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Exploring Moral Clarity via Control Theory

EB Ver Hoeve's picture

Have you ever heard of the Polar Bear Plunge?  Near the end of each blisteringly cold Wisconsin winter, a group of brave souls "plunge" for a few seconds into the freezing waters of Lake Mendota.  Well, last time I went to this event, my attention was drawn away from the human yelps toward a calmer spot on the lake where a flock of Canadian geese waded in shallow water.  I remember thinking, 'How do those birds have so much tolerance for the cold?'  The secret, of course, rests in thermoregulation - more specifically, geese use countercurrent heat exchange or circulatory adaptation to maintain their core body temperature as a controlled variable.  One can draw an intriguing comparison between the application of "control theory' in biological evolution and its application in literature as seen in Howard's End - through Forster's regulation and control of morality.

Maintenance of homeostasis is absolutely essential for understanding the concept of "control theory" in biology.  Most of the body's variables must be maintained within very specific and narrow limits in order for the organism to survive.  When confronted with significant environmental events, the body learns to adapt in order to survive.  Canadian geese developed a specialized form of countercurrent heat exchange to reduce the amount of heat loss within the extremity of their legs by allowing heat to be transferred from their arteries to their veins.  Without this adaptation, geese that waded into icy cold water could not survive. 

This working concept of "control theory" can also be applied in analyzing human behavioral adaptations.  In the novel, Howard's End, Forster plays with "control theory" to explain his characters' desires to achieve ultimate moral clarity, specifically as depicted in the epigraph plastered across the back page of the novel, "only connect."  Using the house, Howard's End, as a control point for spiritual equilibrium, Forster urges his readers to arrive at the conclusion that peace and harmony in life can only be achieved through meaningfully connecting with others and through self-understanding.  Just as there are many ways to solve the problem of thermoregulation, there are many ways to conserve the critical human need for connectedness.  In Howard's End, Forster demonstrates how individuals often take action, unaware of the causes or effects of these actions on themselves and others.  He also explains that one consequence of connectedness is making unanticipated connections, which perturb the system and result in further adaptations and evolution of relationships.  As humans create relationships they also refine their own hierarchy of moral control systems, and Forster uses his observations of the struggles experienced by Mr. Wilcox, Margaret, and Helen to show how arrival at a balance point or state of equilibrium is worth trying to capture. 

Perhaps the incident that first catapults Mr. Wilcox into a state of disconnect occurs when he finds out that the late Mrs. Wilcox, in her dying days, has scribbled off a note instructing him to give the house, Howard's End, to her friend, Margaret.  Stunned, offended, and jealous, Mr. Wilcox is displaced from his comfortable niche.  No less than if he was plunged into an icy stream, he seeks to regain homeostasis by burning Mrs. Wilcox' letter in the fire, thereby symbolically burning any potential connection between the Schlegal and Wilcox families.  But because Forster has established that the only way for his characters to achieve inner moral clarity is through forming connections, this disconnect sparks a series of subsequent events - each of which serves to reestablish a connection between Margaret and the house, Howard's End. Although it would have been reasonable to assume that the little connection that had existed between the Schlegal and Wilcox families would have naturally dissolved, the two families are inadvertently drawn together and these environmental influences initiate an unconscious attraction that encourages each of these individuals to alter their own identities in order to establish mutual connections. 

At first, a marriage between Margaret, the idealist, and Mr. Wilcox, the realist, appears unthinkable.  However, further contemplation of Margaret's moral strength, her astute skills of observation, and her willingness to accept challenges, including the need to bridge the social status gap suggests ample reason for this forged union.  Unlike most of the other characters in the novel who struggle - mostly at an unconscious level - to create moral clarity and homeostasis, Margaret (like Mrs. Wilcox) is gifted with powerful skills of perception and she is obviously committed to being successful in all of her personal relationships.  Margaret doesn't need anyone to tell her that it is through tea parties, political discussions, musical performances, and personal relationships that one can make connections and achieve inner moral clarity. 

In learning of her sister Margaret's engagement to Mr. Wilcox, Helen is thrown into a world of disconnect.  Seemingly unable to control the situation that is unfolding around her, she is faced with attempting to reverse the direction of change or to push it even further in the same direction, disconnected from any feedback about the results.  Pressured by a passionate desire to help the less fortunate, tortured by a fear of losing her relationship with her sister, and incensed by her distaste for her sister's new partner, Mr. Wilcox, Helen subconsciously chooses to create a totally new connection, this time with the unfortunate Leonard Bast.  Though she cannot fully articulate her reasoning, her behavior is consistent with the cybernetic theory of circular connections.  That is, in an effort to control perceived environmental consequences and to achieve personal equilibrium, she radically alters her own behavior.  In the end, Helen's solution is both personally traumatic and inwardly rewarding as she helps to create a connection between herself, her bastard child, her sister, and her sister's husband all living under the same roof at Howard's End.

The novel concludes in the same location that it began: Howard's End.  The house that had originally been intended for Margaret, is finally given to her and together, Margaret, Mr. Wilcox, Helen and her child live comfortably and peacefully within the house.  Through the fusion of a working mixture of different classes, sexes, ideals, and ages at Howard's End, we can assume that these four characters will continue to evolve in many ways before they reach the novel's final adaptation and succeed in creating spiritual equilibrium.  Historically speaking, people of this time period in England were about to experience huge social change such as the industrial revolution, and the working class man was about to "inherit England."  It seems fitting, therefore, that the union of these four distinct characters all living under the same roof symbolically represents a lifestyle well-suited to entering into this new environment.  Just as Canadian geese develop an exceptional adaptive mechanism for maintaining a stable core temperature while wading in cold water, Forster's characters living in Howard's End achieve a level of connectedness, which provides them with the moral clarity that justifies their extraordinary actions.