Set in India at a time when the country was a British colony, Forster's novel is an obvious critique of the British Empire. (For more on the historical context of the novel, check out "Setting.") The assumption that one people have a right to dominate another – what people at the time called Britain's "civilizing mission" – is constantly and consistently undercut throughout the novel. The British Empire is portrayed as a fundamentally racist institution that excludes and subjugates others. But the novel is ambivalent about Indian aspirations for independence. It seems equally skeptical of the idea of India as an independent nation: how can a country with so much religious and social diversity be unified under one government? Is the idea of nationhood just as exclusive as the idea of empire? Is there anything beyond nation and empire, something that includes everyone, regardless of race, religion, or class?
Through its unsympathetic portrayal of characters such as Ronny Heaslop and Mr. Turton, Forster's A Passage to India questions the ideological bases for the British Empire.
Forster's A Passage to India depicts the fractures within both English and Indian society to show how difficult the passage to Indian independence was in the early 20th century.
While the novel is certainly a critique of the British Empire (see our discussion of "Power"), it is not a wholesale rejection of everything British, European, and "Western." Why? Well, Western civilization has some plusses. There's the whole notion of civil rights, for one – the notion that all human beings have rights under the law, such as the right to a fair and timely trial, the right to confront your witnesses, and that whole innocence until proven guilty thing. And let's not forget habeas corpus – your legal right not to be imprisoned without getting charged. In addition to this vibrant tradition of civil liberties, Western civilization also values dialogue as a way of mediating conflicts and reaching consensus. And last but not least, let's not forget that the idea of universal human rights is also critical to the Western European tradition.
Of course, we're not saying that these ideas are the exclusive property – or invention – of Western civilization. Forster's novel itself invokes both Muslim and Hindu traditions to show how there is a global tradition at work weaving the fabric of a common humanity.
But what Forster's novel does is focus in on what happens to lofty Western ideals when they get caught up in a morally corrupt institution such as the British Empire. Individual British colonial administrators such as Turton, McBryde, and Ronny Heaslop all struggle between their baser desire to mistreat Indian "natives" and their obligation to uphold the finer aspects of British culture and Western civilization. Looming in the historical background is not only the 1857 Mutiny, but also the Amritsar Massacre of 1919, which marked the radical curtailment of civil liberties for Indians (see "Setting" for the specifics). The novel takes the occasion of Aziz's trial to show how justice becomes contaminated by the institutions – the civil administration, the military, the court system – of empire.
The novel reveals how racial stereotypes about the inherent criminality of the "Oriental" prevent the fair treatment of Indian subjects in the British Empire.
Despite the general fiasco of the trial, the novel demonstrates that British institutions such as civil rights are a necessary barricade against the machinations of a fundamentally unjust empire.
In A Passage to India, life in Chandrapore, and indeed throughout the British Empire, is deeply fissured along racial lines, with the white Europeans on one side, and everyone else on the other. Indians are referred to as "Orientals," an out-dated racial term that was applied to everyone living east of Europe, from Turkey all the way out to China. Orientals were stereotypically considered to be exotic, sensual, passive, and backward, as opposed to the intellectual, civilized, progressive Westerner (source). Thus Orientals, such as the Indians in A Passage to India, were considered unable to rule themselves, essentially needing the British Empire to help them toward civilization (despite the fact that they had civilizations of their own). Even as the novel criticizes this stereotyping of Orientals – or "Orientalism" – it is itself not entirely free of the Orientalist attitude. The narrator makes broad generalizations about Orientals, about their psychology and their sexuality, that shows how entrenched the Orientalist attitude is even in a novel that is sympathetic to them.
In A Passage to India, racism against Indians can take a variety of shapes: while it is at its most vitriolic in a character such as Mrs. Turton, it can take more subtle forms in the case of an enlightened character such as Fielding.
A Passage to India challenges the Orientalist stereotype that Indians are weak, passive, and incapable of governing themselves.
In addition to race, gender also divides colonial society . British colonial society in India, made up as it is of administrators and their wives, is not exactly English society in miniature – it tends to aggravate whatever is most conservative and traditional about English culture, including a traditional attitude toward women as the much weaker sex. The stereotypical idea is that Englishwomen need white knights in shining armor to save them from lusting Orientals; thus Adela, as an Englishwoman, needs to be saved from Aziz by Englishmen. Englishwomen further demonstrate their weakness by being far more racist than their men: a character like Mrs. Turton doesn't have the benefit of her husband's education or civic-mindedness. On the other hand, British colonial society dismisses the Indian practice of purdah, or of segregating women from men, as backwards and unenlightened.
Despite its criticism of the British colonial attitude toward women, A Passage to India seems to harbor sexist attitudes. In fact, some critics have argued that female characters such as Adela and Aziz's wife are reduced to pawns who are exchanged between men to establish relationships between men, excluding the possibility of equal relationships between men and women.
The racism of Englishwomen in A Passage to India is far worse than that of the Englishmen because the women lack the men's commitment to England's "civilizing mission" in India.
Adela's courageous retraction at the trial defies the belief shared by the British and Indians alike that women inevitably become racist during their stay in India.
Before the Beatles traveled to India to tootle with Ravi Shankar, Forster had already been, loving up the subcontinent. Faced with the machinery of the British Empire and the daunting task of Indian nation-building, A Passage to India asks us to consider friendship as the solution to these incredibly complex political issues. ("All you need is love," anyone?) What makes the novel interesting, however, is its candor regarding all of the barriers the characters face in establishing their friendships, particularly with Aziz and Fielding, who are unable to bridge their cultural and political differences despite their affection for one another. Significantly, Aziz only considers Mrs. Moore and Professor Godbole as his true friends, one of whom is dead, and the other is, well, in his own mental universe, a galaxy far, far away from ordinary human interaction.
Because of its idealization of friendships beyond reciprocity – such as that between Aziz and the absent Mrs. Moore – A Passage to India cannot represent the possibility of true friendships in this world, as exemplified in the fraught relationship between Aziz and Fielding.
In A Passage to India, friendships model the possibility of a mutually beneficial cultural exchange between Britain and India that does not entail the exploitative institution of empire.
Religion plays a major role in A Passage to India, dividing not only the primarily Christian British from the Indians, but also dividing Indian society from within. While Hinduism is the majority religion in India, and Islam the most significant minority, other Indian religious groups mentioned in the novel include Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists. Ronny Heaslop typifies the British administrator's attitude toward all religion, including Christianity, as an irrational system of beliefs. According to him, Christianity is only useful insofar as it provides divine justification for the British monarchy, and no more. And India's plethora of religions only underscores its backwardness to someone like Ronny. The novel, however, explores how different religious traditions, including Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam, might provide a better, more inclusive view of humanity. But no one religion in the novel is valorized over the others as the last word on life, the universe, and everything. The "boum" – a twist on the Hindu Dharmic "om" – that threatens Mrs. Moore's hold on life signals the novel's general skepticism toward all organized religions.
While A Passage to India certainly shows how religious differences divide colonial society in Chandrapore, it also shows how the value of love in Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam can contribute to a bridging between cultures.
While Hinduism is represented as the closest to the novel's principle of inclusiveness, it is weakened by its own internal divisions and caste hierarchies.
A novel that keeps digging at the way human beings draw lines to separate themselves from each other, lines of race and culture and nationality, inevitably has to ask well, what else is out there? If not race, religion, gender, culture, nationality, our very humanity – who are we? What are we? Why are we here? What is the meaning of it all? A Passage to India suggests that there may not be anything deeper and truer out there. It may all just be – a "muddle" (1.7.71). All of it – ancient civilizations, grand empires, powerful potentates, and the humble peasant picking at the dirt – could be reduced to so much half-cooked pudding, primordial ooze. Despite the general gunkiness of existence, A Passage to India shows various characters as they strive to give a form to the muddle, to give form as a way of making sense of the muddle.
Muddled, yet? Well, think of Forster's form as one of those molds you use to make shapeless dough into nifty cookie shapes, or a mold you might use to turn mud into building blocks. Forms help us make the formless and shapeless into something we can recognize – a gingerbread man, a sand castle. In the novel, somebody like Mrs. Turton might use the mold or form of race to turn humankind into something she can recognize: English humans, Indian humans.
Obviously, the novel rejects Mrs. Turton's molds. What's the alternative? Are there molds/forms that can give shape to human existence without excluding others? Some critics have looked to Godbole's Hinduism, but as the novel points out, Hinduism itself is divided into different sects and castes. Perhaps the novel tries to embrace the muddle through the form of art, and literature specifically. The novel itself could be an experiment in coming up with a form that includes everybody without being a muddle. It may not be successful – see "Gender" and "Race" for some of its limitations – but at least it tried. And as Mrs. Moore puts it, some "kinds of failure" may be preferable to others (1.5.99).
While A Passage to India emphasizes the fundamental meaninglessness or "muddle" of life, it also shows how even in its meaninglessness, or because of it, life can be marvelous and extraordinary.
Adela's confusion about her attack in the caves is engendered by the profound emotional and intellectual upheaval she experienced in the echo of the caves.
A Passage to India turns again and again to India as a country so vast, so diverse, and so exotic that it cannot be fathomed by the puny human mind. India is contrasted with England, which is presented as a small, charming island that doesn't overwhelm you with its neat valleys and lakes. England is homey and familiar; India is uncanny and strange. England is modern, progressive, civilized; India is both primitive and infinitely more civilized, bearing the ruins of numerous ancient and modern civilizations. In the novel, even the Indian characters have trouble grasping what India is all about. The mysterious Marabar Caves stand in for India as a whole: an entity that is certainly extraordinary but about which not much can be said. The novel itself seems torn between championing India's rich history and disparaging its muddled diversity.
A Passage to India attempts to encompass the vast cultural and geographical diversity of India at the same time that it constantly reminds the reader of the futility of such a project.
Forster's novel consistently represents India as so alien that it is virtually unrepresentable to the "Western" mind.