The Emotional Intelligence of Howards End: Right versus the Left Brain?

Last Updated May 20, 2011 1:29 AM EDT

Over time many critics have come to the conclusion that Howards End is the best book written by EM Forester. The book is set around 1900 in England and one of the main themes is the conflict between two families, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes. Henry Wilcox is the head of the family and a rigid man of conventional public principles. He is shy about personal matters, and believes the key to success in life is concentration. Stuffy, conventional, and chauvinistic, Henry represents the pragmatic, materialistic aspect of the English upper classes.

Margaret Schlegel, however, at 29 is a modern woman, raised in a German-British family where imagination in the form of literature and music are important. She is committed to "personal relations", looks people in the eye, says what she thinks, is not slow to get the point, Margaret is represents the idealistic, intellectual aspect of the English upper classes. Later in the book Margaret marries Henry.

Margaret's motto is "Only connect". which leads to the most famous passage in the book:

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.
What struck me in the book is how these two characters appeared to represent the left brain/right brain dichotomy. Henry Wilcox is left brained: logical analytical, and highly organised. He follows the rules with out questioning them. Margaret Schlegel is right brained: intuitive, impulsive, unable to execute a plan such as finding another house to live in. These are exactly the adjectives used by the so-called "hemisphere" trainers or dichotomizers as they are sometimes known and popularized by such organisations as Herrman International.

Personally I must side with the authors of 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology who list as Myth #2 the right brain/left brain dichotomy. The authors suggest the next time someone claims to be able to retrain your allegedly flabby right-brain hemisphere, you should grab your wallet and run away as fast as you can. Yes, people who have had a split brain operation do process differently. However for the rest of us the overlap and sharing of information in the brain's networks is quite extraordinary.

If you don't have time to read the book, at least see the film. Emma Thompson won the Oscar in 1993 as best actress for her performance as Margaret Schlegel. I don't know if it was intentional, or whether the director had a sense of humour, but there in the marriage scene between the two of them, Margaret signs with her left hand (right brain) and Henry with his right. You can see the scene in this video clip.

The denouements at the end of the book and film are wonderful and give credence to the adage that left-handed people are the only ones in their right mind.