Howards End (2020) – Mini-Rant About Character Arcs and the Meaning of Self

My family and I just finished watching Howards End (2020), a 4-part TV series based on the novel by E. M. Forster. I haven’t read the book – I disliked A Passage to India and A Room with a View – so I don’t know if it’s a good adaptation. From what I could tell, it was a beautifully produced and tastefully filmed series, with lovely costumes and first-rate performances by Matthew Macfadyen (aka Arthur Clennam from Little Dorrit) and Hayley Atwell (Mansfield Park). Fans of costume dramas will definitely relish the lush English countryside and sensitive character portrayals.


I hated the story. HATED IT. I officially give up on Forster.

Howards End in a Nutshell (spoiler free)

Howards End follows the lives of the Schlegel siblings – Margaret, Helen, and “Tibby” – after they meet the enigmatic Wilcox family on a trip to Germany. The Wilcoxes live on a beautiful property called Howards End, which Helen first goes to visit on her own. They are a pretty conservative family: Mr. Wilcox taking a pragmatic view of the world that doesn’t concern itself too much with social works and Mrs. Wilcox having no part in the feminist ideals espoused by Helen. In spite of their differences, Mrs. Wilcox and Margaret form an unlikely friendship, which has far-reaching consequences after disaster strikes both families.

Without giving too much away – the gist of the story is that, by the end of massive circumstantial and manufactured ordeals, nearly every character in the movie does a complete 180 in their core principles and values. (The ending is horribly tidy as a result.) The characters’ actions were, from what I could tell, all for the sake of staving off loneliness. It bothered me greatly – and I do not think this is what a character arc should be. Am I wrong?

Who Are We, Though?

Lately I’ve had several great discussions with fellow readers and family on the nature of self, identity, and what it means to be “you.” What metaphysical and/or physical elements constitute a person? Is there anything about us that is unchangeable throughout our lives?

Now obviously a person’s values can change as they get older and mature. It’s likely cause for concern if someone doesn’t change at all. But how much of that is part of our unique identity? Or is none of it?

So the alternative is that the essence of ourselves exists, somehow, outside of our principles and values. But if that is true, then we can’t be held personally, morally responsible for anything, right? That can’t be right, because “a tree is known by its fruit.” What we do is an extension of ourselves. If we do something (or as especially, don’t do something) on principle, it is a reflection of ourselves.

I don’t know what to think, TBH.


Bringing it back to Howards End, I feel like Forster committed a literary crime by cutting his characters’ feet out from under them Because Reasons and then making them do things they wouldn’t have done before Because Everyone Abandoned Me. In other words, I think a character arc should end up on higher ground, not some inverse parallel universe.

On the other hand, maybe that is the point? Maybe our principles and values are only as good as the support we get from the collective. But in that case, I would say they aren’t principles and values at all if you don’t live by them personally (and if they aren’t ever tested).

So maybe the characters of Howards End are just a bunch of spineless people spitting out platitudes. WHY would I want to read or watch a story about people that are like that?!!

Anyways… I try to keep my reviews fairly positive but this show left me Upset as you can see. Let me know your thoughts on Howards End and/or this topic. No worries, I got my rant out of my system and won’t argue. πŸ˜†





3 responses to “Howards End (2020) – Mini-Rant About Character Arcs and the Meaning of Self”

  1. great book study Avatar
    great book study

    I’m so bummed you disliked HE. Now…you haven’t read the book; hence, you may find a completely different experience. My personal experience was that HE was about ENGLAND, and each character represented different societal groups that had the opportunity of inheriting and influencing future England. I was left asking this question: “Who will establish the future of England? Will it be the struggling middle class, the cultured idealistic, or the old fashioned, traditionalist?” I also enjoyed the 1992 film. I’ve not seen the series you write about.

    As for character arcs, I do agree that characters should evolve, and for the better. Those who do change for the worse should be left as example for how not to live. That would be ideal. (I’m trying to think about Hardy and some of his disturbing characters, which may not fit into that formula.) Anyway, it’s been awhile since I read HE, so I wonder if next time I read it I may focus more on character traits and changes.

    Furthermore, I am of the opinion that we must be held responsible for our moral behavior wherever we are in our life at that time. Many end up in prison for bad choices, and in prison experience a moral change for the better. (I know someone personally in this situation; nonetheless, he is where he is for a reason, and he must live out his consequences until he fulfills his societal obligation.)


    1. Marian Avatar

      Well… in spite of my extreme reaction, maybe I will give the book a try at some point. πŸ™‚ It’s quite possible this just wasn’t a good adaptation.

      I definitely see what you mean by the different social groups being encompassed by the characters. Maybe that’s why it pained me so much that they seemed to become more and more watered-down towards the end of the story…I’m thinking mostly of Mr. Wilcox, who I didn’t like but nevertheless came across as a strong character at the beginning.


  2. The Painted Veil – Integrity in Writing, the Power of Conversation, and Grief – Classics Considered Avatar

    […] herself—once used for wrong—can be used for right. I feel this sheds some light on the question of identity which I’ve been thinking about lately, or, at least, poses as a good example of how a person may change without losing who they […]


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