Howards End is a highly symbolic novel; many critics have described it as parable with archetypal or mythic characters. The Wilcoxes symbolize the practical, materialistic, enterprising sort of people who have contributed to England’s prosperity and strengthened the empire. The Schlegels symbolize the intellectual and artistic types who possess humanistic values and recognize the importance of the spirit. Margaret and Henry’s marriage demonstrates the relationship between these two personalities, emphasizing a balance between the two. Of all the Wilcoxes, Ruth is the only one who does not fit the Wilcox “mold.” She is withdrawn from modern life, intuitive, spiritual, and not at all intellectual, but as Lionel Trilling states, representative of traditional values and ancestral knowledge. Along with Miss Avery, the caretaker of Howards End, Ruth Wilcox symbolizes the importance of the human connection to nature and the earth. The wych elm tree with the pig’s teeth, the vine, and the hayfield at Howards End also emphasize this connection. The movement of the seasons and the rhythms of nature are contrasted to the senseless movement of the modern, industrialized city, symbolized by the motorcar. The motorcar is never portrayed in a very attractive light: chaos and confusion seem to follow it everywhere, as in the scene where Charles hits the cat.
Other important symbols include the Schlegel books and bookcase and family sword at Howards End, which play so significantly in Leonard’s death. When Leonard falls from Charles’s blow with the sword and literally buries himself in books, it appears that the culture and intellectual sophistication he so desperately sought become his ruin. It is noteworthy that the sword and books belong to the Schlegels, however. Ostensibly, it seems that Leonard dies at the hand of the Wilcoxes-Henry, by giving him bad advice, and Charles, by actually dealing the final blow with the sword. But if Helen had not been overwhelmed by her sense of injustice, her anger toward the Wilcoxes, and her pity for Leonard, he would at least still have his life. The novel’s bitter irony is that the person who tried to help Leonard the most effectively destroyed him.