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?
Questions About Power
- How do different characters feel about the British empire? What are the differences between the English and the Indian perspectives on empire? What about the differences within the English and Indian communities? Consider, for example, the differences between Turton and the subaltern, Ronny and Mrs. Moore, or Aziz and Godbole.
- How do the different characters feel about the prospect of an independent Indian nation? You might want to compare and contrast the views of Aziz, Fielding, Hamidullah, and Ronny, for starters.
- What do you think is the novel's general attitude toward the British Empire? To put it bluntly, do you think the novel is saying that the empire is a good thing or a bad thing? What evidence can you cite in support of your interpretation of the novel's general attitude?
Chew on This
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.