Study Guide

A Passage to India What's Up With the Title?

By E.M. Forster

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What's Up With the Title?

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.

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