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.
Questions About Race
- How do the British characters feel about "Orientals" and Indians? What stereotypes characterize their attitude toward Indians? Are some British characters more racist than others? If so, which ones and how?
- Take a look at the social interactions between British and Indian characters. How does race factor into their encounters?
- Consider the ways that British and Indian characters are portrayed. Do you think there is a difference in the way the novel portrays these characters? Do you think that the novel also supports Orientalist stereotypes, or is it trying to criticize these stereotypes? Or both? Can you find specific instances to support your view?
Chew on This
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.