatness and happiness that are embedded socially and culturally within Edwardian society. He neither finds true love with Jacky nor with Helen, suggesting that all his reading and self-education has left him at odds with the rules of his society. Beyond Leonard, Forster makes us aware of the wider social issues, and that a novel of his scope could not even begin to comment on the poorest classes, who are truly destitute and living in squalor.


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