A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

Start Free Trial

Possible Interpretations of Forster's Novel

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1614

A Passage to India is E. M. Forster's final and perhaps finest novel. Forster visited India twice and wrote another novel, the posthumously published Maurice, before finally completing A Passage to India in 1924—more than ten years after it was begun. Although Forster has stated that the novel is not really about politics and that it is less concerned with the incompatibility of East and West than it is with the difficulty of living in the universe, the novel does address issues such as colonialism, racism, nationalism, and rape. As a result, much of the critical analysis has focused on political and social themes. One of the major issues the novel attempts to address is introduced in the second chapter through a conversation in which Dr. Aziz, Mahmoud Ali, and Hamidullah discuss "whether or not it is possible to be friends with an Englishman." Shortly after this discussion, Dr. Aziz is befriended by two Englishwomen and the Anglo-Indian Principal at the College, Mr. Fielding. But most critics tend to look beyond the relationships between individuals and discuss the novel in terms of its depiction of Anglo-Indian colonial society. Debate over whether or not A Passage to India is critical of colonialism is ongoing. Many critics agree that the novel does attack the traditional justifications for British domination, but convincing arguments can also be made that Forster's attempt to represent India implicates him in the "muddle" of imperial power.

At the centre of the novel is the visit to the Marabar Caves. All the connections and friendships established in the first section of the novel lead to this expedition. Much has been written about what actually happens in the caves but the mystery remains unsolved. One might read Mrs. Moore's and Miss Quested's experiences in the caves as a breakdown of established values resulting from the exposure to "other" conceptions of culture and being. Adela's experience in particular is often read as a hallucination or hysterical reaction brought about by sexual repression. But the mystery remains a mystery because the pivotal scene involving Adela and Aziz is never told. Mrs. Moore has a "horrifying" experience inside one of the caves and sinks into a state of apathy and cynicism. All that is known of Adela's misadventure is that she suffers a maybe-real, maybe-imagined sexual assault and that Aziz is charged with the crime. Whether or not there even was a crime committed, either by Aziz or by someone else, is never revealed.

After witnessing the unsuccessful Bridge Party, Adela vows that she will never succumb to Anglo-Indian ideology. Yet, as Jenny Sharpe has noted in her article "The Unspeakable Limits of Rape: Colonial Violence and Counter-Insurgency in Genders," the accusations Adela makes against Dr. Aziz seemingly confirm the fears and racist assumptions used to justify imperialism—that the "native" world is chaotic, uncontrollable, and evil and thus in need of English domination. Following Aziz's arrest, many of these hateful and unfounded fears are openly manifested. The District Superintendent of Police, Mr. McBryde, is not surprised by Aziz's downfall because he believes that "all unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of latitude 30." At the Club, people begin to voice their concern for the safety of the "women and children" and one young woman even refuses to "return to her bungalow in case the 'niggers attacked.'" The prevailing attitude is best represented by McBryde's words at Aziz's trial. He delivers his opening statement almost indifferently because he believes that Aziz's guilt is already accepted as fact. The possibility that Aziz may in fact be innocent is never even considered because, as McBryde tells the court, it is a "general truth" that the "darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa."

But passages such as these do not lend authority to Adela's allegations against Dr. Aziz. On the contrary, the rhetoric used to justify imperialism is severely parodied. The scenes paint an ugly picture of the English officers sent to India to "do justice and keep the peace"; they become almost ridiculous when it is remembered that the colonizers' prejudices and fears are aroused by an event that may not have taken place. McBryde's "general truth" is based not on evidence or, as he claims, scientific fact, but on the assumptions and premises which are necessary to support notions of Western superiority.

Similarly, the mystery surrounding the caves and the events that transpired inside them undermine any sense of certainty in the novel. Adela herself becomes unsure about what actually happened in the caves and is plagued by the echoing doubt that her accusations may have been fabricated. Sharpe has argued that this element of uncertainty, introduced into a crime which supposedly confirms the "native's" depravity, reveals the fictionaliry of what she terms "colonial truth-claims." In other words, Sharpe illustrates how the declaration of Aziz's innocence "undermines the racist assumptions underpinning an official discourse that represents anticolonial insurgency as the savage attack of barbarians on innocent women and children " The novel's exposure of such politically constructed "truths" thus subverts the conventional justifications for British domination.

However, the novel's condemnation of imperial ideology is not unproblematic. Benita Parry has noted, in "The Politics of Representation in A Passage to India", from E. M. Forster: Contemporary Critical Essays, that while the text does lampoon colonial rhetoric, its overt criticism of colonialism is phrased in the feeblest of terms. One scene which several critics have singled out even suggests that colonialism might have been more acceptable had the British only been a little kinder: "One touch of regret...would have made [Ronny] a different man, and the British Empire a different institution." The novel's ending is also troublesome. Fielding, the one man who stood against his countrymen to defend Aziz, finally throws in "his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a countrywoman" and "acquiring some of its limitations." He even begins to doubt whether he would repeat his defiance of his own people "for the sake of a stray Indian."

Moreover, there are instances in the novel where the narrator appears to be guilty of making broad generalizations about Indians. Compared to the loud and offensive remarks spoken by McBryde, the narrator's occasional reinforcement of racial stereotypes is easily overlooked. But seemingly harmless comments—"like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality"—do contribute to the West's textual construction of the East. And, as alluded to above, it is this kind of fabricated report which can eventually become accepted as a "general truth." While narrative comments such as these do not necessarily invalidate the novel's criticism of colonialism, they do suggest that the Western novelist's prose about India, like the "pose of seeing India" criticized in the novel, can be a "form of ruling India "

Of course, it is possible to discuss the novel without emphasizing the political and colonial themes. A completely different reading is offered by Parminder Bakshi in A Passage to India: Theory and Practice Series. Bakshi argues that A Passage to India, like all of Forster's fiction, contains homo-erotic themes and was inspired not by colonial issues but by the barriers to male friendship. She contends that Forster strives to dissociate friendship from politics and illustrates how the novel moves towards creating intimacy between Fielding and Aziz. Central to her argument is the theme of friendship which, Bakshi believes, de-centers the hollow and artificial convention of marriage because it poses a threat to male friendship.

Perhaps most convincing is Bakshi's reading of the novel's final scene. Although politics appear to be the reason for Fielding and Aziz's separation, Bakshi argues that politics are actually superfluous. More traditional readings of the scene interpret Aziz's final words as an acknowledgment that the colonial situation makes friendship between the English and Indians impossible. But Bakshi points out that it is only at the suggestion of male intimacy made by Fielding ("Why can't we be friends now? It's what I want. It's what you want.") that the entire universe rises in protest by hurling countless barriers between them: "the horses didn't want it—they swerved apart; the earth didn't want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single-file; the temples, the tank...they didn't want it, they said in their hundred voices, 'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'" Through Bakshi's reading, the novel transcends contemporary politics and becomes an indictment against the oppression of male love.

Still, it is impossible to read the end of the novel without also considering the political and colonial themes. Forster's text is not optimistic about the future of East-West relations, but it is prophetic. Early in the novel, when Aziz is making his way to Callendar's compound, he becomes depressed by the roads which, "named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles, were symbolic of the net Great Britain had thrown over India." In his final meeting with Fielding, Aziz recognizes the immediate need to throw off this net and foresees that the time for Indian independence will come with the next European war. Will the act of driving "every blasted Englishman into the sea" make it possible for an Indian to be friends with an Englishman? The novel provides no simple answer. Forster was certainly aware that the repercussions of British authority would echo for years after the end of British domination, and while his novel's final words, spoken by a chorus of a hundred voices, do suggest the possibility of a better future, it is a future that, in 1924, remains uncertain.

Source: Jeffrey M. Lilburn, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998.
Lilburn is a teaching assistant at the University of Western Ohio.

Forster's Critique of Imperialism in A Passage to India

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2418

The chief argument against imperialism in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India is that it prevents personal relationships. The central question of the novel is posed at the very beginning when Mahmoud Ali and Hamidullah ask each other "whether or no it is possible to be friends with an Englishman." The answer, given by Forster himself on the last page, is "No, not yet... No, not there." Such friendship is made impossible, on a political level, by the existence of the British Raj. While having several important drawbacks, Forster's anti-imperial argument has the advantage of being concrete, clear, moving, and presumably persuasive. It is also particularly well-suited to pursuit in the novel form, which traditionally has focused on interactions among individuals.

Forster's most obvious target is the unfriendly bigotry of the English in India, or the Anglo-Indians as they were called. At times he scores them for their pure malice, as when Mrs. Callendar says, "The kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die." More tellingly, Forster shows up their bigotry as prejudice in the literal sense of prejudgment. The Anglo-Indians, as Forster presents them, act on emotional preconceptions rather than rational and open-minded examination of facts. They therefore fall into logical inconsistencies which the author exposes with his favorite weapon: irony. For example, at the hysterical Club meeting following Dr. Aziz's arrest for allegedly molesting Adela Quested, the subaltern defends an anonymous native with whom he had played polo the previous month: "Any native who plays polo is all right. What you've got to stamp on is these educated classes." The reader knows, as the subaltern doesn't, that the native was Aziz himself. Against the bigotry of the Anglo-Indians, Forster urged tolerance and understanding in the widest sense...

Forster does much more in his book...than simply deride the intolerance of a few accidental individuals. He carefully shows how this intolerance results from the unequal power relationship between English and Indians, from the imperialistic relationship itself... The process is best shown in the book in the case of Ronny, who has only recently come out from England to be City Magistrate of Chandrapore.

Ronny was at first friendly towards the Indians, but he soon found that his position prevented such friendship. Shortly after his arrival he invited the lawyer Mahmoud All to have a smoke with him, only to learn later that clients began flocking to Ali in the belief that he had an in with the Magistrate. Ronny subsequently "dropped on him in Court as hard as I could. It's taught me a lesson, and I hope him." In this instance, it is clearly Ronny's official position rather than any prior defect of the heart which disrupts the potential friendship. And it is his position in the imperial structure which causes his later defect, his lack of true regret when he tells his mother that now "I prefer my smoke at the club amongst my own sort, I'm afraid."

Forster tells us that "every human act in the East is tainted with officialism" and that "where there is officialism every human relationship suffers." People cannot establish a friendship of equals when the Raj is based on an inequality of power...

The one possible exception to this process of corruption among Englishmen is Fielding. He is partially immune to the influence of the imperialistic power relationship because he works in education rather than government, and because, as he puts it, he "travels light"—he has no hostages to fortune. Fielding establishes a friendship with Aziz and maintains it in defiance of all the other Anglo-Indians. There is some doubt, however, whether he can maintain this course and still remain in imperial India. He is obliged to quit the Club and says he will leave India altogether should Aziz be convicted. After Fielding marries Stella, thereby ceasing to travel light, and after he becomes associated with the government as a school inspector, he undergoes a marked change of attitude toward the Raj. It would surely be a mistake to continue, as several critics do, to identify Forster with Fielding past this point. The omniscient narrator pulls back and summarizes Fielding's situation: "He had thrown in his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a countrywoman, and he was acquiring some of its limitations." Like Ronny and the other English officials, Fielding begins to be corrupted by his position. Thinking of how Godbole's school has degenerated into a granary, the new school inspector asserts that "Indians go to seed at once" away from the British. Fielding almost exactly echoes Ronny's defense of the Raj to his mother when he excuses unpleasantness in the supposedly necessary imperial presence: he had "'no further use for politeness,' he said, meaning that the British Empire really can't be abolished because it's rude." Fielding certainly did not start with a defect of the heart, but, as a result of his new position in the imperial structure, he is acquiring one.

The English, of course, aren't the only ones corrupted by imperialism. Although most of the Indians in the book have a nearly unbelievable desire to befriend Englishmen, they are ultimately turned from it by the political reality. Some succumb to self-interest. Mahmoud Ali, for example, seems to have been the first to subvert his budding friendship with Ronny by advertising their smoke to potential litigants. More often the Indians succumb to the fear, largely justified but occasionally erroneous, that they will be scorned and betrayed. The prime example is Aziz. He makes the horrible mistake of assuming that Fielding back in England has married his enemy Adela and further that Fielding had urged him not to press damages against his false accuser so Fielding himself could enjoy Adela's money. Aziz, of course, has been conditioned to expect betrayal from his experience with other Anglo-Indians, and this expectation provides an undercurrent to the friendship from the very beginning. After Fielding returns to India, and Aziz learns he really married Stella Moore, their relationship is partially retrieved, but the damage has been done. The new school inspector has shifted toward the Raj, and Aziz, now leery of all Englishmen, has become a nationalist, saying of India, "Not until she is a nation will her sons be treated with respect."...

In 1924, when Passage appeared, the Indian movement led by Mahatma Gandhi was still not yet agitating for independence. They said they wished to achieve dominion status and remain within the empire. Forster took what was at the time a more radical position by declaring that India inevitably had to become free. In an article in The Nation and the Athenaeum in 1922, Forster stated that "ten years ago" Indians had looked to Englishmen for social support, but now it was "too late," and he anticipated "the dissolution of an Empire." These phrases are repeated at the end of the novel when Aziz cries, "Clear out, all you Turtons and Burtons. We wanted to know you ten years back—now it's too late."

Forster's novel does not explicitly spell out what has happened in the previous ten years, apart from Aziz's own trial and his blow-up with Fielding. However, the book is full of muted references to recent events. The most important among these was the 1919 uprising in the Punjab which the British brutally suppressed. At the town of Amritsar, General Dwyer ordered his troops to fire on an unarmed crowd, killing nearly four hundred. Later he issued an order requiring Indians to crawl through a street where an English girl, Miss Marcella Sherwood, had been attacked. In Passage Mrs. Turton, after the supposed attack on Adela, says of the Indians, "They ought to crawl from here to the caves on their hands and knees whenever an Englishwoman's in sight." After Amritsar, General Campbell issued an order obliging Indians to approach the houses of Europeans on foot. Thus Aziz, when he goes to visit Major Callendar, has to get out of his tonga before he reaches the verandah...

There are two important drawbacks in Forster's argument for independence on the grounds that it is necessary for friendship. The first is that his argument takes little account of the less personal, more abstract issues of imperialism, particularly the economic issues. Apart from a passing reference to "the wealth of India" allowed "to escape overseas," there is no mention of England's economic exploitation of India. We see no plantations or mines in British India. Collector Turton presumably takes in tax, but we never see him doing so. And, with the exception of the punkah wallah, we never see an Indian performing physical labor. Thus we have little sense of why the English are in India in the first place...

Forster may have omitted the economics of the Raj because he was ignorant of them or didn't see their significance. Or possibly he did so because he was following the Bloomsbury aesthetic of starting with characters and bringing in the material world only secondarily. In any case, he left out an important aspect of the Raj, and this omission has led the Marxist critic Derek S. Savage to attack him fiercely: "The ugly realities underlying the presence of the British in India are not even glanced at, and the issues raised are handled as though they could be solved on the surface level of personal intercourse and individual behavior." This criticism may be justified, but in defence of Forster it should be noted that his particular argument against the Raj, its disruption of friendship, was shared by the Indian leaders of his day. In a 1921 letter explaining the purpose of the Non-cooperation Movement, Gandhi wrote: "We desire to live on terms of friendship with Englishmen, but that friendship must be friendship of equals both in theory and practice, and we must continue to non-cooperate till...the goal is achieved."

The second drawback to Forster's anti-imperial argument is perhaps more damaging. It is that even if the political barriers are overcome, Forster is still sceptical that friendship can be achieved. This scepticism has the effect of undermining the entire political argument and making us say, "Why bother?" A Passage to India suggests a number of non-political barriers to friendship: the selfishness inherent in human nature, cultural differences which cannot be bridged, and the human potential for insanity. The most important barrier, though, is the echo. There have been many interpretations of the echo in the Marabar caves, and it is difficult to explain in words since the echo intrinsically resists language, but it seems first of all to indicate the meaninglessness of the universe. For Mrs. Moore, the echo reduces all human expressions to the same dull "bourn," and it says, "Everything exists, nothing has value."... In the political aspect of the novel, Forster attacked the prejudice of the Anglo-Indians by appealing to a reason which would find the true facts; but in the metaphysical aspect, he tells us that reason is useless.

The effect of the echo on Mrs. Moore is to make her abandon all attempts at human connection. After hearing it, she realizes she "didn't want to communicate with anyone. She lost all interest, even in Aziz." Mrs. Moore withdraws into herself, leaves India without any further significant interaction with anyone, and finally dies. For her, the echo makes friendship impossible. Later, of course, the figure of Mrs. Moore undergoes a sort of apotheosis in which she is imagined as a benefactress of India. She becomes the Hindu demi-deity Esmiss Esmoor; Professor Godbole makes her part of his ecstatic devotion, and Aziz tells Ralph, "Your mother was my best friend in all the world." There is no objective basis, however, for this exaltation of her by the Indians, and Reuben Brower seems right in saying, "We can hardly accept this about-face in Mrs. Moore's role and its symbolic value. We cannot at the end of the novel regard Mrs. Moore as in tune with the infinite and conveniently forget the mocking denial of her echo." Whatever her effect on others, she seems irretrievably isolated by the echo. Although she senses that Aziz is innocent, she is indifferent to his plight and does nothing at all to help him. When asked to testify, she says irritably, "When shall I be free from your fuss? Was he in the cave and were you in the cave and on and on...and ending everything the echo." She decides of all people, including Aziz, "They do not exist, they were a dream." Mrs. Moore's friendship for Aziz thus comes to an end. The disruption in this case has nothing to do with the Rajor any other political barrier; rather it is caused by something much more powerful and over-riding: the echo.

A Passage to India does suggest a solution to the echo, of course. There is some doubt, however, whether Forster himself subscribed to this solution. And the solution contributes nothing to the argument against the Raj since it transcends politics and all other worldly concerns. The solution is Hinduism, which is shown countering the echo by abandoning reason and embracing the muddle of the universe with irrational joy. The negative echo "bourn" is thus transposed into the affirmative chant "OM," representing the Hindu trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva.

While Hinduism may provide a metaphysical solution, it does not, at least according to Forster's novel, provide a political one Hinduism is shown embracing everything, including the British empire, with equal mindless affirmation. Professor Godbole points out that good and evil "are both of them aspects of my Lord." There are no villains: everyone attacked Adela. When Shri Krishna is born in the festival of Gokul Ashtami, he saves foreigners as well as Indians...

At the very end of the novel when Aziz tells Fielding, "We shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then...and then...you and I shall be friends," the Englishman asks him, "Why can't we be friends now? It's what I want. It's what you want." The question is never answered by either man because their horses swerve apart. One interpretation of this closing paragraph is that Fielding and Aziz cannot be friends until India becomes a nation, but another interpretation, a far more chilling one, is that they can never be friends. Not only politics keep them apart. The very earth and sky do. All of existence and the echo prevent human connection.

Source: Hunt Hawkins, "Forster's Critique of Imperialism in A Passage to India" in South Atlantic Review, January, 1983, pp. 54-65.

A Passage to India- The Meaning of the Marabar Caves

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2093

That E. M. Forster's A Passage to India should, almost forty years after its first publication, continue to have an enthusiastic reading public is not surprising, though as a political and sociological document it is often spoken of, even by Forster himself, as dated. The fact is, as many recent articles have made clear, that the theme of the novel— the resolution of chaos (or the possibility of such a resolution) through human or divine love—is one which has pervaded the literature of the West from the time of Aeschylus to the present. Furthermore, analyzed on almost any level—as social comedy, as penetrating study of character, as metaphysical discourse, or as patterning of detail and episode— the novel is a masterpiece. Even as political and sociological comment, the novel is, I feel, not so dated as Forster was prepared to admit. Certainly the situation in India has altered since the book was begun in 1912; however if we take the conflict between England and India as a pattern of that between France and Algeria, Belgium and the Congo, Portugal and Angola, or African white and African Negro, we see that the political aspects of the novel are by no means dated, nor will be so long as political or economic domination leads to conflicts between peoples. This is not to say that all such conflicts are identical, but it is to say that wherever we find the exploitation of one people by another, we are likely to find political and social consequences which, if not worse, will be much like those portrayed in A Passage to India....

The importance of the Marabar Caves is indicated by the emphasis given them in the opening chapter, which begins, "Except for the Marabar Caves—" and continues with a description of the novel's main setting, Chandrapore on the Ganges River with the English civil station above. Towards the end of the chapter is mentioned the "immense vault" of the sky. The description of the sky naturally leads to the horizon and then to the only interruption of the straight line of the horizon, the "fists and fingers" in the south. The final sentence of the chapter returns us to the caves: "These fists and fingers are the Marabar Hills, containing the extraordinary caves."...

Throughout Part One of the novel Forster keeps the reader's attention on the caves by casual references and more particularly by Aziz's invitation to Adela and Mrs. Moore to visit them. However, the caves remain mysterious. Indeed they remain mysterious throughout the novel, but in Part One few details are given about them and no inkling whatever of their impact on the viewer. In Chapter Seven during Fielding's tea party, at which Mrs. Moore and Adela are present, the caves are discussed by Aziz and Professor Godbole, but only to leave them in a greater mystery than before. Aziz has never seen the caves himself and knows them only by hearsay. Godbole has visited the caves but for some unknown reason is not willing to reveal anything about them except for the most trivial and obvious facts....

The first extended treatment of the caves occurs at the beginning of Part Two, where Forster not only describes their appearance but also gives a brief geological history of the Indian sub-continent....
The caves are associated with the vast and unknowable expanse of geological time. They derive from the most remote ages of the Pre-Cambrian era, a period covering the first two or three billion years of the earth's history and a period of which geologists have merely the slightest knowledge, since only the lowest and most easily obliterated forms of life existed. The caves antedate even the most primitive fossils. Forster divests them of any relation to life—human, animal, or plant. "To call them uncanny suggests ghosts, and they are older than all spirit." The Hindus have made some scratches on them; some saddhus once tried to settle in them but failed. This is all....

[The] caves represent not only a primitive level of intellectual and emotional activity but also, I believe, those mysteries of our universe which human beings—because they are, after all, finite, at least in the physical world—will never understand. Particularly, they symbolize the riddle of life itself, the mystery which lies behind the creation or appearance of that nonmaterial essence that we call spirit or consciousness....

The description of the caves, then, offers one more example of this pushing back to the unknown. I have suggested above that the mystery here may be that which lies behind the existence of spirit itself. How can stone, in which spirit is apparently inherent (for the stones themselves seem alive during the journey of the Aziz party to the caves), give rise to those forms of matter which we call life and which exhibit so clearly the quality that we call consciousness? The question, of course, cannot be answered.

The biologist can explain how the one-celled protozoan can evolve into man, but he cannot explain how the complex molecule becomes the protozoan. This is a crucial step. Professor Godbole, whose sympathies can comprehend the wasp, cannot make the imaginative leap to stone. One passage particularly in the chapter on the caves suggests the mystery inherent in the development of life from non-life. Forster writes of the visitor striking a match upon entering the cave...

Here we have the direct opposition of organic and inorganic matter. The response of the flame in the stone suggests that spirit is infused through all matter but that only the spirit or consciousness of living beings can know this; hence the flame in the stone is a reflection of the flame in the air. Ultimately the gap between stone and flame can never be completely closed because, in this life, the spirit of man can never be completely one with the spirit of inorganic matter, however broad his sympathies may be....

[The] caves should be understood as symbolic of the womb. Such a meaning reinforces the concept that the caves represent the mystery of the origin of life. We may say, then, that the caves symbolize this mystery on two levels: the metaphysical and the sexual.

This interpretation of the meaning of the caves helps to explain the reactions of Mrs. Moore and Adela to their experiences at the Marabar. For Mrs. Moore the metaphysical problem is dominant. In England her faith had apparently been that of the orthodox Christian, possibly of rather narrow persuasion. In India her sympathies instinctively broaden. She feels the presence of God in the Mosque, and she offers a kind of benediction over the wasp; thus she is becoming a mystic who sees the cosmos as an emanation of, or as infused with, the spirit of God, a universal God, not a specifically Christian God. In essence she is approaching the Hindu position, and it is significant that during the trial of Aziz she becomes deified among the Hindus as Esmiss Esmoor and that she and Professor Godbole are linked through the thoughts of Godbole at the end of the novel. Intellectually, however, Mrs. Moore finds herself dissatisfied...

Mrs. Moore finds God less efficacious because in her heart she no longer accepts her former religious beliefs as the final and absolute truth. In the caves and afterwards comes her spiritual crisis, for the caves represent an unsolvable mystery, a mystery which Mrs. Moore's Christianity cannot cope with. Because of her religious uncertainty she cannot accept the caves with equanimity like Aziz and Professor Godbole. She reacts almost violently, and for her the echo of the cave robs everything of truth and value: "Pathos, piety, courage—they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value."...

And so Mrs. Moore, unable to come to grips with the riddle posed by the caves, falls into pessimism and selfishness. She becomes peevish and petty, unwilling to comfort Adela or to testify at the trial in behalf of Aziz, though she believes him innocent.

Forster has been criticized for resurrecting Mrs. Moore as a spiritual force later in the novel, through her children, Ralph and Stella. It is certainly difficult to overlook the dwarfing of her spirit after the episode of the caves, but Forster does not leave her in this barren state of mind and prepares, though perhaps not sufficiently, for her spiritual influence over later events. Just before her death as she is leaving India, the mystery of the Marabar is put in its proper perspective, for one must come to terms with the unknowable. During the overnight journey from Chandrapore to the port of exit, Bombay, she sees the mosque at Asirgarh. The train makes a semicircle around the town, and the mosque appears to her once again...

The mosque, which in part represents the positive value of the love of man for man and which presided over the meeting and establishment of understanding between Mrs. Moore and Aziz, suggests the renewal of spiritual life. As she sails from Bombay the voices of India impress upon her that the Marabar Caves are a very small part of the whole of India and that the mystery of the Marabar is a relatively minor problem in the whole of life... Her journey across India, on one level, is a journey from life to death, for she dies soon after leaving Bombay; but on the spiritual level it is a journey from death to life, from the Caves to the Mosque.

The effect of the caves on Adela is different. In Mrs. Moore the full impact of the experience builds up slowly, and her thoughts about it are more terrifying than the experience itself. Adela, however, is suddenly thrown into a state of mental shock from which she recovers only by reliving the experience at the trial through the prosecutor's questioning, which has the effect on her of a kind of psychoanalysis. (Fielding refers to the process as an "exorcizing.") Adela, who on the whole is a rather literal-minded, no-nonsense young woman quite unaware of the power of suggestion or of the workings of the sub-conscious mind, enters her second cave having just come to the startling conclusion that she is planning to marry a man she does not love. But also she has been thinking in a rather disinterested way about Aziz—what a handsome man he is and what a beautiful wife and children he no doubt has.

Then recalling that Mohammedans often have four wives, she asks a question that shocks Aziz deeply: "Have you one wife or more than one?" Aziz breaks away from her in anger and the two enter separate caves. Precisely what happens to Adela is not fully revealed. Did she have a hallucination? Did the guide attack her? Was she simply thrown into a panic by the echo? Certainly the echo, with its suggestion of mystery, continues to haunt her until the trial scene. But whatever may have happened to her literally, it is clear, I believe, what happened to her psychologically. Consciously she rejects Ronny, and subconsciously she desires Aziz. I do not wish to be misunderstood here. Forster states that Adela has nothing of the vagrant in her, and indeed she does not. Surely, however, the subconscious desire for Aziz is there. Why otherwise does she dwell on his physical beauty and why the question about his wives? Conflict is set up between the conscious and subconscious minds, and Adela resolves the subconscious desire into a supposed sexual attack on the part of Aziz. In rushing from the cave she is repudiating a part of herself, the cave symbolizing at this point the womb or sexual consummation...

In the cave, then, Adela faces a mystery of another kind, the mystery of the primitive workings of the subconscious mind. Like Mrs. Moore she comes to terms with the meaning latent for her in the caves, but unlike Mrs. Moore she is incapable of the breadth of love and sympathy necessary for universal brotherhood and she retires from India defeated, dissatisfied, and "at the end of her spiritual tether." Mrs. Moore had some concept of a realm of the spirit beyond the physical universe, but not Adela...

But even Mrs. Moore did not know all. The ultimate mystery of the Marabar Caves, the mystery behind the existence of conscious spirit in the universe, is beyond the powers of the human intellect to solve.

Source: Roger L. Clubb, "A Passage to India- The Meaning of the Marabar Caves," in CLA Journal, March, 1963, pp. 184-93.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Critical Overview