Study Guide

A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

A Passage to India Themes

Themes

The two principal themes of A Passage to India relate clearly to the social concerns expressed in the novel. First, Forster focuses upon the need for friendship among persons of different races, a popular topic in 1924, considering that a world war had ended and the League of Nations had not yet proven itself a futile, sterile, and overly idealistic organization. Forster approached that theme realistically, for he knew that within male dominated Indian society, the Hindu preoccupied himself with friendship and the Muslim searched for a friend. Second, in a 1954 address in India, in which he spoke about his novel, Forster identified what he termed a deeper theme—one even beyond the social concerns within British dominated India. In that context he cited from the final section of the Walt Whitman poem, "Passage to India" (1871), that provided him with his title:

Passage to more than India! Are thy winds plumed indeed for such far flights? O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like those? Disportest thou on waters such as those? Soundest below the Sanscrit and the Vedas? Then have thy bent unleashed.

As in Whitman's poem, the "passage" extends beyond India and becomes a search for truth and universal love throughout the entire world.

Forster reveals those themes to his reader at the very outset of the novel, in the opening chapter and before he brings any of his characters upon the page. Although he would lead the reader to believe that "the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary," he quickly emphasizes the divisiveness that exists within its boundaries. At one extreme "There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil." In opposition to that mud rises a forest of trees, "a tropical pleasaunce washed by a noble river" that hides the bazaars. Particularly following the rains, the trees of that forest "screen what passes below, but at all times, even when scorched or leafless, they glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise [above the bazaars], so that the new-comers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment." However, looming ever so large above Chandrapore and above all India and all England looms the most obvious sign of the universe—the sky! "The sky settles everything—not only climates and seasons, but when the earth shall be beautiful. By herself she can do...

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A Passage to India Themes

Culture Clash
At the heart of A Passage to India —and in the background—is a clash between two fundamentally different cultures, those of East and West. The British poet Rudyard Kipling, who was born in India and lived there for several years as an adult, wrote: "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet." Without quoting or acknowledging Kipling, Forster adopts this premise as a central theme of A Passage to India.

The West is represented by the Anglo-Indians (the British administrators and their families in India) in Chandrapore. They form a relatively small but close-knit community. They live at the civil station, apart from the Indians. Their social life centers around the Chandrapore Club, where they attempt to recreate the entertainments that would be found in England. Although these Westerners wish to maintain good relations with the Easterners whom they govern, they have no desire to "understand" India or the Indians. Early in the book Ronny Heaslop remarks that "No one can even begin to think of knowing this country until he has been in it twenty years." When Adela Quested rebukes him for his attitudes, he replies that "India isn't home"—that is, it is not England.

Mrs. Moore, Adela, and Mr. Fielding are three English characters who challenge this received wisdom. Significantly, Mrs. Moore and Adela are newcomers who have no experience of India and thus are not fully aware of the gulf that separates the two cultures: "They had no race-consciousness— Mrs. Moore was too old, Miss Quested too new— and they behaved to Aziz as to any young man who had been kind to them in the country." However, Adela shows her ignorance of Indian customs when she asks Dr. Aziz how many wives he has. The Turtons throw a "Bridge Party" to "bridge the gulf between East and West," but this event only emphasizes the awkwardness that exists between the two cultures. Mrs. Moore senses that India is full of "mystery and muddle" that Westerners cannot comprehend. Following Aziz's arrest, Turton tells Fielding that in his twenty-five years in India "I have never known anything but disaster result when English people and Indians attempt to be intimate socially."

The culture clash, however, is not only between Indians and Anglo-Indians, but also between two distinct groups of Indians—Moslems and Hindus. The narrative makes it clear that these two groups have very different traditions. Dr. Aziz is proud of his Moslem heritage and considers the Hindus to be almost alien. Hindus "have no idea of society," he tells Mrs. Moore, Adela, and Fielding. At the same time, although he is quite conscious of being an Indian, Aziz has a sentimental affection for Persia, the land from which Moslem culture originally spread to India. The Moslem-Hindu divide closes somewhat when a Hindu attorney, Mr. Amritrao, is called in to defend Aziz. After the trial, Hindus and Moslems alike celebrate Aziz's acquittal. In the book's final section, Aziz is living in a Hindu state, where he regards himself as an outsider.

Friendship
E.M. Forster considered friendship to be one of the most important things in life. He once remarked, controversially, that if he were faced with the choice of betraying his country or betraying his friends, he would betray his country. A Passage to India explores the nature of friendship in its various forms, and the word "friend" occurs frequently throughout the book. When we first meet Dr. Aziz and his friends Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali, they are discussing whether it is possible for Indians to be friends with the British. Hamidullah, who is pleasant and easy-going, fondly recalls his friendship with a British family long ago. When Dr. Aziz meets Mrs. Moore at the mosque, he feels she is someone with whom he can develop a friendship. He also wants to make friends with Cyril Fielding, whom he regards as a sympathetic and enlightened Englishman. However, despite his general impulsiveness, Aziz realizes that "a single meeting is too short to make a friend."

Aziz has a curious friendship with Professor Godbole. He likes Godbole but is unable to understand him. Godbole himself has a friendly attitude, but he is vague and distracted. When Fielding tells him that Aziz has been arrested, Godbole seems unconcerned. Instead, he asks Fielding for advice about what name to give to a school that he is thinking of starting. Still, Fielding...

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