E. M. Forster was part of the intellectual Bloomsbury group, which flourished in London just before and after World War I. Educated at Cambridge, as were many of the group, Forster became one of England’s leading novelists during the prewar Edwardian period. His Bloomsbury friends included biographer Lytton Strachey, novelist Virginia Woolf, art critic Clive Bell, painter Roger Fry, economist John Maynard Keynes, and philosopher G. E. Moore. The group rejected convention and authority and placed great faith in its own intellect and good taste.
Forster wrote several acclaimed novels between 1905 and 1910: Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), The Longest Journey (1907), A Room with a View (1908), and Howards End (1910). After a hiatus of fourteen years came A Passage to India, the last work he published during his lifetime. (The early novel Maurice was published posthumously in 1970.) He once confessed that he did not understand post-World War I values and had nothing more to say. A Passage to India, however, belies this statement, as it remains relevant.
Forster took his title from the Walt Whitman poem by the same name, an odd choice, since Whitman’s vision is of the total unity of all people while in Forster’s novel the attempt to unite people fails at all levels. The book is divided into three sections: Mosque, Cave, and Temple. These divisions correspond to the three divisions of the Indian year: cool spring, hot summer, and wet monsoon. Each section is dominated by its concomitant weather. Each section also focuses on one of the three ethnic groups involved: Muslim, Anglo-Indian, and Hindu. The Cave could also have been called the Club. Just as the Mosque and the Temple are the Muslim and Hindu shrines, so is the Club the true Anglo-Indian shrine. Forster knew that religious-ethnic divisions control social modes of activity. The Muslims are said to be emotional; the British said to rely on intellect. Only the Hindus, in the person of Godbole, are said to have the capacity to love.
The novel, however, is much more than merely a social or political commentary. Forster belittles social forms on all sides of the conflict and favors neither the Indians nor the British. The bridge party, Fielding’s tea party, and Aziz’s cave party are all failures. More important than social forms are the relationships among individuals. The novel’s theme is the search for love and friendship. Forster presents primarily relationships between men with the capacity for mutual understanding, and his male characters are the most clearly defined. The women—Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested—have no real possibility of finding friendship across ethnic lines. Mrs. Moore is too old, Adela too British. Both women want to see the “real” India, but they are unprepared for it when the experience comes. Mrs. Moore at the mosque and the first cave, and Adela at the cave and the courtroom, discover the real India, and both suffer an almost catatonic withdrawal.
The male characters are more complex. With his Muslim sensitivity, Aziz is determined to find humiliation no matter what the experience. He tries to be both physician and poet—healer of body and soul—but he is inept in both attempts. In the last section, readers see him abandoning both. Aziz needs love and friendship, but ultimately he is incapable of establishing a satisfying relationship among his own people, with the Hindus, or, more important, with Fielding. Muslim sensitivity prevents him from accepting friendship when it is offered.
Out of the multiple failures of the first two sections of the novel there is only the relationship between Aziz and Fielding that holds any promise of reconciliation. Muslim and Anglo-Indian, they meet in the final section in the Hindu province. Both men desire friendship and understanding, but in the final scene the very land seems to separate them. They are not in tune with nature, which is renewing itself in the monsoon downpour, and neither man has come to accept the irrational. They are not ready, in the Hindu sense of love, to accept things as they are. Only Godbole, a Hindu, can fully accept India and its people. The nothingness of the caves and the apparent chaos of the people do not disturb Hindus.
The most crucial scene in A Passage to India is the visit to the Marabar Caves. These caves puzzle and terrify both Muslims and Anglo-Indians and form the center of the novel. Only Godbole understands them. The Hindus had called India home before either the Muslims or the British. The caves are elemental; they have been there from the beginnings of the earth. They are not Hindu holy places, but Godbole can respect them without fear. Cave worship is the cult of the female principle, the sacred womb, mother earth. The Marabar Caves, both womb and grave, demand total effacing of ego. The individual loses identity; whatever is said returns as Ommm, the holy word.
The caves are terrifying and chaotic to those who rely on the intellect. The trip itself emphasizes the chaos that is India. Godbole can eat no meat; Aziz can eat no pork; the British must have their whisky and port. The confusion of the departure epitomizes the confusion that pervades the novel. Significantly, it is Godbole, the one person who might have helped, who is left out. Once in the caves, the party encounters the Nothingness that terrifies. Only Mrs. Moore seems to accept it on a limited scale, but the caves have reduced her will to live. She retreats from the world of experience. She came to India seeking peace; she finds it in death.
The conclusion of the novel emphasizes the chaos of India, but it also hints at a pattern that the outsider, Muslim or British, cannot understand. Drenched in water and religion, the last chapters portray the rebirth of the god Shri Krishna. It is the recycling of the seasons, the rebirth and renewal of the earth that signals the renewal of the Hindu religious cycle. Godbole shows that humans may choose to accept and participate in the seeming chaos, or they can fight against it. They must, however, be in tune with the natural rhythms of the universe to receive true love and friendship. Neither Fielding nor Aziz, products of Western civilization, can accept the confusion without attempting to impose order. Although they move toward the irrational in the course of the novel, they do not move far enough.