Their Hands Upon the Ropes: A Look at E.M Forster’s “Howards End”

Within the first twenty-eight chapters of the novel, Howards End, by E.M.Forster, the author employs six variations of the idiomatic expression “hands upon the ropes” in connection with the two sisters, Margaret and Helen Schlegel, Leonard Bast, and Henry Wilcox, as a symbol of man having control over his life and the world around him. Continuing from chapter twenty-nine until the end of the novel, this expression is not used, reflecting the author’s conclusion that man is ultimately unable to control his own destiny, but rather, is profoundly effected by the connections that are made with others.

Margaret and Helen Schlegel believe that the Wilcoxes have their hands firmly upon the ropes. To the sisters, this phrase represents man’s mastery over the legal, political and economic events of the world. Margaret makes the comment that “This outer life, though obviously horrid, often seems the real one–there’s grit in it.” This suggests the physical cause and effect nature of the Wilcoxes’ world. They practice this philosophy with a single mindedness that is oblivious of the fact that sometimes there are problems in life that have no physical solutions. Margaret’s observation that their existence appears substantive, having “grit” in it, leads her to conclude that it must be real, but at the same time she cannot deny that she is living in a totally different world. The author’s depiction of this dichotomy between the inner and outer life seems reminiscent of Aristotle’s comments on the family and public life. Aristotle viewed the family as a sheltered and secluded world, wherein women and children are harbored. True adulthood or “citizenship” could not be attained until, after becoming accountable for his or her own political actions, a person enters the pubic arena. (Aristotle)

The world of Margaret and Helen is private and nebulous, consisting of relationships, emotions, ideas and mutual understandings. Margaret realizes that the outer life of the Wilcoxes is an ugly, unsympathetic place, ruled by facts and evidence. Because of this she respects the family’s pragmatic nature, realizing that their physical struggle is necessary in order to maintain an environment conducive to the higher spiritual pursuits that she and her sister engage in. She is aware that she has been the beneficiary of the labors of men like Henry. She hopes that by establishing a personal connection with him, to be able to share those blessings. Margaret seeks to aid Henry in becoming aware of his own feelings and to learn to appreciate the feelings of others.

Helen, who was initially in awe of the Wilcoxes’ physical mastery, appeared willing to give over her personal political views and philosophy of life in favor of theirs. The Wilcoxes, after all, appeared to have had an answer for everything, fully confident and in control, kings of their own jungle. Later, after living in their world for a short while, Helen comes to the conclusion that they are shallow creatures unable to cope with the deeper intimacies and tragedies of life. This occurs when she observes how frightened the youngest son, Paul Wilcox, appears to be when confronted with the prospect of having his personal feelings for her revealed to the rest of the Wilcox family. Helen realizes that true emotional strength comes from the confidence gained by close relationships with loved ones. Like the lioness, Helen immediately loses respect for her cowardly suitor, hearkening back to a time when the outer and inner lives were more closely connected.

Although neither Margaret nor Helen ever feel that they have their own hands upon the ropes, the Schlegel sisters enjoy the luxury of being able to stand outside the world and reflect upon it because of their financial security. For this reason, Leonard Bast believes that the Schlegels, and their circle of friends, have their hands upon the ropes.

For Leonard the image of “hands upon the ropes” signifies immersion in a life of beauty and culture. Leonard believes that by “effort and … steady preparation” he might attain this sublime state, but in his heart he doubts that he will. Yet it calls to him, and he must make the attempt. He reads Ruskin, the great Victorian writer and art critic, in the hope of emulating him. He attends concerts in the hope of improving himself and his society. He walks the entire night, seeking his muse. He is aware of the part that he has played in his own undoing, and that he cannot escape his past mistakes. Leonard might have achieved some comfort from his music and his scholarly pursuits if he had pursued them for their own sake. Instead he “hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus.” Had he been familiar with the theology of John Calvin, Leonard would have realized that he could never enter into what for him would be a cultural heaven, without being elected to receive a special gift of grace, in this case, old money. But he does not seem to make the connection between the Schlegel’s cultural ascendancy and their financial underpinnings. He reads of Ruskin floating down the canals in Venice and recalls the Schlegels and their friends passing “up that narrow, rich staircase at Wickham Place” without making the connection that it is money that pays their way, not culture. He wistfully imagines how it must be. He mourns the loss of it. He is bitter, he denigrates himself, and he despairs. Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.” (Thoreau) Leonard is a prime example of this and so he should be the character, if Mr. Thoreau is correct, that most of the male readers of this novel are likely to identify with. Whatever they may be attached to for Leonard, the ropes appear to be impossibly out of reach.

Henry Wilcox is confident that he has his hands upon the ropes. For him this phrase signifies that he is in control of his own destiny, and the future of his family. The idea of a rope is a comfortable one to Henry. Tangible, manageable, one task, one rope, just the way the Wilcoxes like it, and Henry chooses the ones most profitable for himself. He has become a rich man and is growing richer. There is a haughty arrogance revealed in Henry’s personality when he speaks about his part in shortening the “long tidal trough by taking shares in the lock at Teddington.” This phrase is reminiscent of the ancient Viking King Canute, who was purportedly “so great, he could command the tides of the sea to go back.”(Larson) Perhaps Henry has become so self-satisfied and egotistical that he believes that “even the wind and waves obey him.” (Mark) There is a cold-heartedness evident in Henry’s personality as well, as demonstrated by his ability to reflect upon the death of his wife and his excellent financial situation in the same moment. This uncaring attitude is further demonstrated by his stating that, “He never bothered over the mysterious or the private.” Here Mr. Wilcox offers up an excuse for not feeling compassion or acting charitably towards those in his sphere of influence such as his servants, employees, relatives, and those strangers he might come in contact with. “They knew their own business, and he knew his.” While driving with Margaret, Henry disdains the convocation of Parliament, revealing his dislike for human connection by his scorn for the emotional give and take characteristic of the English political process. By this brief aside, he reveals his isolation from the rest of the world and his belief that everything may be reduced to individual transactions. It seems that he may even view his imminent proposal to Margaret as just another detail of life, not perceiving the momentous changes it will bring. Like his deceased wife, Ruth Wilcox, Margaret Schlegel is a mediator, concerned with issues that have an effect on the whole of the Creation. She is a moral compass. Henry, quite the opposite, is concerned with the business of the moment, and quite willing to use whatever means are convenient to achieve his ends. In spite of himself, it may be suggested that Henry subconsciously seeks women like Margaret as a lighthouse, a secure point of reference, as he makes his way, his hands upon the ropes, though life’s uncertain seas.

At the time that Howard’s End was published, England owed much if its success as a world power to the Royal Navy. The romantic theme of the great and powerful sailing ships is a familiar one in English history. As the captain of a ship issued his commands, hands upon the ropes moved to obey him, and perhaps this is the image that Forster means to evoke. Margaret Schlegel makes the statement in chapter twelve, “Once past the rocks of emotion, they knew so well what to do, whom to send for”, and this reinforces the image of ships at sea. Other images of hands upon ropes come to the mind of the reader; bell ringers beneath a carillon pulling the right rope at the proper time; the theatrical stage manager pulling ropes and moving curtains or lowering the deus ex machina; the puppet master pulling his strings; cautious hands upon a rope bridge; a tug of war. All of these images reinforce the concept of human control over life’s situations.

Works Cited

Aristotle. The politics. Translated with an introdution by T. A. Sinclair.
Baltimore, Penguin Books, 1962
Larson, Laurence Marcellus. Canute the Great, 995 (circ)-1035, and the rise of Danish
imperialism during the Viking Age. New York, AMS Press, 1970
Mark the Apostle. The Gospel According to Mark. Chapter 4, Verse 41. The Holy Bible, New
International Version. Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1983
Thoreau, Henry David. Walden. Cleveland, World Pub. Co., 1942

E.M. Forster Howards End, Chapter IV, Page 23

“I’ve often thought about it, Helen. It’s one of the most interesting things in the world. The truth is that there is a great outer life that you and I have never touched–a life in which telegrams and anger count. Personal relations, that we think supreme, are not supreme there. There love means marriage settlements, death, death duties. So far I’m clear. But here’s my difficulty. It does breed character. Do personal relations lead to sloppiness in the end?”
“Oh, Meg, that’s what I felt, only not so clearly, when the Wilcoxes were so competent, and seemed to have their hands on all the ropes.”
“Don’t you feel it now?”
“I remember Paul at breakfast,” said Helen quietly. “I shall never forget him. He had nothing to fall. back upon. I know that personal relations are the real life, for ever and ever.

Chapter VI, Page 42

And the voice in the gondola rolled on, piping melodiously of Effort and Self-Sacrifice, full of high purpose, full of beauty, full even of sympathy and the love of men, yet somehow eluding all that was actual and insistent in Leonard’s life. For it was the voice of one who had never been dirty or hungry, and had not guessed successfully what dirt and hunger are.
Leonard listened to it with reverence. He felt that he was being done good to, and that if he kept on with Ruskin, and the Queen’s Hall Concerts, and some pictures by Watts, he would one day push his head out of the grey waters and see the universe. He believed in sudden conversion, a belief which may be right, but which is peculiarly attractive to a half-baked mind. It is the bias of much popular religion: in the domain of business it dominates the Stock Exchange, and becomes that “bit of luck” by which all successes and failures are explained. “If only I had a bit of luck, the whole thing would come straight. . . . He’s got a most magnificent place down at Streatham and a 20 h.-p. Fiat, but then, mind you, he’s had luck. . . . I’m sorry the wife’s so late, but she never has any luck over catching trains.” Leonard was superior to these people; he did believe in effort and in a steady preparation for the change that he desired. But of a heritage that may expand gradually, he had no conception: he hoped to come to Culture suddenly, much as the Revivalist hopes to come to Jesus. Those Miss Schlegels had come to it; they had done the trick; their hands were upon the ropes, once and for all. And meanwhile, his flat was dark, as well as stuffy.

Chapter VI, Page 46

There was the girl named Helen, who had pinched his umbrella, and the German girl who had smiled at him pleasantly, and Herr some one, and Aunt some one, and the brother — all, all with their hands on the ropes. They had all passed up that narrow, rich staircase at Wickham Place, to some ample room, whither he could never follow them, not if he read for ten hours a day. Oh, it was not good, this continual aspiration. Some are born cultured; the rest had better go in for whatever comes easy. To see life steadily and to see it whole was not for the likes of him.

Chapter XII, Page 88

Meanwhile, she could take an interest in the survivors. In spite of her Christmas duties, in spite of her brother, the Wilcoxes continued to play a considerable part in her thoughts. She had seen so much of them in the final week. They were not “her sort,” they were often suspicious and stupid, and deficient where she excelled; but collision with them stimulated her, and she felt an interest that verged into liking, even for Charles. She desired to protect them, and often felt that they could protect her, excelling where she was deficient. Once past the rocks of emotion, they knew so well what to do, whom to send for; their hands were on all the ropes, they had grit as well as grittiness, and she valued grit enormously. They led a life that she could not attain to–the outer life of “telegrams and anger,” which had detonated when Helen and Paul had touched in June, and had detonated again the other week. To Margaret this life was to remain a real force. She could not despise it, as Helen and Tibby affected to do. It fostered such virtues as neatness, decision, and obedience, virtues of the second rank, no doubt, but they have formed our civilization. They form character, too; Margaret could not doubt it: they keep the soul from becoming sloppy. How dare Schlegels despise Wilcoxes, when it takes all sorts to make a world?

Chapter XV, Page 112

The man of business smiled. Since his wife’s death he had almost doubled his income. He was an important figure at last, a reassuring name on company prospectuses, and life had treated him very well. The world seemed in his grasp as he listened to the River Thames, which still flowed inland from the sea. So wonderful to the girls, it held no mysteries for him. He had helped to shorten its long tidal trough by taking shares in the lock at Teddington, and if he and other capitalists thought good, some day it could be shortened again. With a good dinner inside him and an amiable but academic woman on either flank, he felt that his hands were on all the ropes of life, and that what he did not know could not be worth knowing.

Chapter XVIII, Page 137

“You, too, feel lonely?”
“Horribly. Hullo, Parliament’s back!”
Mr. Wilcox glanced at Parliament contemptuously. The more important ropes of life lay elsewhere. “Yes, they are talking again.” said he. “But you were going to say–”
“Only some rubbish about furniture. Helen says it alone endures while men and houses perish, and that in the end the world will be a desert of chairs and sofas–just imagine it!–rolling through infinity with no one to sit upon them.”
“Your sister always likes her little joke.
“She says ‘Yes,’ my brother says ‘No,’ to Ducie Street. It’s no fun helping us, Mr. Wilcox, I assure you.”
“You are not as unpractical as you pretend. I shall never believe it.”
Margaret laughed. But she was — quite as unpractical. She could not concentrate on details. Parliament, the Thames, the irresponsive chauffeur, would flash into the field of house-hunting, and all demand some comment or response. It is impossible to see modern life steadily and see it whole, and she had chosen to see it whole. Mr. Wilcox saw steadily. He never bothered over the mysterious or the private. The Thames might run inland from the sea, the chauffeur might conceal all passion and philosophy beneath his unhealthy skin. They knew their own business, and he knew his.

About Louis William Rose

“I am an advocate for Liberty. What I do for Liberty I do not do for profit or fame. I seek no office other than the office of parliamentarian, and no reward other than for myself and my fellow men and women to live in a free country.” Louis William Rose is a lifelong student of parliamentary procedure and political process. He has served as parliamentarian for various organizations. A political philosopher, poet, singer, and writer, his articles have been published on-line and in pro-liberty papers in Florida, Kentucky, Georgia, and Montana. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science from the University of North Florida, graduating summa cum laude in 2004, with an additional two years of graduate work in political philosophy. Mr. Rose is an outspoken supporter of the basic rights of man, especially freedom of speech, association, religion, individual rights to personal defense and property, and of republican, constitutional forms of government. He is married to the lovely Jamy Sue Rose, an award winning nature photographer and a Florida Master Naturalist and guide. He has two sons, Edward, a hydroponic farmer in the panhandle of Florida, and Alexander, a successful real estate developer.
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2 Responses to Their Hands Upon the Ropes: A Look at E.M Forster’s “Howards End”

  1. Rosy Coston says:

    Dear Louis,
    I am a French student and your article about “the hands upon the ropes” truly helped me understand the meaning and symbols of this expression. Thank you tons,
    best, Rosy

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