The majority of Major Pettigrew's life is behind him (unless he lives to be 136), but he hasn't stopped living. We first meet him after he has received a tragic phone call: his brother, Bertie, is dead. The Major's wife, Nancy, is dead, too. Aside from his golf buddy, Alec, all the Major's friends are dead. He mentions feeling "often lonely" (5.102). How depressing.
Put your tissues away. The Major doesn't dwell in the past at all. We learn very little about his past, actually. Instead, we're concerned with his future and the four major figures in it—his son, Roger; the shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali; and a pair of hunting guns left behind by the Major's dead father, the Colonel.
We talk more about the guns on our "Symbols" page, and the conflict with his ungrateful son, Roger on Roger's character page, so we'll focus on the Major's blossoming romance with the shopkeeper, Mrs. Ali.
Even though he's 68 years old (1.40), Major Pettigrew feels like a young man when he sees Mrs. Ali. That's what the butterflies of love do. It doesn't seem like he's paid her much attention before the beginning of the novel. She's the shopkeeper, he's the shopper, nothing more. But when she coincidentally shows up at his door when his brother dies, she steps into a temporary role as caretaker. She brings him tea and she drives him to the memorial service. During this time they spend together, the Major learns they share a favorite author—Rudyard Kipling. What more does a couple need?
From then on, we watch the Major falling in love. Early on, whenever he sees Mrs. Ali, he is "in danger of smiling like a fool" (3.56). When he's in a grouchy mood, Mrs. Ali makes him feel "like waltzing" (5.73). Like anyone of any age in love, the Major starts reorganizing his schedule around Mrs. Ali. They have a book chat once a week, and the Major works with his friend Grace and Mrs. Ali on the food committee for a village-wide dance soirée with an Indian theme.
The party ends up being very exciting, then even more devastating. First, the exciting part. The Major gets to dress up and impress Mrs. Ali, like a peacock strutting his stuff. At a shoot for men only, the Major doesn't get the opportunity to show off, and he regrets it, thinking "he was sorry that Mrs. Ali could not see him now, decked out as a hunter-gatherer. Kipling would have dressed in much the same manner" (15.3). But he remedies this regret by escorting Mrs. Ali to the dance.
Unfortunately, the Indian-themed dance is flat-out racist. Since Mrs. Ali is basically the only brown woman in town, the village's white ladies expect her to play the part of an Indian, even though she's from Pakistan, not India. She blows it off, used to this casual racism her whole life, but things get heated when Daisy, the vicar's wife, tells Grace to find better friends.
This is when the Major makes his huge mistake—he defends Grace, instead of Mrs. Ali. It's a chivalrous reflex, but he "felt despair strike him like a blow to the ear. He had defended the wrong woman" (17.175).
As a British man, the Major's inherent imperialism goes way back. It's instinct to defend his peer, Grace, from insult. Yes, it's chivalrous, but the Major doesn't immediately realize how insulting it is to Mrs. Ali. As a minority and someone in a lower class, Mrs. Ali is often invisible, and here the Major, who is supposed to be her date, also fails to see her.
Insulted in front of everyone, Mrs. Ali leaves town to live with her dead husband's family. And the Major "knew he was a fool. Yet at that moment, he could not find a way to be a different man" (17.195). Okay, now you can cry.
With Mrs. Ali gone, the Major "felt the whole world become hollow" (18.2). As a consummate gentleman—Professor Layton crossed with a British Rhett Butler—the Major often walks the line between what he is "supposed" to do and what is right. Here, he has done neither.
He mopes around, until Grace discovers Mrs. Ali's address, giving the Major the opportunity to swoop in and rescue Mrs. Ali. At her in-laws' house, the Major learns that Mrs. Ali's family has been hiding her correspondence: she tried to write to him, but they didn't mail the letters. She wants to run away with him, and she does. The two are soon wed, after an insane conflict involving a shotgun, a knitting needle, and a crazy old broad on a seaside cliff—but more on that over on Mrs. Ali's nephew Abdul Wahid's character page.
What ultimately matters to the Major is that he's found love again. "He thought how wonderful it was that life was, after all, more simple than he had ever imagined" (22.69). Oh, how sweet. In fact, the Major found love in the most unlikely place for him. As an upper-middle-class white British man, he, like the rest of the townsfolk, once only saw Mrs. Ali as a shopkeeper. He wasn't mean or outwardly racist, the way some other people could be to her, but he never imagined her outside of her assigned role as the minority woman who sells him tea.
Luckily for the both of them, Mrs. Ali stepped into the Major's house that first day and opened his eyes.
But because it's our job, we have to ask: is this romantic, or is it merely the Major repeating his father's racially tinged imperialist past, swooping in to "save" a foreign woman, because he believes he knows what is right? What makes him different? Talk amongst yourselves.