Dynamic Homes: Representing Comfort in Witold Rybczynski’s "Home," E.M.
Forster’s "Howard’s End," and Edgar Allen Poe’s "The Fall of the House of Usher."
According to Witold Rybczynski, author of the book entitled Home: A Short History of an Idea, traditions are maintained in home environments to help individuals make meaning of their worlds and be more comfortable within their surroundings. To argue his point, Rybczynski describes how certain designers such as Ralph Lauren create collections that “evoke the atmosphere of traditional hominess,” which is something highly desirable and comforting in the modern-day, progressive and technologically advanced world. Thus, by buying Lauren’s home furnishings, consumers are able to create the traditional home feeling for personal comfort. This fact represents the larger implication that one’s home brings a sense of comfort to individuals, as one can associate and make meaning of his or her own life through the home and family environment, and that people come together and are united in the home. On the contrary, the loss of stability and comfort in the home can create an uncomfortable or uninhabitable home and lifestyle, or divisions and clashes between its inhabitants. These viewpoints, stemming from Rybczynski’s textual framework, are portrayed in E.M. Forster’s book entitled Howard’s End, and in Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. However, although these two texts confirm the ideas portrayed in Home, Rybczynski’s commodification of an idealized home setting only recognizes the varying literal and figurative meanings and functions of materials in the home, and fails to mention the fact that its inhabitants can equally change its hominess and comfortability as well. Therefore, Forster and Poe’s texts also challenge Rybczynski’s generalizations, as they both represent the significance of the individuals and family on the home environment. Nevertheless, Forster and Poe’s texts also complicate our understanding of the meaning of home, as the represented home situations are somewhat unstable, constantly changing and modified throughout the two stories.
From the opening of his novel, Forster represents the conflict between the idealistic and intellectual Schlegel family and the materialistic and wealthy Wilcox family. The families differed between their materialism and idealism, their practicality and imagination, and their reason and passion. When the Wilcox family moves from their country house, Howard’s End, into a flat in Wickham Mansions, across from the Schlegel’s home at Wickham Place, Margaret Schlegel and Ruth Wilcox meet and immediately become friends. However, as Ruth soon dies from her declining health, her husband, Henry Wilcox, gets acquainted with Margaret and proposes a marriage. The two very different people with different ideologies come together under one home in union and harmony.
Later in the novel, when Margaret’s sister Helen returns from a trip to Germany, she stays in Howard’s End, as it then becomes the location for all of the familial activities. Because of her sympathy for Helen during her pregnancy, and the subsequent murder of Leonard Bast, Margaret becomes the caregiver of both Helen and Henry at Howard’s End. And Henry then pronounces that after his death, his children will inherit his money and Margaret will inherit Howard’s End. Margaret, furthermore, intended to leave Howard’s End to Helen’s child after her death. Overall, all of these significant scenes in the novel occurred in Howard’s End, and the home was eventually the one thing that brought the very different Schlegel and Wilcox families together in unity. This is represented in a specific passage in which Helen says, “at night, we squeeze up in this lovely house. The whole clan’s here now – it’s like a rabbit warren.” Thus, Forster’s text confirms Rybczynski’s views by showing that the home brings a sense of comfort to two sisters, and unifies the two families under one roof.
Poe’s Fall of the House of Usher also confirms the implications we draw from Rybczynski’s text, demonstrating that the loss of control of the activities in the home creates an unbearable and uncomfortable living experience. The story begins as an unnamed narrator travels to see a childhood friend, Roderick Usher, due to his recent letter expressing his sense of nervous agitation and oppressing bodily illness. As the narrator approaches the house, he is surprised by its dark, oppressive and gloomy physical appearance, saying “I felt that I breathed an atmosphere of sorrow. An air of stern, deep, and irredeemable gloom hung over and pervaded all.” The narrator continues to describe how he believes the physical appearance of the building must undoubtedly have an adverse affect on its inhabitants. Poe gives us one extremely significant passage in which the narrator describes a thought he has as to why Usher experiences this bodily illness:
I had learned too…that the entire family lay in the direct line of descent, and has always, with very trifling and very temporary variation, so lain. It was this deficiency, I considered, while running over in thought the perfect keeping of the character of the premises with the accredited character of the people, and while speculating upon the possible influence which the one, in the long lapse of centuries, might have exercised upon the other – it was this deficiency, perhaps, of collateral issue, and the consequent undeviating transmission, from sire to son, of the patrimony with the name, which had, at length, so identified the two as to merge the original title of the estate in the quaint and equivocal appellation of the “House of Usher’ – an appellation which seemed to include, in the minds of the peasantry who used it, both the family and the family mansion.
In this passage the narrator describes how Usher falls victim to his family’s line of descent, as his entire family has lived through this house and continually passes on the family traditions from one generation to the next. The narrator explains that the deficiency of the constant transmission of the rituals has named the location “House of Usher,” as Usher becomes the last to carry on the family tradition. Another interesting idea the narrator ponders is whether the “character of the people,” (i.e. his family’s personalities) has transferred to the current “character of the premise,” (i.e. home or estate). In other words, the narrator wants to know if the family’s personalities and traditions have directly transferred to Usher or not. So, through the narrator’s view, we understand that Usher does not have direct control of his destiny because the family’s life has been bestowed upon him against his will. Because of this lack of control (i.e. giving in to family life and circumstances) Usher feels uncomfortable - to the point of bodily sickness - in the home. This fact confirms the implications we draw from Rybczynski’s Home.
In summary, the two literary texts help demonstrate how people generally look to their home as a way of making sense of their lives and staying comfortable within their surroundings. One may never know the cause for this desire, some arguing that it is because of the modern, fast-paced and technologically advanced culture, others saying it is due to nostalgia for the traditional feeling of comfort as a commodity in the home. Thus, reading the two texts in Rybczynski’s textual framework has made me realize how houses inevitably are ubiquitous constructs in our literary traditions and are so crucial to human identity that they themselves can define a story. The house has been shown to embrace a complex of experiences, such as political beliefs, love, family conflicts and desires. Within the house, one gains a feeling of origin, can define his or her own development, can experience justice, injustice, love, and hate, and can assume new social roles. In its deepest sense of the word, the concept of the house roots itself in spiritual realms of human imagination. Nevertheless, Forster and Poe’s texts complicated my understanding of the meaning of home, as the represented home situations were somewhat unstable and modified over time. Overall, I now see the concept of home essentially as a mere symbol, as the house and its meaning and function proves to be something that is extremely variable in nature and in the evolution of literary stories.
Edgar Allen Poe. “The Fall of the House of Usher” , Edgar Allan Poe: Selected Tales, ed. David Van Leer. New York: Oxford U Press, 1998: 49-65.
Forster, E.M. Howard’s End. New York: Random House Inc., 1989.
Rybczynski, Witold. Home: A Short History of an Idea. New York: Viking Penguin Inc., 1962.