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Literary Evolution as a Window into Social Evolution

Katherine Redford's picture

 Upon beginning Zadie Smith’s novel On Beauty just four days after completing Forster’s Howard’s End, I was horrified.  “We are reading the same story all over again!” I thought, “This is going to be the most horrifically boring experience of all time.”  But as I delved deeper into the novel, keeping Howard’s End in the back of my mind, I found myself not only fascinated with the picture of modern society Smith presented, but also with the important connections in themes between the two novels.  These themes were especially accessible due to such a similar plot line.  By reading Zadie Smith’s novel, Forster’s masterpiece makes more sense, enlightening the reader about social evolution within the past century and at the same time providing a critique of society and its progress. Throughout our reading of On Beauty, I began to see the correlation, by reading these two novels together; I achieved knowledge far greater than what I would have attained having read one novel or the other.  The symbiotic relationship between the two presented an image of the social evolution of many social issues, race, class, gender, and religion.

 While Forster’s expression of class differences was strong and accessible, his novel appeared to lack relevancy to our twenty-first century American culture.  As we discussed and argued in our Evolution and Literature class, we struggled to decide why we read the novel.  It barely hung onto the struggles and themes of today’s society.  We placed it in the literary cannon, declaring it a must read in the world of academia, but why?  Forster wrote Howard’s End, perhaps unknowingly at a time that was just the beginning of tumultuous change.  In reading this novel independent of any other, the beginnings of this change might not be obviously visible.  But by reading a modern piece that discusses the same themes, such as Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a richer literary experience can be reached.

 The theme that was strongest in the strongest in Howard’s End was obviously class, and the ability of an individual to move in between them.  Here we see, by the end of the novel, the son of a poor clerk, inheriting the grand home of the aristocracy of England.  The final line of the book says, “‘We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!’” (359).  Forster leaves the reader with the impression that the class system has been broken, or that it is at least possible that a person can overcome it.  We move to Boston in the early twenty-first century, and a very different picture exists.  Class is an impossible barrier that cannot be overcome.  Carl, an unconventionally educated man, despite great talent and numerous opportunities, remains a member of the inner city Roxbury community.  Zora reminds him, “‘You think you’re a Wellingtonian because they let you file a few records? You don’t know a thing about what it takes to belong here.’” (417). Even as he worked at Wellington, the stigma of the inner city followed him.  From the expression of class in the two novels, the reader is able to see the lack of social evolution towards financial and social equality.

 Another window into social evolution is found in religion.  Religion is not really mentioned much at all in Howard’s End.   The novel presents the reader with a time where religion was not much of an issue, or controversial in any way.  However, religion takes an unprecedented role in Zadie Smith’s novel.  It is mentioned countless times and becomes a topic of great friction among the characters.  The nucleus of this conflict can be found between Howard, a staunch disbeliever, and the Kipps, a religious Christian family.  After spending time with the Kipps, Howard’s eldest son finds comfort in faith and religion; subsequently, he falls out of his father’s good graces.  The ideal of modern society lies, as depicted by Smith, not with Howard.  His character is absolutely frozen in his ways, reusing the same lectures, telling the same stories, making the same mistakes.  His attempt to dismantle Rembrandt, for him, is a religion.  On the other hand, Kiki represents the ideal modern opinion of religion.  She is able to renounce the spiritual and heavenly without having to find a manmade replacement on earth.  From these two novels, the evolution toward a lack of religion seems imminent and as Tamarinda Figueroa speculates in the Evolit forum, “as Latino immigrants have continued to prosper in America, we have slowly lost our need to look up”.  It seems that society is evolving to a place where religion is no longer necessary in a world where everything is possible. 

 While both novels are strong on their own, they are able to come together and form a force to be reckoned with.  By combining the stories found in On Beauty and Howard’s End it is possible to observe social evolution through time.  Literary evolution is a representation or a window through which human societies can reflect on the progress, or lack thereof, they have made through time.  The stories combined can tell a much more general story about where our society is coming from, and hint at where our society is going.  Literary evolution is the fossil record of social evolution.  Without this physical evidence regarding what society was like in the past, and how it compares to the modern world.