Summary of the Novel
A Passage to India begins in the town of Chandrapore. The first section, entitled Mosque, introduces a gathering of Muslim friends who are discussing the problem of friendship with the Anglo-Indians, their British rulers. Among them is Dr. Aziz, a surgeon, who afterwards has a fateful meeting in a mosque with Mrs. Moore. Their conversation brings them close and later she introduces him to her younger friend, Miss Quested, who has arrived to marry Mrs. Moore’s son.
Various attempts are made to bridge the gap between the Indians and the English: an awkward mixed “bridge-party” at the English Club; Aziz’s brief experience of fellowship while playing polo with a subaltern; and an “unconventional” gathering of the Muslim Aziz, the Hindu Professor Godbole, Mrs. Moore, and Mrs. Quested at a teaparty at Fielding’s house. The relative success of the tea party inspires Aziz to invite all present to accompany him on a planned excursion to the Marabar Caves.
Miss Quested decides not to marry Ronny Heaslop, but then changes her mind and they become engaged. Driving in a car with the Nawab Bahadur, they have an accident; this draws them together and they announce their engagement to Mrs. Moore. Meanwhile, rumors, suspicion, and mutual rancor between Muslims and Hindus emerge in a gathering attended by Aziz, Dr. Panna Lal, and others, though they maintain a superficial politeness.
In the second section, The Caves, Aziz’s excursion begins. Fielding and Professor Godbole are delayed and do not join Aziz and the two women on the train. Once in the caves, Mrs. Moore is disoriented and overcome by incomprehensible sensations. She leaves the caves. Aziz and Miss Quested continue, but after she asks an annoying question, he leaves her and goes into another cave. When he emerges, he sees her far down the hill. Fielding, who is just arriving, asks about Miss Quested. Instead of telling the truth, Aziz invents a story. When they return to Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested. Miss Quested has charged him with attempting to “insult” her in the caves. This is clearly a euphemism for a sexual advance or attack.
The British community is furious and indignant; Aziz is denied bail. Fielding’s attempts to speak to Adela Quested fail. Mrs. Moore refuses to remain in India to testify at the trial. She books passage on a ship for England. Miss Quested tells her fiancé that Aziz is innocent, but Heaslop will not do anything about it. At the trial, when she finally takes the witness stand, she admits that she was mistaken about the supposed assault. The Muslims stage a march to celebrate Aziz’s release. Fielding rescues Miss Quested by taking her to his garden house. There, they learn that Mrs. Moore has died at sea, before the trial. Ronny Heaslop breaks his engagement to Adela, who leaves for England. Fielding resigns from the Club. Aziz has begun to distrust Fielding; he believes that Fielding is trying to keep Miss Quested from paying compensation and even that he is having a secret affair with her.
The third and final section, The Temple, takes place years later. Professor Godbole and Aziz are now living and working in the Native State of Mau, ruled by an aging Rajah. The section opens with Professor Godbole, who is now minister of education in Mau, and soon leads into the Gokul Ashtami, a great festival celebrating the birthday of Shri Krishna. There, Professor Godbole dances in worship of the god and remembers Mrs. Moore with love. Aziz has refused to read Fielding’s letters, still imagining that he has married Miss Quested. When Fielding arrives in his role as inspector of education, he attempts to make peace with Aziz, pointing out that his wife is not Miss Quested but Mrs. Moore’s daughter, Stella. Stella and her brother, Ralph, have come to India with him. Aziz at first treats Ralph roughly, but then, remembering Mrs. Moore, he softens toward him. The Rajah has died, although his death is being concealed. Aziz and Fielding go for a last ride together and recapture much of their old intimacy. Yet Aziz insists that the British must be forced out, so that India will be a sovereign nation. Fielding disagrees. Although the two men want to be friends, the historical circumstances do not allow for friendship between them.
The Life and Work of E. M. Forster
Edward Morgan Forster was born in London on January 1, 1879. After graduating from Tonbridge School, he attended King’s College, Cambridge where he was exposed to the values of liberal humanism and discovered an appreciation of the human being as an individual and the value of friendship. Many of the friendships he made at Cambridge were lasting ones, and he was later to travel to India for the first time with university friends.
Forster’s literary career began in 1903, when he began writing for The Independent Review, a liberal and anti-imperialist publication that he co-founded with Lowes Dickinson. He soon published his first novel, Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905); by 1910, he had written three more. The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howard’s End (1910) exhibit a growth in the novelist’s skill and in the range of his subjects. In A Room with a View, which is set first in Florence and then in English suburbia, Forster reveals himself as a critic of social snobbery and suburban pretension.
In addition to their observation of social codes, all of Forster’s novels portray sensitive characters struggling with the inflexibility of these codes and the insensitivity of those around them. Although Forster’s point of view is often comic and ironic, his characters’ personal feelings are usually presented as serious, or at key moments, sacred. This is especially apparent in Forster’s last novel, A Passage to India, first published in 1924. A Passage to India is the novelist’s acknowledged masterpiece.
Although Forster was born and raised in England, and lived much of his life there, travel was an important element in his life and work. During World War I, he obtained a position with the Red Cross in Alexandria, Egypt. By this time Forster was already an established and recognized writer. Forster’s life and career spanned many historical changes, including two world wars and the dismantling of much of the British Empire. He observed the British colonial administration first-hand in 1912, when he made the long journey by sea to India. After this trip, he wrote most of the first section of A Passage to India, but it was not until after a second visit, in 1921, when he spent six months as private secretary to a Hindu Maharajah, that he completed it. His masterpiece was published in 1924 and unanimously praised by literary critics. Members of the British colonial society in England were less enthusiastic. They criticized its portrayal of the colonial administrators, while some Indians wrote that he had misunderstood the Indian characters or treated them condescendingly. However, Forster’s goal was not to produce a documentary portrayal of India or Indian society; for example, he changed the names of Indian towns and regions, even inventing his own Marabar Caves in place of the actual Ajanta Caves. Instead of drawing a portrait of a country, he was presenting an overall impression that continually emphasized the way in which the inner qualities of certain individuals and universal feelings were restricted by social, religious, and ethnic codes. Above all, his novel dramatically depicted the deep spiritual tensions of two clashing civilizations: the East and the West.
After A Passage to India, his greatest success, Forster never wrote another novel. He turned, instead, to short stories, essays, and biographies. In 1925, he was awarded the Tait Black Memorial and femina Vie Heureuse prizes. Forster never married and he died in 1970. It was not until the year after his death that his 1914 novel Maurice was published for the first time.
Beginning with the Oscar-winning film of A Passage to India, which appeared in 1984, Forster’s popularity has increased. David Lean’s version of A Passage to India was followed by the Merchant-Ivory productions of A Room with a View and Howard’s End, in 1987 and 1992, respectively. The success of these films has led to a renewed appreciation of Forster’s gift for portraying the complex inner lives of his characters and the rigid, yet temporary, nature of the social structures they inhabit.
Estimated Reading Time
The average reader may wish to dedicate at least six hours to A Passage to India, in order to become accustomed to the exotic setting, the large cast of characters with their ethnic backgrounds, and the intricacies of both British and Indian social systems. (A glossary of Anglo-Indian terms is provided in the appendix of this study guide.) It is essential to pay close attention to the three-part division of the novel, and to consider the title of each section and how it relates to individual chapters.
The first section concentrates on identifying and distinguishing individual characters, their contrasting backgrounds, and the differences and similarities between them. Themes of sex and marriage, and of ghosts and secrets make their appearance, and the great theme of kindness between cultures and between individuals is emphasized at the end.
The next section is introduced by a description of the mystical and symbolic Marabar Caves. This section constitutes the heart of the novel and presents its principal dramatic and thematic content. The climax of the novel occurs when Aziz’s trial takes place. This scene should be read carefully, both for its theatrical quality and its resolution. The end of the Caves section presents the aftermath of the trial and emphasizes the themes of death and departure.
A final, short section begins two years later. Its chapters can easily be read as a single unit, with particular attention to the scene of Professor Godbole dancing at the Krishna festival and the confrontation between Fielding and Aziz in the book’s final scene.