A Passage to India

by E. M. Forster

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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 little—only feeble outbursts of flowers. But when the sky chooses, glory can rain into the Chandrapore bazaars or a benediction pass from horizon to horizon. The sky can do this because it is so strong and so enormous." In this manner does Forster hand to his reader the means by which to solve the problem. The search for truth and universal love begins only when people forget their petty, earthly differences and look toward the common universe that has given life to them all.

The real question about A Passage to India arises as to whether the novel actually solves anything or if it serves only to suggest the hope or possibility of a solution. In other words, in developing his two-fold theme, does Forster place so many barriers in his characters' paths that they cannot possibly effect a solution? For example, after arriving in India with Mrs. Moore to marry the latter's son, Ronald Heaslop, and presumably...

(This entire section contains 1092 words.)

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settle in India, Adela Quested accuses Dr. Aziz of attempting to inflict verbal or physical insult upon her (we really never know which) in the Marabar Caves. The ensuing trial brings about the expected bitter confrontation between the English and the Indians. Then, Adela suddenly changes her mind, and at the crucial point in the trial, she refuses to pursue the charges against Aziz. That results only in Adela leaving Chandrapore and Ronald marrying someone else. The opportunities for closer ties between Briton and Indian present themselves here, but the distance between the cultures appears too vast even to allow a passage. For his part, Ronald Heaslop believes that the Europeans' distrust of the Indians exists because the former make no attempt to understand the latters' cultural, social, and religious views. Both he and Cyril Fielding hold out the hope that personal contacts would at least bring about some small beginnings. However, even attempts at a small beginning create problems. At one point, Fielding suggests that one way to see "the real India" would be to see Indians. But in so doing, both Adela and Mrs. Moore create serious problems, which leads Fielding to react to his own advice: In Adela's instance, she wanted to see India but not Indians. A number of social occasions present themselves throughout the novel, but in bringing the two societies together, Forster appears to emphasize the discomfort of all concerned. "We're not pleasant in India," Ronald tells his mother, "and we don't intend to be pleasant. We've something more important to do."

Even the search for universal love and truth encounters serious difficulties. Certainly the reasonable and intelligent schoolmaster, Fielding, wants to establish a relationship with the young, sensitive and much abused Muslim physician, Aziz, but neither can cross the hopeless chasm that separates human need from the human power to fulfill that need. Fielding represents the rational individualism and drive for freedom of the West, while Aziz holds forth under the depersonalized mystery of India. Both Fielding and Aziz appear willing to seek a rapport with each other, and each seems willing to be open to change in views and opinions, but each also possesses and expresses the knowledge of an ultimate truism. Persons must, inevitably, surrender to the restrictions of that part of the world that they know and from which they derived the essence of their thoughts and attitudes. In Fielding's words, "He had thrown in his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a country woman, and he was acquiring some of its limitations, and already felt surprise at his own heroism. Would he today defy all his own people for the sake of a stray Indian? Aziz was a memento, a trophy, they were proud of each other, yet they must inevitably depart." Each will go his separate way—Fielding to return to his wife and Aziz to raising his family in peace in his native state, writing poetry, and reading Persian.


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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.

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 acknowledges that "all [Godbole's] friends trusted him, without knowing why."

Of all the British characters in the book, Fielding has the greatest gift for friendship. Mrs. Moore feels friendliness for Aziz when she first meets him, but she loses interest in friendship—and in life itself—when she loses her faith at the Marabar Caves. Among the other British characters, a sense of duty generally takes precedence over friendship. Although he had known her in England, Ronny is unable to sustain a relationship with Adela in India. In their words and actions, Anglo-Indian officials such as Ronny, Mr. Turton, and Mr. McBryde demonstrate that while they may get along with Indians on one level, it is impossible and indeed undesirable to be friends with them.

The book concludes with a conversation between Aziz and Fielding about the possibility of friendship—the theme that had been the subject of the first conversation. Aziz tells Fielding that they cannot be friends until the English have been driven out of India. Fielding replies that he wants to be friends, and that it is also what Aziz wants. The last paragraph, however, suggests that the impersonal forces at work in India will not yet allow such a friendship.

Public vs. Private Life
The various attempts at friendship throughout A Passage to India are frustrated not only by cultural differences but also by the demands of public life, or duty. These demands are strongest among the Anglo-Indian officials of Chandrapore. In general, characters such as Turton, Callendar, McBryde, and Ronny put their jobs above whatever personal desires they may have. The Turtons' "Bridge Party" is more a diplomatic exercise than a truly personal gesture. McBryde, the superintendent of police, prosecutes Aziz because it is his duty to do so; personal feelings do not enter into his decision. Ronny breaks off his engagement with Adela partly because her actions in the court are seen by the Anglo-Indians as a public disgrace. His marriage to her would offend the members of his community, who disapprove of Adela because of her behavior at the trial.

Cyril Fielding, the principal of the government college, seems to be the only British character willing to act out of personal conviction rather than public duty. The Anglo-Indian authorities believe it is important to keep up a public image of unity on the question of Aziz's guilt. In speaking up for Aziz, Fielding goes against the public behavior that is expected of him and is seen as "letting down the side." Because of this transgression, he is expelled from the English club at Chandrapore.

McBryde's affair with Miss Derek, revealed later in the book, is perhaps a minor instance in which another British official chooses to fulfill a personal desire at the risk of his public image. However, we do not see the consequences of this choice.

Dr. Aziz himself is torn between his public life as a doctor at a government hospital and his private dreams. When he attempts to transcend the distinction between private wishes and the public constraints, "Trouble after trouble encountered him, because he had challenged the spirit of the Indian earth, which tries to keep men in compartments." Only in Professor Godbole does the division between public and private life seem to disappear. For Godbole, the two are simply different forms of one existence. Godbole's prayers, for example, have both a private and public function, and it is difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.

AmbiguityA Passage to India is full of ambiguity, and its most important characters—Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, Cyril Fielding, Adela Quested—are beset by doubt at key points in the narrative. The terms "mystery" and "muddle" are introduced during Fielding's tea party and are repeated several times throughout the book. When Adela remarks that she "hates mysteries," Mrs. Moore replies that "I like mysteries but I rather dislike muddles." Mr. Fielding then observes that "a mystery is a muddle."

Doubt and ambiguity surround two key incidents in the book that occur at the Marabar Caves. On a literal level, Adela does not know if she has really been attacked in the cave or if she has only imagined this incident. If she has been attacked, was Dr. Aziz the attacker? While the reader might not doubt Aziz's innocence, there is a larger ambiguity about what really did take place. For Anglo-Indian authority figures such as Ronny Heaslop, Major Callendar, and Mr. McBryde, there is no doubt whatever; it is only characters such as Cyril Fielding who are capable of entertaining doubt and, thus, of thinking critically about events.

An even larger, more metaphorical ambiguity surrounds Mrs. Moore's experience at the caves. While she is inside one of the caves, she hears an echo and suddenly feels that everything—including her religious faith—is meaningless. So powerful is the doubt that fills Mrs. Moore, that she loses her grip on life.

God and Religion
E.M. Forster was not a religious man nor a religious writer. However, religion is a major preoccupation in the book. India is seen as a meeting point of three of the world's historic religions—Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism. Indeed, the three parts of the book—"Mosque," "Cave," and "Temple"—generally correspond to these religions. Aziz loves the cultural and social aspects of his Moslem (Islamic) heritage, but he seems less concerned with its theology and religious practice. He is aware that Moslems are in the minority in India, and he thus feels a special kinship with other Moslems such as Hamidullah. The Anglo-Indians are nominal representatives of Christianity, although there is little overt sign of such Christian virtues as charity, love, and forgiveness. Ronny Heaslop admits that for him Christianity is fine in its place, but he does not let it interfere with his civil duty. Mrs. Moore is basically Christian in her outlook. However, she experiences a crisis of faith during her visit to the Marabar Caves, and her belief in God or in any meaning to life is destroyed. Hinduism is the main religion of India, and Professor Godbole is the central Hindu figure in the book. He is also, by far, the most religious character. For Godbole, Hinduism is "completeness, not reconstruction." The central principle of this religion is the total acceptance of things as they are. Forster suggests that this is the most positive spiritual approach to life. It is also most representative of the true spirit of India.


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