The tone of the novel tends to be objective, as if it were trying to present an unbiased view of the characters. This tone is especially useful when we get to the trial scene, where nobody seems to be thinking clearly and everybody seems to be on the verge of hysteria. On the other hand, it's not as if the novel were completely disinterested, either. It strikes a sympathetic note here and there, particularly when a character struggles to grapple with the big questions in life, what Fielding calls the "muddle."
Forster's A Passage to India is perhaps the most Modernist of his novels with its emphasis on the complex interior life of the characters, experimentation with interweaving, complicated plots, use of recurring images and symbols, and its questioning of conventional modes of representing reality, as the novel constantly emphasizes that whatever we call reality is an elusive commodity. These qualities also establish the novel as literary fiction, and the novel is often considered Forster's masterpiece.
The title of A Passage to India is a reference to Walt Whitman's poem, "A Passage to India." In the poem, Whitman takes his reader on an imaginary journey through time and space. India is presented as a fabled land that inspired Columbus to seek a westward route from Europe to India, a route that ended up with his discovery of the Americas. While India is celebrated as an antique land, rich in history, America is celebrated as a force of modernization. Whitman sees both as caught up in an inexorable thrust toward globalization, where all countries are swept up in the same push toward progress. As he writes,
Passage to India!
Lo, soul! seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spann'd, connected by net-work,
The people to become brothers and sisters,
The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage,
The oceans to be cross'd, the distant brought near,
The lands to be welded together. (lines 31-35)
(Read the full poem here)
While Whitman is typically exuberant, Forster's novel explores the darker side of what you might call Whitman's Song of My Global Self. Forster's exposé of the costs and contradictions of the British Empire reveal that the dream of "lands […] welded together" could just be the cynical mantra for taking over other countries. While Whitman uses interracial marriage – "The races, neighbors, to marry and be given in marriage" – as a metaphor for international harmony, Forster's novel shows how even a hint of interracial attraction, let alone friendship, can inflame deep-seated racial animosities.
Whitman ends his poem with an invocation to follow the examples of the great explorers – and the great empire-builders – to go on a "passage beyond," to other fantastic discoveries. But Forster's novel asks us to question the motives behind such a passage, particularly if it entails subjecting entire peoples to the rule of a foreign power.
"Friends again," begins the last chapter of A Passage to India, but despite this promising beginning, we're hardly left with an image of brotherly love. The last chapter follows Fielding and Aziz as they ride on horseback through a monsoon-soaked Mau. The confusion about Fielding's marriage has finally been cleared up, and even though Aziz now knows that Fielding did not marry Adela, the two can't return to the easy friendship of the good old days in Chandrapore. As the novel explains, both of their political attitudes have become more extreme. Whereas earlier in the novel, an independent India was for Aziz just a poetic fantasy, he is now committed to Indian nationalism. And Fielding is no longer appreciative of Indian culture and society, as he ridicules the idea that India has what it takes to thrive as an independent nation, free from British control.
Even though they take pleasure in sparring over politics, the novel's last paragraph emphasizes how distanced they've become. Despite the promising beginning of the chapter, the novel ends with the earth itself uttering with "its hundred voices, 'No, not yet,'" and the sky chiming in, "No, not there" (3.37.29). These lines suggest that the historical moment – early 20th century colonial India – places insuperable barriers against a friendship between an Englishman and an Indian. Whether this comment is a pessimistic statement about the impossibility of interracial friendship, or just another way of putting the novel's own exploration of the possibility of unity despite differences, is left up in the air.
The first two parts of Forster's A Passage to India are set in the fictional city of Chandrapore, India, with the third part taking place in Mau. While Forster doesn't specify a particular year, critics generally agree that the novel takes place at some point in the early decades of the 20th century while India was still a colony in the British Empire.
If you're unfamiliar with Indian history, reading the novel may feel a bit like eavesdropping on a conversation between strangers. Random words seem to be super loaded, and characters seem to get mad at each other over nothing. To get the subtext, it might help to have some knowledge of Indian history, so take a deep breath – we're going to try to get through three hundred years of Indian history in few paragraphs. (Here's a place to download some mood music.)
The British presence in India began in the 16th century, spurred by the market for tea, spices, and textiles. At the time, India was made up of independent, mainly Hindu states in central and southern India, and the Islamic Mughal Empire in the north. As trade increased, so did the British interest in establishing their holdings in India to maximize and eventually monopolize their trade with the region. This was done primarily through the British East India Company. But it wasn't until 1858 that Britain made India an official colony. British India, also called Anglo-India and the British Raj in the novel, consisted of areas that were administered directly by the British government (where fictional Chandrapore is located) and princely states that had a high degree of autonomy (where Mau is located, most likely the one in central India).
By the time we get to the events in the novel, the movement for Indian independence is gaining momentum, and it dominates the lives of the characters. While the novel takes place around the 1910s or 1920s, the Mutiny of 1857 casts a huge shadow over both the British and Indian characters. Simply uttering the word "mutiny" seems to inspire either intense hatred of Indians or intense nationalist feeling, depending on who is doing the uttering. The mutiny refers to an important moment in Indian nationalism. In 1857, sepoys, or Indian soldiers in the British military, staged a mutiny in Meerut, and the rebellion quickly spread across northwestern India. In the novel, Turton's villa is compared to Lucknow, where the British commissioner was assassinated by rebels (2.20.2). The mutiny was one of the factors that spurred Britain to formally establish India as a colony.
But the mutiny also inspired the Indian movement for independence. The deep divisions between the Muslims and the Hindus during the independence movement is revealed in the sometimes strained relationship between the Hindu and Muslim characters in the novel. The 1860s witnessed a Muslim revival and a renewed appreciation for Mughal culture and literature, which is evident in Aziz's deep love of Persian poetry and his nostalgia for the reign of the Mughal emperors.
In 1885, the Indian National Congress was founded initially to advocate for the rights of Indians within the British Empire, but later became one of the primary players for Indian independence. While the Indian National Congress may have been dominated by the Hindus, one of its central tenets was religious freedom for all religious groups on the subcontinent. Many Muslims, however, feared that when the Congress came into power in an independent India, it would not respect all religious minorities and take away property and rights from Muslims. The Muslim League was founded in 1906 to advocate a separate, Muslim-dominated country. These fractures within the independence movement can be seen in Hamidullah's political activities in the novel, where rifts between competing religious groups seem difficult to bridge except when it comes to their common enemy, the British (1.9.38).
However, by the time A Passage to India was published in 1924, a series of historical events encouraged the Congress and the Muslim League to work together for independence. These historical events provide a set of historical references for the events surrounding the trial in Forster's novel. In 1918, the Rowlatt Commission proposed what came to be known as the Rowlatt Acts, which took away key civil liberties away from Indians, including the admission of testimony from dead or absent witnesses (hence the outcry over Mrs. Moore's absence in the novel [2.24.85]). At this point, Gandhi, a member of the Indian National Congress and a founding figure in Indian history, organized non-violent demonstrations against the acts, including hartal, or work stoppages (thus the Sweepers' strike during Aziz's trial, which caused all the stoppages in the toilets [2.24.24]).
These demonstrations led to the infamous Amritsar Massacre of 1919 in circumstances quite similar to the novel. Peaceful Indian demonstrators had collected at Jallianwallah Bagh, but British and sepoy soldiers opened fire. Almost five hundred unarmed individuals were killed, and a thousand were wounded. During the so-called "riot," an Englishwoman was allegedly attacked by the Indians. She denied that she was attacked intentionally, cited the fact that she was helped by Indians after the attack, and refused any compensation. Despite her protestations, the general in charge instituted the notorious "crawling order," where Indians were forced to crawl along the road where the Englishwoman had been attacked (thus Mrs. Turton's comment that Indians should be forced to crawl (2.24.41). While there are no massacres in the novel, an attack on a white woman is also at the center of civil unrest, leading to the riots during the Moshurram festivities and after the trial.
Events such as the Amritsar massacre and the Rowlatt Acts further inspired Indians to seek independence, leading to an alliance between the Indian National Congress and the Muslim League during the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920. But Forster's novel, in its depiction of the fissures within Indian society, shows how tenuous such an alliance was. In 1947, India did gain its independence, but also at the cost of partition with the establishment of Pakistan as a separate, Islamic state.
And by the way, if you happen to be in India, don't look for the Marabar Caves. The caves about which "nothing" can be said don't exist – they are, literally, nothing. Ironic, isn't it? The Marabar Caves are believed to be a composite of Malabar and the Barabar Hills, which are Buddhist caves north of Calcutta.
While Forster's novel is quite readable, with a thrilling criminal drama at its core, it contains historical allusions and poetic language that might make certain passages difficult to follow. (Don't worry – we'll help you through them.)
Despite the heavy political themes of the novel, Forster's A Passage to India is dense with the kind of figurative language that we usually associate with poetry. In one of the more breathtaking passages, Forster describes the reflection of a flame against the highly reflective surface of a Marabar cave:
The two flames approach and strive to unite, but cannot, because one of them breathes air, the other stone. A mirror inlaid with lovely colours divides the lovers, delicate stars of pink and grey interpose, exquisite nebulae, shadings fainter than the tail of a comet or the midday moon, all the evanescent life of the granite, only here visible. (2.12.4)
Swoon. To bring the cold, hard granite to "evanescent life," the novel makes us see how the flames bring out the different shades of color refracted off the minerals in the stone. By describing the myriad inflections of color in granite, the narrator doesn't take away anything from granite. In fact, it does the complete opposite by making an ordinary material extraordinary. Forster's writing style serves one of the general themes of the novel: art is a way of giving form to the "muddle," of helping us make sense of the world around us. The best works of art use form not to exclude the muddle, but to embrace the muddle, to always direct the reader's attention beyond the comfortable safety of the familiar, to the unfamiliar and strange.
A Passage to India may well read like a series of bad parties. We see parties such as: the Turtons' Bridge Party, Fielding's tea party, and Aziz's picnic. All of these occasions are supposed to be about coming together, making some friends, and having a good time, but all of them fail miserably. In the novel, these failed parties serve as allegories for the British Empire in general.
The British Empire as a dud party, you ask? Well, the novel shows that each of these occasions fail because of the British need for exclusion, for hierarchies, for social boundaries, and for establishing an us-versus-them that always sets up an "us" as superior to "them." Racism is an extension of this desire for exclusion, and so is empire, which is based on the principle that "we" are better – more civilized, more modern, more powerful – than "them." Aziz's catastrophe of a picnic is just a spectacular instance of how destructive the British desire for exclusion can be.
But this desire for exclusion isn't confined to the British alone. The novel opens as Moshurram, a Muslim festival, approaches. During the trial, the Moshurram riots were associated with demonstrations in support of Aziz. Before the trial, however, the Moshurram troubles referred to the inevitable tangles between the Muslims and the Hindus about the parade route. The Moshurram riots are an allegory for the religious factionalism that continues to threaten the South Asian subcontinent to this very day.
In contrast to these failed social occasions, take a peek at the Gokul Ashtami festival, which is a festival set up to fail. (We mean fail in the sense of failing to exclude anyone.) The festival celebrates all beings, excluding no one and nothing, not even the tiniest of bugs or the silliest of jokes. In his religious trance, Godbole doesn't get in touch with some higher power; he remembers an old woman (i.e., Mrs. Moore) back in Chandrapore and a wasp.
You might have noticed that the novel is not only divided up into chapters, but it is also divided into three parts entitled "Mosque," "Cave," and "Temple." The parts are also organized by the three seasons in India: "Mosque" takes place during the cool weather, "Cave" during the hot weather, and "Temple" during the rainy season.
These part divisions set the tone for the events described in each part. In "Mosque," the first part of the novel, Aziz's reference to the architecture of the mosque as that of "call and response" harmonizes with the general tenor of this part of the novel, where people are meeting each other at various social functions. Like the cool weather, people are generally calm and friendly.
In contrast, the "Cave" section of the novel contains the climax of the novel. Taking place during the hot weather, emotions are inflamed, and nobody seems to be able to think coolly and rationally. Just as Mrs. Moore's hold on life was threatened by her experience of meaninglessness within the cave, the entire community of Chandrapore is turned upside down as riots and unrest surround the trial.
Finally, the "Temple" section attempts to wash away the chaos of the "Cave" section with its pouring rains. In keeping with the Hindu motif of the temple, the chapter celebrates the Hindu principle of the oneness of all things with Godbole at the Gokul Ashtami festival, and provides us with a reconciliation, though a tenuous one, between Fielding and Aziz.
In a twist that Godbole would surely appreciate, nothing in the novel is actually something. That is, it's a symbol. A symbol of – nothing.
The novel begins with the word "nothing" in its first sentence. You might have noticed that the novel seems obsessed with gaps and holes. The novel is roughly structured like a donut, with a big hole where Adela's experience in the cave should be. But if you think about it, even though nothing is written about Adela's experience in the cave, it doesn't mean that nothing happened or that nothing can be said. In fact, it's probably the most interesting part of the book precisely because it's missing. As the narrator comments on the Marabar Caves – which are just a big series of holes – they are "extraordinary." The extraordinariness (if that's even a word) of nothing – one of the more mysterious and certainly compelling motifs in the novel.
The sky recurs in chapter after chapter, sometimes personified to the extent that depictions of the sky almost become characters in their own right. The sky, as the entity that embraces all things, could be construed as a symbol of inclusiveness, but it has also been read as a symbol of the vast expanse of either British imperial control or the inconceivable vastness of India itself.
The narrator weaves seamlessly between different characters' points of view in its attempt to give a multi-faceted account of events. The narrator tends to speak with authority on the characters, explaining in great detail the characters' psychology and cultural background. The narrator seems almost god-like, particularly when discussing the characters' diverse religious experiences with ease.
Adela's last name – "Quested" – suggests that her quest is one important way of understanding the passage in the title, A Passage to India. Following the quest structure, Adela arrives in India, and feels the mysterious appeal of the force and life of the country.
Adela attempts to see the "real" India, but the real India eludes her. Even when she does meet Indians, at the Bridge Party, for example, they are in such artificial and formal situations that she doesn't feel as though she can have a genuine conversation with them.
Adela finally seems to have met her goal when she meets Mrs. Moore's charming Aziz at Fielding's tea party. On their excursion to the Marabar Caves, however, the thrill of hanging out with Aziz quickly sours when she believes he has attacked her.
Adela's ordeal only continues in the days leading up to the trial as she veers between her hatred of Aziz and her suspicion that Aziz is innocent. On the stand, she realizes her mistake and withdraws her charge. Far from solving her dilemma, this act opens up a whole new can of worms as she now has to deal with her ejection from Anglo-Indian society.
For a quest, this seems like a rather humble goal. Other mythical quests involve the Holy Grail, the Fountain of Youth, Shalimar … and all Adela gets is the realization that she's not all that good at making friends? The anticlimactic end of Adela's quest fits in with the novel's general tendency to emphasize the fundamental meaninglessness of existence. This is not as depressing as it sounds. Freed from the attitude that life is meaningful and ought to be examined like a book, Adela no longer studies life, but actually lives.
As the novel opens, life in colonial Chandrapore is segregated, racially and geographically. The British colonial administrators and their families live at the civil station, which is set on a hill overlooking the lower, more sordid section of Chandrapore. Adela and Mrs. Moore's arrival disrupts this segregated life as they seek and establish relationships with Indians.
There's a lot of build-up to the conflict of the novel, with a number of failed social occasions where the English and the Indians have trouble connecting, including the Bridge Party and Fielding's tea party. The picnic at the Marabar Caves brings all of these tensions to a head. Significantly, what actually happens at the caves is left out of the narrative, leaving the novel with its own version of a literary cave.
By committing himself to Aziz's cause, Fielding exposes a rift within British society. Instead of proceeding directly to punishing a man whose guilt they assume, the British find themselves being challenged by the values that Fielding represents – civilized discourse, tolerance, and the rule of law. Fielding's actions also spur Adela to question her interpretation of events.
When Adela takes the stand, the novel stresses that she feels as though she were being led along the "paths of truth." At last, you might think, the truth. But the climax isn't the revelation of the truth of what happened in the cave. The novel just says that Adela remembers nothing. Which means no Aziz. Adela's withdrawal of her charge is the real climax of the story, sending the courtroom and the rest of Chandrapore into turmoil.
Adela's retraction doesn't, however, solve all the issues raised by the trial. Her honesty doesn't make her a heroine; to everyone with the exception of Fielding at this point, Adela's retraction only shows that she is a silly girl who made a terrible mistake. Moreover, Aziz's victory doesn't solidify his friendship with Fielding, as it opens up a host of new issues surrounding his lawsuit against Adela for damages.
The denouement is hardly satisfactory for any of the parties involved. Adela goes back to England, still single and without any real answers about what happened in the cave. Aziz decides not to sue Adela, but bitterly resents Fielding for persuading him not to. Fielding leaves for England before he can clear up the misunderstanding with Aziz.
In the last section of the novel, Aziz and Fielding reunite and finally clear up the misunderstanding about Fielding's relationship with Adela. While they are anxious for the whole Marabar Cave incident to be washed away from their lives forever, they come to recognize that as an Englishman and an Indian in British India, they cannot stay friends.
Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore arrive in Chandrapore, where they meet members of both the British and Indian communities.
On an outing to the Marabar Caves, Adela believes she has been attacked by Dr. Aziz. At his trial, she withdraws the charge, creating upheaval in Chandrapore.
At Mau, Aziz and Fielding reconnect, although they realize that they cannot continue to be friends.