Passage to India (Review)

Labels: Great Works


A Passage to India
E.M. Forster, 1924
pp. 300-400 (varies by edition)

Book Review by Molly Lundquist
July 2011
A funny thing about empires: empires pack up and carry their own culture with them, then impose it on those they've conquered. It's a lovely custom...if you're the ones in charge.

So it was with the British Raj in India, which is the subject of E.M. Forster's masterpiece, A Passage to India. In another Forster work, Howards End, the mantra was "only connect." In Passage the last thing the British wish to do is connect with the Indian people they rule over.

"The kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," says one Englishwoman. And if he makes it into heaven? Fine, but she doesn't want him anywhere near her. For their part the Indians find the British equally despicable, though of course for different reasons—their sense of entitlement, superiority and their unassailable authority.

Into this climate sail two Englishwomen—Mrs. Moore and her future daughter-in-law, Adela Quested—who feel a sympathy toward the Indian culture. The two women are befriended by Dr. Aziz, an educated Indian, who offers to show them the true India—a wider, more vibrant country than what can be seen from behind the cloisterd walls of the British clubs and compounds. Yet this way lies disaster.

Aziz arranges an elaborate outing to the famous Marabar Caves where Miss Quested believes ... thinks ... maybe ... though is not certain ... that she's been raped. (By the way, have fun, with the names...more and quest...and with the Freudian symbolism of the caves.) The novel revolves around the sensational trial that follows as everyone attempts to tease out the truth. But truth in Forster's world is neither one thing nor the other.

Religion is a powerful theme throughout the novel, especially the Hindu belief in the "unity of all things," a notion that offers, to Indians and British alike, potential for redemption. Yet, as the Marabar Caves' haunting echo suggests, unity does not come without risk—a loss of individualism, where all life merges into an amorphous oneness.

Highly critical of his countrymen, Forster paints the British as caricatures, yet when criticized he responded was that he was tired of balanced views. He wrote, he said, from his heart. In the end, Forster suggests the impossibility of friendship between Britains and Indians—cultures too incompatible to secure mutual respect and appreciation.

See our Reading Guide for A Passage to India.

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