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).
Questions About Life, Consciousness, Existence
- The term "muddle" recurs throughout the novel. What are some of the different senses of the term? What does it reveal about the characters' attitudes? What about the novel's general attitude toward life?
- Consider Adela and Mrs. Moore's experiences in the caves. What does the "echo" or "ou-boum" of the cave do to them? How does it alter the way they look at the world, the way they behave? How does it affect their experience for the rest of the novel?
- How do different characters cope with the "muddle" of existence? Some characters you could look at include Fielding, Adela, Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Ronny Heaslop.
Chew on This
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.