Lionell Trilling’s remark that one of the major themes in E.M. Forester’s book is that of panic and emptiness is not lost on filmmakers Merchant and Ivory. The following study will examine exactly how this theme is conveyed in their adaptation of Howard’s End, paying close attention to elements of story structure, characterization, revealing images, and general cinematic technique.
Forester was a master of placing his characters beneath a microscope, examining their heated desires in the context of a social climate where custom, etiquette, manners, and social graces ensured a cool observance of the social hierarchy. The Merchant/Ivory team have managed to capture the look and spirit of this society and, in doing so, have taken measure of the results and implications of such a life. Neither the sometimes-employed clerk Leonard Bast nor the well-fed master of the house, Mr. Henry Wilcox escape the burden of Forester’s theme.
One is tempted to place the theme of panic and emptiness in a cause and effect relationship. Initially it might be tempting to do so, but upon further consideration, one can appreciate the ambiguous nature of how panic and emptiness are related. Does emptiness cause one to experience panic, or is it more likely that in the aftermath of panicked actions one feels emptiness? Is it both? The structure of Leonard Bast’s story in the movie seems to indicate that these dual themes run in tandem throughout his narrative. Leonard, a clerk, dreams of bigger things: he studies the night sky, reads literature and maps of the stars for clues to a better life; he takes long excursions, walking through the night to find such a life. In the character of Helen, he finds something that answers this emptiness he feels. And yet, at the same time, there is the immediate panic of how he is to survive and support his wife Jackie.
His harsh reaction to the sisters Schlegel mentioning his employment situation, fleeing down the staircase saying he will never return to visit, evinces the utter panic he feels with regards to his financial health. In a strange way, Helen’s rebuke to his reaction is a salve to his panic. The image that one attaches to Leonard’s character which best illustrates the theme is perhaps him in bed, gravely ill and holding a pillow around his head, blocking the outside world. He dreams of a sea of dark umbrellas accented suddenly by the porcelain features of Helena Bonhamm Carter as she turns and smiles at him. As a sad postscript to his struggle, Leonard himself suggests that such things that are meant to feed the soul as meaning and music, are simply things for the rich to enjoy after dinner, not the property or domain of the poor. Finally, the long shots used to depict Bast, with the great amount of space around him --walking into the great banks which will not accept his employment or the road to Howard’s End where he will be killed—suggest visually this emptiness and encroaching panic.
The genius of Trilling’s observation is that this theme of panic and emptiness unites opposing characters in the story. The Wilcox family is keenly observed by way of this theme. Anthony Hopkins renders the patriarch Wilcox with such restraint that his panic and emptiness are visible only through a veneer of polished manners. Perhaps the most compelling way in which the film displays the Wilcox emptiness is through the vehicle of the note and the fire. The dying Ruth Wilcox wished for Howard’s End to be left to Meg; this is clearly a threat to the Wilcox clan. They convince themselves that the “invalid” was not in her right mind or that Meg had somehow manipulated her, or both. Either way, the panic the family experiences, --their social standing and their rightful inheritance threatened – is palpable as the note is ripped up and thrown into the burning fire. Clearly, panic itself is neutral: it is the motivation and causes of the panic which merit our attention. Merchant/Ivory present the Wilcox family as protective snobs. It is Henry, the patriarch, who experiences incremental growth through his courting and marriage to Meg. The note Meg later writes, in her husband’s voice, forms a partner to the former; unlike the first note, an expression of love this one is written in a dismissive, ungenerous manner. The content of this letter is so appalling to Helen that she has Leonard throw it in the fire.
Merchant and Ivory tap into the greatest irony of all, in that even though this theme imbues the entire movie, when panic and emptiness are exposed they are immediately dismissed. Such is evidenced in the character of Helen in the latter part of the film. She radiates a pure, giving quality is not surrendered upon the Schlegel-Wilcox union. She chafes against the marriage for what it represents. Her outward experience of panic and emptiness caused by the marriage and her inability to affect positive change in Leonard Bast’s life is concluded to be some dementia. When she returns to Howard’s End, pregnant with Bast’s child, the family must confront panic and emptiness head-on. The source of each is clearly fear: fear of change and fear of not changing.
To explain: Henry and Charles Wilcox thrive on stability and what is proper; father and son shake hands, as if their relationship did not extend past their business together. Meg and Helen represent a change which threatens this stability. At one point, Henry suggests accosting Helen and having her sent to a specialist. Meg responds, I paraphrase, that her sister and she don’t speak that language or talk that way. Indeed, it is as is the moral codes by which the sides operate were entirely different languages. Only the shared experience of panic and emptiness unite the families. Panic finds its resolution in calm; emptiness seeks shared space. It is this resolution which one finds, slightly tainted, at the movie’s end. Helen plays with her young child on the Howard’s End property which will soon become Meg’s. The family, for a time, is presented in a day-lit meadow, panic and emptiness kept at bay.
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