Sunday, March 15, 2015

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

It seems I'm reading and reviewing a lot of books lately that I was prejudiced against reading in my earlier days.  I've noticed that the last few posts begin with, "known about this book for years but didn't read it because...." or something like that.

Guess what?  I knew about E.M. Forester since college but had no desire to read him because the movies based on his novels, such as Howard's End and A Room With a View didn't interest me.  I enjoyed A Passage to India but didn't know it was by the same author.

Soooo...what was the impetus that impelled me to buy most of E.M. Forester's books?  Good question.  I will gladly tell you.

I read about him in biographies of writers that I loved.  There's a whole school of British writers that attended  Oxford University in the first twenty years of the twentieth century.  Based on the recommendation of writers I like I am now reading authors I didn't like.

E.M. Forester belonged to the latter group but now belongs to the first.

A Passage to India is about British expatriates in the country of the title.  Forester draws characters from English, Hindu and Muslim backgrounds and the complicated relationships that arise when different cultural semantics collide.

I found the dialogue, especially between the Indians, to hold a delicate charm.  They are funny and endearing but also hold to certain prejudices against each other-especially the Muslims and the Hindus.

The British are snobby to all Indians indiscriminately although some are sympathetic and befriend them.

Basic storyline:  Two women, Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested come to India to meet Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop.  Adela is engaged to Heaslop who is a British official in India.  Presumably their married life will be spent largely in India.

Adela is excited and eager to tour the country and meet Indians.  She is naive and ignorant of the social boundaries that delineate her race from the natives.  Nevertheless, she and Mrs. Moore  are able to persuade Dr. Aziz, a Muslim physician who has befriended Mrs. Moore, to take them on a tour of the Marabar Caves.  An Englishman, Mr. Fielding, who is also friends with Aziz, is to accompany them.

 Fielding misses the train that takes the ladies to the Marabar Caves so Aziz and the women go alone. 
Aziz is an exuberant, emotional man and goes to great trouble and personal expense to make this an impressive tour for the ladies.  He hires servants, an elephant, and an incredible amount of food to take on the trip.  While Aziz feels warm affection for Mrs. Moore, largely because of the respect she shows him, unusual for a British citizen, he does not care for Adele and a lot of his generosity is motivated by personal pride and honor as it is out of genuine esteem.

 When they arrive, Mrs. Moore is too tired to walk further so Adela, Aziz and a servant tour the caves alone.  Adela innocently asks Aziz a question about his late wife, which he finds personal and offensive.  To hide his awkwardness he walks off into a nearby cave by himself and smokes a cigarette. 

When he returns, he finds Adela is gone.  He frantically looks everywhere for her,  running inside the other caves, asking the servant who knows nothing.  Finally he sees her down the hill talking to another woman, Mrs. Derek.  He runs down the hill calling to her, but the women get in the car and drive off before he can reach them.

Feeling his excursion is a failure, he rejoins Mrs. Moore, who hasn't seen Adela and can offer no explanation for her behavior and they return home.

When they get back, Aziz is arrested on charges of sexual assault against Adela.

This plot is merely the skeleton upon which Forster fleshes out his actual purpose.  He wants to show the tightly wound relationships between the British rulers over the Indian subjects in the 1920's, shortly before Indian independence.

What I admire most in Forster's writing here as well as in Where Angels Fear to Tread is his ability to switch narrating voices.  The three main voices are from the limited perspective of Adela, Mr. Fielding, Aziz and a third person omniscient narrator.  Because we hear their perceptions it is easy to sympathize with these characters and less so with the others whose thoughts we never learn and can only judge from their actions.

Forster switches back and forth between these voices so we can see and understand how they react to the words and actions of the other.  He shows how great misunderstandings occur, primarily because of how the English and Indian cultures process and express themselves.

There is a great deal of cultural prejudice on all sides, including between Indians of Muslim and Hindu religions.

Things come to a satisfactory conclusion and requires humility, repentance, and forgiveness for the main characters.  Adela eventually leaves India, admitting to herself she really doesn't love Heaslop.  After some gross misunderstandings between Fielding and Aziz created by their cultural differences, they eventually reconcile and resume their friendship.  

Fielding, although middle aged, visits England and marries Mrs. Moore's younger daughter.  Dr. Aziz also marries.  Even so, Forster implies that true love is not something anyone can attain.

It's apparent from the omniscient narrator that Forster himself believes in nothing and takes pains to show that, really, that is all life has to offer.  No one truly loves anyone else.  No one can know true love, romantic or otherwise.  Every potential friendship or marriage is tainted by an underlying ennui and emptiness.

Even so, I very much liked his characters and his story line development and if that's how Forster felt about life, too bad for him.

This is the second book I have reviewed of Forster.  I will be soon reading and reviewing more.

2.99 on Kindle


  1. I quite like Forster, Passage to India I read as a student and a few years ago I read A room with a View which I liked very much. I have been meaning to re-read Passage and I still have Howard's End sitting on my tbr shelf. He is an author deserving of attention.

    1. Hi, Arabella. I am glad I have finally started reading him. I really enjoy Forster's writing style and look forward to reading the rest of his works. I have Howard's End and Room With a View in que.

  2. I love this book and I found a lot of meaning here. For All the reasons that you mention this is great one.

    Your commentary here is so insightful.

    I did find a little more optimism in Forster's view of the Universe. I think that fe does indeed see it as dark place full of nihilism. Yet I also sense that he was trying to say that despite the fact that it is very difficult, there is hope is hope in human connection.

    1. Hi Brian: There is most definitely hope in the human condition. I guess I was comparing my own belief in true love to the narrator's comments in the book. He shows how Adela and Ronnie never really loved each other, Aziz and his second wife don't either and even my favorite character, Fielding marries a woman who, we are told through the narrator, doesn't hold much affection for him.
      I assumed then that Forster himself had become cynical about love.

  3. I've only seen the movie but it drove me crazy, in that I could never figure out whether Adela was assaulted or she was a little unhinged. Does the book tie it up better? I sure hope so!

    1. Hi Cleopatra. I just watched the movie again right after reading the book. She was not actually assaulted she let her imagination get the better of her and she panicked. Then she was pressured by the other English to accuse Aziz because they were the ones that assumed that is what happened.

      The book does not make Adele out to be a pleasant person but neither did she come across as being attracted to Aziz as the actress in the movie seemed to portray her.

  4. What a bleak and cynical view of life and love. Still I enjoyed your review of it. Thanks...

    1. troutbirder: Forster was cynical and I don't think he liked the human race much.


I welcome comments from anyone with a mutual interest in the subjects I written about.