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A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Symbols



The Marabar Caves loom throughout the book as a symbol of the mysteries not only of India but also of the universe. Their very location seems mysterious; they are far away from human habitation and are set in hills that seem to have suddenly erupted from a plain. And while people have explored some of them, there are thought to be countless others never yet seen by human eyes. Before the expedition, almost none of the characters know anything about them or can describe them, and the only one who can, Professor Godbole, apparently can't—or doesn't want to—put it into words.

Even after people explore them, the caves remain a mystery; they seem to symbolize all that remains unknown and unknowable in the world, even to the most rational and scientific of minds. The eye cannot really "see" them; even when someone lights a candle inside, only the flame is visible. And the mystery of what happened to Adela in the Marabar Caves is never cleared up. Rational people can speculate, but they can't know.

Cave's Echo

The echo Adela and Mrs. Moore hear in the Marabar Caves has the same sound no matter what initiates the noise, so it therefore renders everything the same and without distinction: "Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce 'bourn.'" In this way the echo symbolizes an ideal Hindu vision of the world in which one is united with the universe, but in a dark way. This aspect of the echo horrifies Mrs. Moore and causes her to see no distinction between very different phenomena—pathos, piety, courage, filth, rape, marriage—which causes her to become completely apathetic about and weary of all the normal concerns of human life.

For Adela the echo also seems to symbolize the muddle of her memory about what happened to her in the cave. While she persists in the idea Aziz followed her into the cave, the echo remains. When she dismisses this notion, the echo disappears.

The echo also symbolizes an echo in the sense of sound that carries a long way. The effect of that moment in the cave carries through the entire book, and it doesn't cease until two years later in Mau when Fielding and Aziz reconcile. This occurs in a series of events "echoing" earlier events, with Aziz calling an Englishman named Moore an Oriental and then giving him a tour of an aspect of India he himself doesn't understand.


The wasp Mrs. Moore encounters on her coat hook at the end of Chapter 3 represents an object of indiscriminate love, from a Hindu perspective. Mrs. Moore, upon seeing it, calls it a "pretty dear," which illustrates her ability to love anything of beauty, no matter how alien it may be. The Indians—presumably Hindus—who discuss the kingdom of heaven with Mr. Sorley in Chapter 4 test the Christian missionary's broadness of mind when they ask if a wasp may receive God's love. Finally, the wasp appears along with Mrs. Moore in the mind of Professor Godbole during the religious festival in Mau when he is trying to love all things equally; it's as if Forster is saying if one can love a wasp, one can love anything.

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