Study Guide

A Passage to India Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By E.M. Forster

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Social Occasions: Parties, Picnics, and Festivals

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.

Mosque, Cave, Temple, and a few comments on the weather

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.

Nothing

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

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.

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