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Endings as Mirrors of Evolutionary Growth in Literature: Howards End and On Beauty

Elise Niemeyer's picture

All works of literature are the results of an evolutionary process.  They have been influenced by many works that came before, selected for through publication, and generated new elements that make them unique and successful.   There is also an evolutionary process at work within the book itself.  The story develops over the course of the narrative, drawing on past influences, selecting for elements that move the story along, and generating an ending that is indicative of this particular evolutionary journey.   Where the end product of a biological evolutionary process is the creation of a new species, the end product of a novel is literally its ending scene, words that must resolve, or not, the preceding action of the story, incorporating the evolution of the plot, characters, and themes throughout.  On a larger scale an adapted literary work is the end product of an evolutionary process inspired by a generative original.  On both theses levels it is helpful to analyze the results of the evolutionary processes, the ending of a story and the adaptation of an original work, in order to understand the process itself.

E. M. Forster's Howards End and Zadie Smith's On Beauty exemplify novels with ending scenes that illuminate the evolution of the story throughout the preceding pages.  Forster's ending seems to both standout from the rest of the story and naturally resolve it at the same time.  Margaret has finally come into possession of Howards End and lives there with her husband, sister, and illegitimate nephew.  There is still much tension between the Wilcox children and the Schlegel sisters, but on the surface the situation is quite idyllic and happy, especially for Helen and her child.  While a connection seems to have been finally made between Margaret and Mr. Wilcox, the success of that connection is unclear.  The last line in the book, “We've seen to the very end, and it'll be such a crop of hay as never!” (359), underscores both the seemingly optimistic nature of the scene and the sense of completion it provides for the evolution of the story.   Forester's ending stands out as a kind of static, non-narrative scene, almost a tableau, finishing the narrative of the story with a sense of connection, both antagonizing and beneficial.  This approach reflects the evolution of the story throughout the novel as the characters, especially Margaret, adjust their disjointed perspectives to “see life steadily and see it whole” (281).  Though the peaceful life in the country may contrast with the action of the rest of the story, the ending is the necessary result of the story's evolution; Forster's message of connection comes to fruition.

While the message may have changed, many elements from Howards End form the basis of Zadie Smith's On Beauty, including the treatment of the ending and its reflection of the rest of the novel.    Smith ends her story with Howard Belsey attempting to give a lecture on Rembrandt to an assembly of academics, only to find that he is lost for words.  When he sees his estranged wife in the audience smiling at him, a kind of connection is made, a direct reflection of Forster.  What is more subtly a reflection of Forster is the way in which Smith ends the scene as a static, non-narrative moment.  As Howard zooms in on the painting, he erases all traces of a story in the picture.  Instead, the viewer is only left with a close-up of the subject's skin, seemingly bereft of a narrative story, but nevertheless an, “intimation of what is to come” (443).  While the ending scene completes the story in a similar way to Forster's choice, Smith's scene reflects the evolution of her specific storyline.  Her characters have been progressing throughout the novel away from intellectual, academic ways of thinking and toward a more unconscious, immediate way of interacting, exemplified by the connections that Forster found so dear.

In the same way that the end of a novel reflects the evolution of storyline, an adapted work reflects the evolutionary process of adaptation of which is it the end product.  Smith's On Beauty retains many aspects of Forster's original, especially the plot development, and some of the main themes.  Both novels deal with issues of class, marriage, intellectualism, and practicality.  However, Smith is not merely transposing Forster's ideas into a modern setting.  She has adapted the story to incorporate her own ideas concerning the hypocrisy of academia, race, and the importance of appreciating beauty on an unconscious, emotional level.    The ending scenes of these two particular novels also shed light on the evolutionary process of adaptation.   Smith has moved her ending to an academic setting to underscore a main theme appearing throughout her book.  Her final lines also deal more directly with the unconscious connection between two people and within oneself than Forster's explicit, conscious interpersonal connections.  However, the evolutionary process that allowed Forster's original to be adapted by Smith is not merely the results of both writers' creativity.   Smith's application of Forster's work is influenced by years of literary criticism and analysis of Howards End, cultural developments and public opinion in addition to her own personal experience with the work.  Thus the modern perception of Howards End has evolved significantly since its publication, and this evolution is reflected in Smith's work through her modern interpretation of Forster's themes.

The evolutionary process that takes place both within a story and between two related stories is reveled gradually throughout the development of certain works.  By the time an ending is reached, whether a conclusion or the creation of a new work, it exemplifies the entire process of which it is the result.  Howards End and On Beauty both address the culmination of their main themes in a discrete non-narrative moment at the end of their stories.  The change from narrative to non-narrative itself reflects the development of the characters' states of mind as they near the end of their journeys.  They have replaced distance with connection and intellectual fallacy with unconscious understanding, changes that they have been working toward throughout the books.  At the same time, the adaptation of Smith's new work from Forster's original is the end product of its own evolutionary process, one that is reflected throughout the book and especially in its ending scene.  By looking backwards at literary evolution from the result to the origin, in the same way that scientists reconstruct biological evolution from its products, new perspectives emerge on the nature of the development of the stories themselves.


Forster, E. M. Howards End.  New York: Vintage International Books, 1989.

Smith, Zadie.  On Beauty.  New York: Penguin Books, 2005.