Tibby the Master of Counterpoint: Marxist Failure on Feminist Terms

Marxist and feminist theory work together in Tibby’s life to create his unusual status as a privileged failure. Tibby Schlegel is a man with all the advantages that one could hope for in life. He is young, rich, and educated in culture. One might assume that a man in London in the early twentieth century, with a permanent income and plenty of leisure time, would hold a prominent role in any novel. However, In Howards End Tibby is only a minor character. One of the major themes developed over the course of Howards End is the challenging of gender roles, but each time a gender role is challenged it seems to be later reinforced. So, this may seem more specifically the challenging of the importance of gender roles. Yet, Tibby’s character only seems to challenge gender roles, and worse, Tibby’s character only ever shows the negative results of challenging the prevailing gender roles. The inclusion of Tibby as a character, even a minor one, seems to complicate the statement that the novel tries to make about gender roles. So it stands to reason, that there is another important role that Tibby’s character fills. In E. M. Forster’s novel, Howards End, The character of Tibby Schlegel serves as a counterpoint to the other characters in the novel; scenes involving Tibby are used to highlight the masculinity of the other characters.

The typical Marxist take on the world shows that the base determines the superstructure. The base is everything that makes production possible. The money needed to start a business, the machinery that creates the product, and the income generated from that product are all part of the base (Peter Barry 151). The superstructure is every benefit the base affords. The things that make life enjoyable such as culture, art, religion, and freedom are all part of the superstructure of a society (Peter Barry 151). Tibby’s base is his the permanent income of himself and the other members of his family. His base gives him the freedom to pursue a life of a life of high art and leisure. His superstructure includes a good education in culture, a nice home in the city, servants, and plenty of leisure time.

Reification is the process by which people are stripped of their humanity and are seen in general terms (Peter Barry 151). Soldiers could be referred to as boots on the ground, or audience members could be seen as butts in seats. The results of reification allow people to be thought of in terms of objects, and, therefore, the people deserve no consideration as actual humans. An entertainer would not feel bad about canceling a show at the last minute if the only things that were going to be inconvenienced were ‘butts,’ and a military leader would a much easier time sending ‘boots’ into a deadly battle than actual people with lives and families. Referring to people as objects that are less than human to be able to treat them in a way that humans should not be treated is the essence of reification. However, Tibby’s experience with reification is somewhat unique because according to a Marxist perspective, Tibby’s freedom to live life on his own terms should free him from alienation and reification.

Tibby is not completely free of the reification process. Referring to Tibby, Margaret said, “In a way, I wish we had a real boy in the house- the kind of boy who cares for men” (Forster 33). Helen goes on to agree with her sister’s assessment of Tibby as not being real. This quote shows people who hold power over Tibby and how they alienate him. The interesting thing is that these people with power over him are not his employers (as a man of independent means, Tibby has none). They are not his religious leaders (Tibby is portrayed as nonreligious if not overtly atheist). Nor are they his political superiors (Nor does Tibby engage in much political activity as depicted in Howards End). By treating Tibby as if he is not real, Margaret and Helen allow themselves to manipulate his life in ways that they would not like their lives to be manipulated. This is an unusual twist considering the early twentieth century England was a patriarchal male dominated society.

In a patriarchal society the gender roles are fairly restrictive. These gender roles are a culturally enforced set of rules that define what clothing, actions and jobs are appropriate for a person as determined by his or her sex. What is deemed by society to be appropriate for males is considered masculine, and what is deemed by society to be appropriate for females is considered to be feminine. A patriarchal society is a male dominated society. For women to have any power over a man in such a context was definitely abnormal. Therefore, Margaret and Helen’s reification of Tibby, thinking of him as if he isn’t real, is one the techniques used in the novel to allow (mainly Margaret, but Hellen to a lesser extent) the stepping stone to break away from society’s typical rules of femininity.

However, Margaret and Helen’s ability to see their brother as something other than human also leads them to mistreat him from time to time. Their mistreatment usually comes in the form of emasculation; generally, Margaret and Helen say things to make Tibby feel less masculine. For example, after the Beethoven concert, Tibby went inside and made tea while the women talked outside. When Tibby called them in for tea Helen responded, “All right, Aunt Tibby” (Forster 33). As well as being a direct insult to Tibby’s masculinity by referring to him as an old woman, Helen’s taunt is based around the idea of man’s and women’s work. This is the culturally enforced idea that some jobs are inherently masculine, and other jobs are feminine.  For example, a man takes the trash or mows the lawn, and a woman mops the floors or prepares food and drink for the family.

In this scene, Helen teases Tibby because he is breaking cultural norms when he brews tea for the women. However, this scene is also interesting because the typical masculine and feminine roles are completely reversed. In scenes familiar from old-fashioned movies and traditional family meals such as Thanksgiving, the women work in the kitchen while the men stand outside, converse and smoke cigars. While it is obvious that Margaret, Helen, and Aunt Julie are not smoking cigars, they are outside discussing things while Tibby is in the house doing work in the kitchen. This is not to say that they are intentionally flaunting the rules of society by lampooning such an iconic family scene. However, it is possible that Forster envisions this scene as a tongue in cheek way to highlight how the gender roles are reversed in the Schlegel family.

One thing that the scene with Tibby does do well is show how his character is used a counterpoint to highlight the masculinity of Margaret and Helen. The weak and subservient image of Tibby preparing and serving tea to the three women serves to intensify the odd social dynamic in this family. Although Tibby, Helen, and Margaret all have their own incomes the typical masculine roles all fall on Margaret. While the quote about Tibby not being a real boy was intended by as a slight against Tibby, it also acts as a sort of comparison between Margaret and Tibby. Margaret wishes for Tibby to be “the kind of boy who cares for men” (Forster33). This statement is a direct response to the way Tibby leaves Leonard out of his conversation when they walk back from the concert to retrieve Leonard’s lost umbrella. Within a patriarchal society it is customary for the men in the family to make an effort to entertain other male guests, but Tibby decides to spend all of his time discussing the themes and motifs of the music that they had just heard with his Aunt Julie. Music is not a subject that Leonard is either interested in at the time or even understands in any detail. Therefore, Margaret fills the masculine role that Tibby refuses to fill. The failings of tibbys character serve to highlight the key points of Margaret’s character, but Tibby’s character does not just compare well against his sister.

Tibby is the equal opposite of Leonard; Leonard excels where Tibby fails and vice versa. Tibby lives a rich and leisured life. He is devoid of the wants and needs of the typical person of his day. He has a seemingly inexhaustible income that keeps him well-fed and well-dressed. All of his needs are provided for him. He lives in a large house in the center of the city. He is taken care of by servants and his older sisters. Even when his house is scheduled to be torn down, Tibby is unconcerned. He knows that everything will be provided for him. On the other hand, Leonard is poor, and he struggles for everything that he gets. Leonard is able to meet his needs at least at the beginning of the novel, but he is limited to filling his needs. He is able to splurge from time to time on the finer things in life such as classical music concerts. However, he must attend the cheapest and most conveniently located concerts, and his attendances of these events are limited to days that he can afford them and times that he can get away from work. Leonard has no one to help him pay the bills. In fact, he is further handicapped by the need to take care of Jackie. Leonard is preoccupied with the possible loss of his home even in times of plenty. But  both Leonard and Tibby share a dream of a life of culture.

Both Tibby and Leonard have a passion for the finer things in life, but because of their differences in monetary base and cultural superstructure they have a very different experience of the same things. At the classical music concert Tibby and Leonard are able to experience Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. However, when Tibby sits down to listen to this musical masterpiece he lays the full score on his knee and immerses himself completely in the music (Forster 25). Tibby uses his extensive knowledge of how to contrast melody lines in a musical technique called counterpoint, used primarily in the baroque period, to understand the complex and beautiful harmonies of a symphony that was created in the transition between the classical and romantic periods. Not only does Leonard’s status as a poor person preclude him from owning a full musical score of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, but also his limited funds throughout his life would make sure that he had never been given the lessons in music that would be required to make sense of a musical score or understand that baroque counterpoint and harmony from the romantic period are two different musical styles that do not work together.

Tibby is able to use his background in music to anticipate interesting bits of music coming up, break down how a piece of music is put together, understand how this piece of music adheres to or deviates from the characteristics of other music of the same period, and generally understand the music in a way that Leonard can only dream of. And Leonard does dream of this deep connection with culture. Leonard thinks to himself, “Oh, to acquire culture…. Oh, to be well informed… But it would take one years” (Forster 31). Of course, this quote is a little later in the same chapter and refers to Leonard’s inability to understand the things that Margaret is talking about, but the sentiment seems to work in this context as well.

Leonard dreams about living in the world of culture but cannot let go of the other things in life that are nagging on him. Leonard begins the experience of listening to Beethoven by getting into a conversation with Magaret. The novel is not clear about whether he starts the conversation or not, or whether or not the conversation is truly about the music. But even if they are conversing about the music, Leonard is not likely to understand half of what Margaret says to him. On the trip to pick up his umbrella, Leonard thinks that her conversation flies out of his grasp like birds (Forster 31). Again his lack of knowledge is the culprit. However, some of his inability to live in the world of culture comes down to his financial worries. All throughout that evening Leonard is interrupted by one thought or another: “…He could not quite forget about his stolen umbrella… Ought he have paid two shillings? …Shall I try to do without a program?” (Forster 31). Leonard’s worries all seem to stem from a lack of funds. Even his lack of cultur comes down to his insufficient education due to his growing up poor. Also, Leonard’s sense of self-decency does not allow him to pay attention to the music when he heard that Fraulein Mosebach leaves her purse (Forster 29). He volunteeres to return her purse as a gesture of goodwill and in an attempt to do something that makes him look like person with culture. As a result, Leonard is unable to disengage from his everyday experience and get the most out of the culture that is surrounding him.

On the other hand, Tibby is able to tune out everything but the music that he is interested in, but he refuses to acknowledge anything from the real world. Tibby is constantly interrupting Helen’s fanciful visual interpretation of the music to give updates to the progress of the music (Forster 26). Tibby’s constant interruptions seem to be an indication that he is so involved in the music that he does not realize that he is disrupting the experience for others. Although, it might be a good idea to keep in mind his self-centered nature; Tibby may know full well that he is ruining the experience for others and just not care. However, due to the education afforded to the rich and his permanent income, Tibby has none of the worries that Leonard does. Therefore, he has very little distractions to keep him from thorough enjoyment of the music at hand. However, when he is asked to catch Helen before she leaves with Leonard’s umbrella he makes a show of his displeasure until it is too late to stop her: first, he complaines that he would miss the upcoming songs. Then, “Tibby rose to his feet, and willfully caught his person on the backs of the chairs” (Forster 26). Tibby is displeased by being asked to do something gallant and masculine. With Tibby’s outstanding knowledge of culture, he must feel that he does not need to do something to look cultured because he knows he already is.

Although Tibby grows up with all the advantages of a strong superstructure, he does not have the character and human decency that Leonard has. While a strong base and superstructure are key in developing a good basses in culture as well as giving one the freedom to break the rules of masculinity. However, Tibby has so much freedom from the rules of society that he sometimes comes across as a horrible person. When Tibby is being compared to Leonard it is understood that sometimes too much freedom can be a bad thing. It also seems that Forster is saying that hard work and struggle can be good for the soul, but too much struggle can crush the human spirit.

When writing his novel, Howards End, Forster found that although Tibby is a flawed character he can be juxtaposed against other characters to bring out nuances that readers may not notice otherwise. Now that Tibby has been used to bring understand to the successes and failures of Margaret’s and Leonard’s characters, others may find it useful to compare Tibby against other characters such as Charles or Henry. Another way to go might be to show the similarities between the way the characters of Tibby and Jackie, another poorly liked minor character. However Tibby’s character is approached in the future, it is useful to remember that Tibby is an important character whether or not he is a likeable one.

Works Cited

Barry, Peter, ed. Beginning Theory: An Introduction to Literary and Cultural Theory.3rd ed. New York: Manchester University Press, 2009.

Forster, E. Howards End. Norton Critical Edition. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1998.


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