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A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Part 2, Chapter 14 ((Caves)) | Summary



Mrs. Moore and Adela have been emotionally numb for the past two weeks, ever since hearing Godbole's song at Fielding's. Adela, feeling unenthusiastic about the excursion, decides to focus on future plans, including her wedding at Simla. Mrs. Moore says that because Ronny and Adela cannot marry until May, when it will already be too hot to travel, she will not be able to return home for some time. Adela resists the idea of going up into the mountains during the hot weather as the other Englishwomen do. Mrs. Moore, still haunted by Godbole's song, thinks about how people make too much of relationships, particularly marriage: "Centuries of carnal embracement, yet man is no nearer to understanding man."

As they travel through the dim morning, the narration becomes stream of consciousness, with bits of description of the landscape, the train's sound, and the idea India is beyond understanding: "How can the mind take hold of such a country?" Finally, Adela sees the Marabar hills out of the window, anticipating a gorgeous sunrise. But the sunrise is disappointing. The train then stops when it reaches an elephant, which Aziz had gone to great lengths to obtain for the ladies' amusement. There is situational irony here: Adela considered riding an elephant as just the sort of touristy thing the British would come up with.

As they mount the elephant, a servant, following Aziz's instructions, causes Mohammed Latif to slip and dangle behind the elephant's buttocks as part of a carefully planned bit of slapstick humor, which the ladies do not appreciate. On their way to the hills, they experience "a spiritual silence" and wonder about what they are seeing around them. At one point Adela thinks she sees a poisonous cobra. But when she looks through binoculars and realizes it is only a withered tree, Aziz and the villagers persist in thinking it is a snake.

When they arrive at the caves, Aziz is unable to explain anything about them. They find a stuffy place to camp, and Aziz's servants offer them the second of three breakfasts. Aziz feels things are going well—"hospitality has been achieved"—and feels deep affection for Fielding and Mrs. Moore. He tells Mrs. Moore that having them as his guests makes him feel like the Emperor Babur. He then pleases the ladies by talking further about the Mogul emperors, a topic he knows well and about which he has strong feelings. They ask him about Emperor Akbar, who created a new religion to include Hindus and Muslims, which Aziz calls foolish: "Nothing embraces the whole of India, nothing, nothing." This concerns Adela, who is hoping for some way to feel connected with the Indians in her new life here. She brings up her fear of becoming an Anglo-Indian and asks his advice, saying she's heard people say, "We all get rude after a year." Aziz, stung by this truth, calls it a lie, and the exchange breaks up their conversation.

They then begin touring the caves. While they go into the first cave, the narrative perspective momentarily takes a bird's-eye view of the scene. Mrs. Moore's experience is horrid: she nearly faints, feels crowded, is struck by something on her face, begins gasping and hitting around her, and feels alarmed by a terrifying echo, which makes a sound like "boum" no matter what is said. After an affectionate exchange with Aziz, she decides to wait while Adela and Aziz explore other caves. Mrs. Moore advises Aziz not to let a whole crowd in at once, so he forbids all but one guide to accompany them. When they leave, Mrs. Moore begins to feel even more oppressed by the experience of the echo; to her mind it seems to suggest nothing has value. She begins to feel a creeping despair, and all lofty thoughts become nothing more than "boum."


This chapter begins and ends with puzzling, inscrutable Indian experiences. The first is the effect of Godbole's song, which has remained with both ladies. In the case of Mrs. Moore, the memory of the song has begun to eat away at her values and sense of propriety, causing her to question the importance of marriage. Then, during the train journey, the stream of consciousness narration suggests India is beyond comprehension. Finally, the echo in the cave leaves Mrs. Moore apathetic and detached from society and all human engagement, feeling there is no value in anything.

A thread of disappointment and failure also runs through the chapter. Aziz seeks to be the generous Oriental host, but he fails at several points: he can't act as a guide to the caves; his costly efforts to obtain the elephant fail to please the ladies who see it as just the kind of touristy gimmick they might expect from the Anglo-Indians; his elaborate practical joke with Mohammed Latif disturbs, rather than entertains, the ladies; and he is unable to help Adela with her Anglo-Indian difficulty. Adela feels dull about everything, and when she forces herself to become excited about the sunrise, it disappoints her. Mrs. Moore is disappointed she will not be able to return immediately to England. Aziz becomes a true guide to India when he talks about the Mogul emperors; he is always at his best when discussing Mogul culture and history. This too ends in failure when Adela brings up an unpleasant truth. Finally, Mrs. Moore's visit to the cave is beyond disappointing—it is positively horrifying.

Once again the Indians are being excessively accommodating. Aziz, in his desire to be the good host, makes sure the English ladies are continually fed. The villagers and Aziz agree with Adela's mistaken identification of a tree as a snake; unwilling to admit she was wrong, they persist with the idea even after she has changed her mind. This might be said to be another example of truth of mood: the impulse not to be unpleasant by contradicting her first idea. Somewhat similar is Aziz's reaction to Adela's Anglo-Indian difficulty; he knows she is right, but acknowledging this truth would ruin the mood. And Aziz, responding to Mrs. Moore's concern about crowding in the first cave, forbids all but one other person from entering the next cave; this decision will have grave consequences.

Two images, the clown and the hot weather, recur in this chapter; the latter becomes more ominous every time it is mentioned.

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