A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Plot Summary

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Summary

Part 1: Mosque

In the city of Chandrapore in British colonial India, probably in the early 1920s—the novel does not specify—a group of educated, professional Muslim Indians, including Dr. Aziz and the lawyers Hamidullah and Mahmoud Ali, have dinner and discuss whether it is possible for the English and Indians to be friends. Aziz is then summoned to report to his superior, Major Callendar. Annoyed by the interruption, he goes, but it takes him some time to get there. When he does, the major is out, and two Englishwomen, Mrs. Lesley and Mrs. Callendar, snub him and take his tonga—a two-wheeled horse-drawn vehicle. He then walks down to a mosque, where he finds comfort in the familiar architecture. He notices another British woman and yells at her for not removing her shoes. But she has already done so because she is respectful of the place. Her name is Mrs. Moore, and her son is Ronny Heaslop, the City Magistrate, who had offended Mahmoud Ali. When Aziz realizes she doesn't like Mrs. Callendar, he feels a connection to her and tells her she is an Oriental, meaning she has empathy and perceptive powers unlike any English person.

Mrs. Moore returns to the English club to join Adela Quested, the young woman she accompanied to India. Adela has come to India to decide whether to marry Ronny. At the club Adela declares, "I want to see the real India" because she feels she has been spending too much time among the English. Mr. Turton, who governs Chandrapore, suggests a "Bridge Party" between East and West. Ronny explains to Adela why one cannot really socialize with Indians, and uses the case of Mahmoud Ali, who bragged about having a cigarette with Ronny. When Ronny learns his mother has been challenged by an Indian doctor in a mosque, he wants to report the incident, but his mother insists he shouldn't.

When Muslim and Hindu Indians gather to discuss whether to attend the unprecedented Bridge Party, the prominent Nawab Bahadur, a British loyalist, says he will attend, which encourages the others. At the Bridge Party, the British stand across the tennis courts from the Indians, as Ronny and Mrs. Turton talk disparagingly about them. Finally, Mr. and Mrs. Turton go about the "work" of socializing, Mrs. Turton accompanying Mrs. Moore and Adela to meet ladies a group of ladies in purdah. After some difficulty in communication, Mrs. Moore appeals to one of the ladies, who invites her and Adela to visit "any time," ultimately settling on Thursday morning. Meanwhile, Mr. Turton, who seems to know something bad about every Indian attending, makes his rounds. Cyril Fielding, the schoolmaster at Government College, socializes with the Indians extensively and is pleased to hear the positive impression the newly arrived English ladies have made upon the Indians. He seeks out Adela to invite her and Mrs. Moore to tea on Thursday afternoon to meet other Indians.

At a poorly cooked English dinner, Adela begins to dread her future life in India and vows to find like-minded people with whom to associate. At the dinner is Miss Derek, who seems to have little respect for the Maharajah and Maharani she works for in a Native State. Back at the bungalow, Mrs. Moore criticizes Ronny for the way the British treat the Indians and tells him God put people here to be pleasant to one another.

Although he had said he would go to the Bridge Party with Dr. Panna Lai, who needs help managing his horse, Aziz doesn't attend, not wanting to be exposed to the two English ladies who snubbed him on this of all days, the anniversary of his wife's death. Instead, he looks at a photo of his wife and becomes sad, going off to the Maidan to practice polo. There he begins to play with an English army officer, and the two come to like each other for the moment. While other Muslims begin praying toward Mecca, he taps a sacred bull with his polo mallet, just in time for Dr. Panna Lai to see him do so. Panna Lai is irritated because Aziz never showed up, so he drove over some flowers at the English club. Aziz is angry and intentionally makes Panna Lai's horse bolt. Then he returns home to find an invitation to tea from Fielding, whom he has always wanted to get to know.

Fielding, who was 40 when he came to India, doesn't often socialize with other English people. Aziz arrives at Fielding's while the school master is dressing, and when Fielding ruins his last collar stud, Aziz gives him one from his own collar. They quickly get along well. When the ladies arrive, Adela asks Aziz if he could imagine why the Indian people who were supposed to pick them up this morning never showed. Aziz says it's because they're Hindus and invites them to his own bungalow. But when he reflects how dirty it is, he changes the subject and begins discussing the architecture of the old Mogul house in which Fielding lives, imagining himself a Mogul emperor dispensing charity. He urges Adela to stay in India until the mangoes ripen, but she says she must return home before then.

Then Fielding takes Mrs. Moore on a tour of the college, while Adela remains with Aziz and Professor Narayan Godbole, a Brahman—a member of the highest Hindu caste, or class. Aziz then invites the ladies on an expedition to the Marabar Caves instead of to his bungalow. Just then Ronny comes in to take the ladies to polo, and he is annoyed to see Adela alone with the Indian men. Fielding and Mrs. Moore return, and everyone is in a bad mood. Professor Godbole sings a haunting, enigmatic song, during which Ronny leaves.

On the way to see the polo, Adela is annoyed at Ronny but also ashamed at the way she announced she would not stay and marry Ronny by inadvertently announcing she could not "wait for mangoes." She tells him they won't be married; though hurt, he takes the news reasonably. They are then invited for a drive in the car of the Nawab Bahadur, of whom Ronny approves. When the Nawab falls asleep, Ronny directs the driver to take a different road, and a sudden jolt causes his and Adela's hands to touch, creating "an animal thrill" between them. Just then something hits the car, causing it to hit a tree. While the Nawab gets hysterical, the young people calmly but unsuccessfully search for the cause.

Just then Miss Derek comes driving along in her employer's car and drives them back to town, and upon their return Adela changes her mind again and says they will be married. When Mrs. Moore hears about the accident, she exclaims, "A ghost!" Meanwhile, down in Chandrapore, the Nawab Bahadur recalls being haunted by the ghost of a man he had killed with his car nine years ago.

A few days later Aziz is in bed, slightly ill, and thinking of going to a brothel in Calcutta, when four Muslim Indian friends visit him. They discuss rumors that Godbole was sickened at Fielding's, there is disparaging talk of Hindus, and then Aziz recites Persian poetry. Panna Lai enters to see if Aziz is faking illness. Fielding arrives and a genial discussion begins; Fielding reveals he is an atheist, to the shock of all present. He also offers no excuse for the British to hold India. Everyone except Fielding leaves; Aziz has ordered his servant not to bring Fielding's horse.

Aziz calls Fielding back and shows Fielding his most prized possession—a photo of his wife. Fielding is touched and demonstrates he understands the purpose of purdah as well as the significance of Aziz's action. Aziz appreciates Fielding's kindness, and they begin to discuss women, marriage, and children. Aziz warns Fielding not to speak his mind so openly. Fielding says he "travels light," without attachments, but Aziz is rooted in the community by religion and his three children.

Part 2: Caves

Some time later Adela idly mentions she would have liked to visit the Marabar Caves; a servant overhears her, and by the time the story reaches Aziz, he is convinced he has deeply insulted the ladies. He goes about organizing an expedition, enlisting Fielding to approach Ronny and Major Callendar, inviting Godbole, asking favors, and spending lots of money. The ladies accept, but when the time comes to leave, Fielding and Godbole are too late to board the train, much to Aziz's distress. But he then realizes he is free of English "control" for once.

The ladies have felt odd since hearing the song at Fielding's, and are not particularly enthusiastic. They discuss the advancing hot weather and Adela's impending marriage. Adela is disappointed by the elephant Aziz has hired and by the practical jokes he is playing. The ladies are not impressed by the caves, but they do enjoy Aziz's stories of the Mogul emperors. Adela offends Aziz by saying all English ladies become rude to Indians after a year. When they tour the first cave, there is a disturbing echo, and Mrs. Moore panics, feeling suffocated in the dark, crowded cave. Mrs. Moore is haunted by the echo, which seems to have rendered everything in life meaningless.

Mrs. Moore declines to see any more caves, so Adela and Aziz visit the next cave with only a guide. Thinking of her marriage, Adela asks Dr. Aziz if he is married and if he has more than one wife. This offends Aziz deeply, causing him to duck into a cave suddenly. When he leaves the cave, he panics when he doesn't find Adela, so he strikes the guide. But he then sees Adela getting into Miss Derek's motor car. Believing all is well, he goes back to camp after picking up Adela's binoculars, which have a broken strap. Upon returning, he is happy to see Fielding, who arrived with Miss Derek. But Fielding is concerned when he learns the two ladies have suddenly driven off to Chandrapore. When they arrive at the train station in Chandrapore, Aziz is arrested.

Fielding intends to stay with Aziz but is called away by Turton, who—speaking with great emotion—tells him Adela has accused Aziz of assaulting her in the cave. Fielding is incredulous and calls Adela mad, which enrages Turton. When Fielding asks to speak to Adela, he is told she is ill.

Superintendent of Police McBryde, who privately thinks all natives are criminals at heart, tells Fielding about the charges against Aziz and about the binoculars, which seem to be evidence of the assault. McBryde says he has evidence of Aziz's character, holding up a letter found on Aziz from a friend who owns a brothel in Calcutta. Fielding asks to speak to Adela, because he wants someone who believes in Aziz to question her about the incident, but Major Callendar won't allow it. McBryde tells Fielding the English must now stick together. When Fielding asks to visit Aziz, he is told he must apply to the City Magistrate—Ronny. Then more "evidence" is brought in from Aziz's bungalow, including a photo McBryde refuses to believe is of Aziz's wife.

Fielding then meets Hamidullah; he thinks Hamidullah has been too timid in supporting Aziz. In addition to Mahmoud Ali, Hamidullah is considering Amritrao, a well-known Calcutta barrister, or lawyer, for Aziz's legal defense; Amritrao is strongly anti-British, and Fielding considers him too political and divisive. Fielding then returns to the college where Godbole, who will soon leave Chandrapore, talks to him about unrelated affairs, which Fielding hears impatiently. When Fielding, upset about what has happened, finally asks Godbole if Aziz is guilty, the professor, seeming unconcerned, gives him an indirect, enigmatic answer grounded in Hindu philosophy. Aziz, when Fielding finally sees him in jail, says, "You deserted me."

That evening Turton presides over a meeting at the club in which he tells everyone to remain calm. Among the men, there are murmurs among the men about "the women and children." Someone suggests calling in the army. Callendar accuses Aziz of bribing others and tries to goad Fielding. When Ronny comes in, Fielding doesn't rise, which enrages Turton. Fielding then declares his belief in Aziz's innocence and resigns from the club. He then joins the Indians who are planning Aziz's defense as the Mohurram holiday begins.

Meanwhile, Adela is recuperating from cactus needles and a fever in the McBrydes' bungalow, but she still hears the Marabar echo. Ronny and McBryde tell her she will have to testify at the trial, and Fielding has sent her a letter telling her she made a mistake. When she returns to Ronny's bungalow, Mrs. Moore is irritable and unsympathetic. She refuses to testify at the trial, and she even equates the assault in the cave with marriage. Adela wonders if she has made a mistake about Aziz, and then her echo goes away. When asked, Mrs. Moore says Aziz is innocent. Ronny then schemes to send his mother back to England early, and the Lieutenant-Governor's wife offers her a place in her cabin. On her way to Bombay, Mrs. Moore—who has been generally apathetic about everything since the episode in the cave—realizes she really hasn't seen India.

The heat, which has been increasing, reaches a peak on the morning of the trial. Adela feels shaky, and her echo is back. On the way to the trial, the English talk viciously about the Indians as their car is pelted with small stones. In the courtroom Adela focuses on the lowly punkah wallah—manual fan operator—who stands opposite the judge running the trial. As McBryde begins outlining the case against Aziz, someone in the courtroom says something upsetting to Adela. Major Callendar asks that she be seated on the platform to get more air, and then all the English follow her up onto the platform. When Amritrao and Mahmoud Ali protest, they all return to their seats. McBryde then continues making his case, in which he calls Aziz a degenerate who duped others for his purposes. When he indirectly refers to Mrs. Moore, Mahmoud Ali accuses the English of smuggling her out of the country so she could not testify, and quits the trial. This sets off a chant of "Esmiss Esmoor" in the courtroom and outside in the streets, which temporarily stops the trial. When McBryde then takes Adela moment by moment through the day in question, she realizes Aziz never followed her into the cave and withdraws her accusation. The courtroom breaks out in chaos, the trial ends, and only the punkah wallah is left pulling his rope.

After the trial, Adela, now rejected by the British, has no place to go, so Fielding takes her in his carriage to Government College, although he'd rather be celebrating with Aziz. Aziz, surrounded by his supporters, misses Fielding, and some of his supporters want to organize a demonstration. They go to the hospital demanding to see Nureddin, whom they heard had been tortured. There they meet Panna Lai, on the list to testify for the British, who abases himself before them and fetches Nureddin. A riot is avoided, and a victory celebration is planned at the mansion of the Nawab Bahadur, who renounces his English-conferred title to become plain Mr. Zulfiqar.

That evening Adela tries to explain her behavior to Fielding and says her echo is gone. Fielding surmises McBryde "exorcised" her by bringing her through the events of the day in question. He starts to like her honesty, and apologizes for his behavior to Ronny. They wonder if the guide assaulted her. Then Hamidullah comes in to bring Fielding to the victory celebration. Fielding says Adela must stay at Government College, but Hamidullah objects to his taking responsibility for her. He doesn't admire Adela for her honesty because she showed no emotion. Just then Ronny arrives and reports his mother died at sea. Hamidullah and Fielding discuss Mrs. Moore's death and decide not to tell Aziz until after the celebration. Adela decides to stay at Fielding's. On the way to the celebration, Amritrao says Aziz will sue Adela for 20,000 rupees.

On the roof after the victory party, Fielding tries to convince Aziz not to sue Adela for damages. He says Adela has been honest and urges Aziz to be merciful. Aziz says Adela ought to apologize first, and then he decides he will consult Mrs. Moore; Fielding, however, knows she is dead. When Aziz then proceeds to talk about his love for Mrs. Moore, Fielding says Aziz's emotions are out of proportion, claiming he is overly fond of Mrs. Moore yet ungenerous toward Adela. After her death at sea, Mrs. Moore becomes an object of worship among Indians, who set up two shrines to her.

The Lieutenant-Governor arrives, praising Fielding and ordering he be readmitted to the club. Fielding tries to help Adela write a letter of apology to Aziz, but she is unsuccessful. Finally, Fielding convinces Aziz to sue Adela for nothing more than court costs. Before Adela leaves for England—Ronny has broken off the engagement—she and Fielding have one last talk in which they speculate about what might have happened in the cave; they assume the guide must have attacked her. They realize they have much in common and agree to remain friends. Adela decides to contact Mrs. Moore's other children, Stella and Ralph.

Amid a new Hindu-Muslim understanding, Mr. Das asks Aziz to write a poem for a new magazine intended for all Indians. He also apologizes to Aziz for his role in the trial. Aziz never writes a suitable poem, but tells Hamidullah he wants to leave British India to write poetry. Hamidullah repeats a rumor suggesting Fielding and Adela were having an affair. This rumor grows real in Aziz's mind, and he repeats it to Fielding. Fielding doesn't care about the rumor, but because he doesn't deny it immediately, Aziz presses him until he insults Aziz. They meet again for a planned dinner and try to discuss poetry, but Aziz can't help suspecting Fielding intends to marry Adela for her money when he goes to England. Fielding tries to patch things up before leaving, but he is unsuccessful.

Part 3: Temple

Two years later, during the monsoon season in the Hindu state of Mau, Godbole, as Minster of Education, is celebrating a festival in honor of the birth of Krishna, when the thought of Mrs. Moore comes into his mind. Old and ailing, the Rajah, after playing a role in the ceremony, is examined by his doctors, one of whom is Aziz. Godbole tells him Fielding, who works for the British government, has arrived in Mau to inspect schools. He has come with his brother-in-law and his wife; Aziz assumes she is Adela. Although Aziz had received numerous letters from Fielding, he read only part of the first one, giving it to Mahmoud Ali to answer, and then destroyed all subsequent letters without reading them. Aziz, now working for an Indian ruler and living with his children, has no desire to renew contacts with the British.

Part of the holy festival involves the freeing of a prisoner in honor of a Muslim saint whose shrine is near Aziz's house. Aziz knows the Rajah has died, but this is being kept a secret until after the festival. The next day Aziz and his children bump into Fielding and his brother-in-law, Ralph, who gets stung by bees. When Aziz addresses the latter as "Mr. Quested," Fielding tells Aziz he has made a mistake: Fielding has married Stella, Mrs. Moore's daughter; Ralph is her brother. As the festival continues, Aziz rides over to the European Guest House to bring Ralph the ointment he promised him. He enters the house and reads private letters from Ronny and Adela to the Fieldings. When Ralph comes in, Aziz examines him roughly, and Ralph protests his cruelty. Ralph is intuitive like his mother, and Aziz calls him "an Oriental"—just as he called Mrs. Moore. Aziz then takes Ralph out in a boat to observe the festival. At the climax of the proceedings, their boat collides with another boat containing the Fieldings as elephants trumpet and artillery fires.

Finally, Aziz and Fielding, now reconciled, take one last ride in the jungle. Aziz has written a letter to Adela, thanking her for her bravery, and he apologizes to Fielding for his suspicions. Fielding tells Aziz his wife and brother-in-law have a spiritual side he doesn't understand. Then the discussion turns to politics, and Aziz tells Fielding they cannot be friends until the Indians drive the English out of India.

A Passage to India Plot Diagram

123456789101112131415ClimaxResolutionIntroductionRising ActionFalling Action

Introduction

1 Aziz is summoned by Major Callendar.

Rising Action

2 Aziz meets Mrs. Moore at the mosque.

3 Indians and English attend a Bridge Party at the club.

4 Adela, Aziz, and others attend a tea party at Fielding's.

5 Ronny and Adela take a drive in the Nawab Bahadur's car.

6 Fielding visits Aziz at his bungalow.

7 Aziz organizes an excursion to the Marabar Caves.

8 Aziz is arrested for assaulting Adela in a cave.

9 Chandrapore governor Turton holds a meeting over the event.

10 Mrs. Moore leaves for England.

Climax

11 Aziz is tried for assault, but Adela withdraws the charges.

Falling Action

12 Fielding convinces Aziz not to sue for damages.

13 Fielding leaves for England.

14 Fielding arrives in Mau.

Resolution

15 Fielding and Aziz meet one last time.

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