Genius Loci: Connecting People, One Story at a Time
Have you ever felt a string of emotions come over you upon entering a familiar place? One of life’s simplest pleasures we can experience is to have our senses immediately stimulated upon entering a surrounding environment. It is suggested that an emanation of good or evil forces dictates how the miniscule nerve endings in our mind and body will respond. The atmosphere in which we stood may have produced “good” or “evil” feelings, but we tend to overlook the presence of these emotions when they evolve in our unconscious behavior. Whether to smell the scent of freshly baked cookies or to have the hair on the back of our neck rise, we are left with a distinctive story, a special impression that our brains do not document for analysis. Nevertheless, our mind establishes a unique connection that evolves from a specific locale.
The unconscious phenomenon to which I am referring is genius loci, which means “sense of place” in Latin. According to Roman mythology, each person possessed both an evil and good spirit within themselves. While individuals glorified their good genii for attaining luck, a person’s evil genius took the blame for his misfortunes (Brewer np). If we are not mentally aware of the exact moments of genius loci throughout our lives, do we knowingly grant its reappearance through other aspects of our lives such as via literature? Do we produce new and evolving stories for others to interpret based on a sense of place?
The novel Howards End can be interpreted to embody the concept of genius loci within its framework. A “sense of place” shows great significance for the Wilcoxes, the Schlegels and Leonard Bast throughout the plot. Whether the setting is nothing but a house –a simple means of location – or a structure used to unveil hidden symbolization, the scene can bring forth strong emotions. The roles of these emotions and how they intertwine with the plot, however, are at the discretion of the author. He alone serves as the molder of the characters’ stories within the evolution of his own novel. Psychological metafiction at its finest!
Forster’s Howards End critiques the realities of class structure in London and the significance of connecting; in addition, it possibly conveys genius loci within the actual house called Howards End. The house bears importance to the characters who associate with it (regardless of their feelings toward it), and it represents a positive location for connection to be made for those who makes themselves available. In example, genius loci can be observed when the issue arises of who will receive the house after Mrs. Wilcox dies. Henry, Charles and the other children have distaste for the house, but Margaret lovely takes pride in it. Henry says that Margaret will inherit the house, but she intends to pass it down to Helen’s child. In effect, we as readers may perceive Howards End as the glue that holds the characters together.
Additionally, the characters that frequent Howards End may experience genius loci through the portrayal of Mrs. Wilcox and Forster’s metaphors. In the grander scheme, the Wilcox family symbolizes the imperialistic and materialistic sector of high-class English society. Unlike her husband and children, Mrs. Wilcox is the lovingly sensitive and selfless owner of Howards End. She represents the “old” England, and she permeates a sense of “good spirit” around her home.
In correlation with Mrs. Wilcox’s characteristics, Forster cleverly uses Howards End as a giant metaphor for England during its period of immense social and economic change before World War I. Due to the looming onset of the war, England harbored great national pride within its boundaries. At the time, the advantageous genius loci of the country (brought on by nationalism) fostered positive ambitions but clashing ideals. Furthermore, England was moving from a rural-based economy to an urban way of life. Is it coincidental that the location of Howards End is situated in the middle of a rural and urban environment?
In his metaphor, Forster portrays the fact that there was ambiguity regarding which ideological values would “rule” England when the characters discuss who should “take the reigns” of Howards End. Despite lengthy discussion, Mrs. Wilcox leaves the house to Margaret, which is very convenient because her philosophy on life is to “only connect”. She strives to make connections between herself and others, between the spiritual and the physical aspects of life. I could argue that Margaret possesses an affinity for Howards End because she embraces with pride its genius loci through the evolution of her connections (her mature realizations of generative stories).
The final chapter of Howards End serves to somewhat unify the ideals of the social classes so that Helen, Margaret and Henry can live happily together at Howards End. These characters successfully connect with each other because they are able to ignore their social classes. Given that, Forster suggests that England could be a safe haven for all social statuses if people would “only connect”. The genius loci of Howards End (in terms of both the house itself and the English nation) might be the spark that fuels the evolution of the characters’ stories and ideologies into something more generative for the betterment of society.
Brewer, E. Cobham. “Genius”. Dictionary of Phrase and Fable. Philadelphia:
Henry Altemus, 1898. Bartleby.com, 2000. www.bartleby.com/81/.
17 April 2007.
Forster, E.M. Howards End. Vintage International Books: New York, 1989.