The Dividing Line between Private and Public Values in Modern Literature

E. M. Forster, "Howards End" - George Orwell, "Nineteen-Eighty Four"

Essay, 2007

12 Pages, Grade: 1,3


This essay focuses on two modern literary works by E.M. Forster and George Orwell. While Forster’s fourth published novel Howards End was already written in the early twentieth century (1910), Orwell’s famous dystopia Nineteen Eighty-Four was only published in 1949 and may therefore be considered as a late modern work.

The historical background of the two novels obviously differs to a great extent. On the edge of the First World War, E.M. Forster was particularly concerned with a disrupted society under the direct influence of the significant changes in modern social life. The increasing forces of imperialism and capitalism and tendencies of a growing urbanisation largely changed the lives of people, directly affecting their private and public spheres. When Orwell wrote his novel under the influence of the Second World War, modern life had additionally been shaken up by two world wars and the effects of totalitarian systems in Europe.

Despite the historical gulf between Orwell and Forster, which makes a direct comparison of their works impossible, this paper will concentrate on the private and public values of the novels’ characters and thus also pay attention to probable political notions of the authors. It will particularly figure out if the two writers either endorse or contest a dividing line between private and public values, additionally taking into consideration formal features as well as the overall plot.

Forster’s novel Howards End predominantly deals with the interrelations of two middle class families called the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. Despite belonging to the same class, their actual social background differs to a great extent. Margaret and Helen Schlegel are initially depicted as not being English “to the backbone”[1], which is not only true because of their German origins, but also because of their idealist attitude they seem to have adopted from their father, who rather was “the countryman of Hegel and Kant, […] the idealist, inclined to be dreamy, whose Imperialism was the Imperialism of the air”[2]. Idealism and anti-imperialism are obviously not to be considered as being very English any more, but rather seem to have died out all over modern Europe. The ruling class of modern England now consists of efficient, but exploitative people like the Wilcoxes, who are primarily interested in money and motorcars. As a matter of fact, Henry Wilcox – the head of the family – is “the man who had carved money out of Greece and Africa, and bought forests from the natives for a few bottles of gin”[3]. His family had evidently got rid of an idealistic outlook on life by totally clinging to the “outer life […] a life in which anger and telegrams count”[4]. Being capitalists and imperialists in the colonial spirit of modern times, they “seem to have their hands on the ropes”[5]. As Robert Green puts it, their contribution to the public life in England might consist in “extracting wealth from the ‘Third World’”[6], but Green also remarks that “[imperialists] have demonstrated no intelligence in using such wealth”[7]. Instead of making use of their prosperity, the Wilcoxes are “a fraud, just a wall of newspapers and motor-cars and golf-clubs” with nothing but “panic and emptiness” behind it[8]. Their alienation goes so far that they are not even able to live next to each other any more[9]. The self-alienating power of imperialism evidently splits up the English society portrayed in Howards End, or – in Green’s words – “exploit[s] the ruled and taint[s] the rulers”[10].

In contrast to the Wilcoxes as representatives of the “outer life”, Helen and Margaret Schlegel’s idealism and culturally-minded attitude is depicted as a dedication to the “inner life”[11]. While Helen is totally convinced that “personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever”[12], her sister Margaret – the brighter character of the Schlegels – has a much more pragmatic mind-set. She feels aware about the fact that

[i]f Wilcoxes hadn’t worked and died in England for thousands of years, you and I couldn’t sit here without having our throats cut. There would be no trains, no ships to carry us literary people about in, no fields even. Just savagery. No – perhaps not even that. Without their spirit life might never have moved out of protoplasm.

(Forster, 2000: 145)

Ignoring another ironic comment of Forster about the Wilcoxes’ commendable aid to bring savagery to England, one might in fact see a chance for the alienated middle class through a reunification of people’s inner and outer life. In Howards End, this unification is evidently represented by Henry Wilcox’s marriage with Margaret Schlegel. Margaret’s “clever talk” is frequently seen as “the social counterpart of the motor-car”[13], and some critics even speak of Forster’s novel as an “ecstatically hopeful vision of the future”[14].

If the inner life of the Schlegels and the outer life of the Wilcoxes are put on one level with the terms “private” and “public” spheres, one might indeed argue that Forster succeeded in connecting the values in the end and obviously contests a dividing line as being dangerous for modern life. In this sense, it must be noticed that the necessary public life with all its modern influences – like e.g. imperialism and capitalism – inevitably leads to self-alienation and social fragmentation, which can only be cured through reunification. The interclass-unification of Margaret and Henry is, however, problematical. In the end, Henry Wilcox is a broken man, entirely dependent on the motherly care of his new wife[15]. Although their marriage has rather been a marriage of convenience than one of love, they finally live together in Howards End – a nice and comfortable place where nobody needs to be concerned with social problems beyond an upper middle class existence. Forster had already hinted at this apparent weak spot before. At the beginning of chapter VI, his narrator had ironically stated that


[1] Forster, Edward Morgan. Howards End. New York: Penguin, 2000: 24.

[2] ibid.

[3] Forster, 2000: 241.

[4] Forster, 2000: 22.

[5] ibid.

[6] Green, Robert. Messrs Wilcox and Kurtz, Hollow Men. in: Twentieth Century Literature, Vol. 14. No. 4 (Jan., 1969): 238.

[7] Green, 1969: 238.

[8] Forster, 2000: 22.

[9] Forster, 2000: 174.

[10] Green, 1969: 234.

[11] Forster, 2000: 23.

[12] Forster, 2000: 23.

[13] Conradi, Peter. The Metaphysical Hostess: The Cult of Personal Relations in the Modern English Novel. in: ELH, Vol. 48, No.2 (Summer, 1981): 439.

[14] Zwerdling, Alex .“Between the Acts” and the Coming of War. in: NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Vol. 10. No. 3. Tenth Anniversary Issue: III (Spring, 1977): 223.

[15] Forster, 2000: 281.

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Dividing Line between Private and Public Values in Modern Literature
E. M. Forster, "Howards End" - George Orwell, "Nineteen-Eighty Four"
Queen's University Belfast  (School of English)
Literature and the Politics of Modernity
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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406 KB
Literature, Politics, George Orwell, E. M. Forster, World War, Dystopia, Imperialism, Howards End, Nineteen-Eighty Four, Plato
Quote paper
Jan H. Hauptmann (Author), 2007, The Dividing Line between Private and Public Values in Modern Literature, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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