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...
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