A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

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Was E.M. Forster biased in the novel A Passage to India?

Quick answer:

The question of bias in a literary art can be a difficult one to answer. Or, it can be simple if it's assumed that all writers have some sort of bias. E.M. Forster did have a bias in A Passage to India simply because he was an Englishman writing about India, and England had colonized India.

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E.M. Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India is considered one of the great novels of the 20th century. But is it problematic in an age where representation matters and we are well aware of cultural (mis) appropriation? The simple answer is that all writers have biases and prejudices, whether conscious or not, and every writer, in some sense, also brings the biases of their time period into their work.

Forster was writing at a time when England still ruled India, a country it had colonized and was considered the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire. So, even if he was sympathetic to Indians and their oppression, he couldn't really understand their experience, culture, or point of view. Others may argue that literature should have no limitations as to what it depicts and that imagination trumps cultural experience. Shakespeare never traveled to Italy and probably never met a Moor or Jew, for example.

Rather than simply deal with Forster's bias, it would be best to look at the postcolonial school of thought and then apply that critical lens to the book. This has been done by a number of scholars and it is certainly worth novel. It is certainly worth lookng at what Edward Said, author of the seminal Orientalism, said about the book. His larger critique in that study is that Eastern characters in art have almost always been viewed through Western eyes and so have not been able to represent themselves. This recalls the famous Marx quote: "They cannot represent, they can only be represented."

The bias that is found in Forster does not necessarily make him racist or insensitive, as he does largely depict the culture and people in a subtle way, but it does mean that there is something fundamental about India that he, a white European, cannot grasp.

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