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A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | Themes


Forster's modernist outlook is apparent in the major themes of this novel, which challenges the assumptions and attitudes typical of 19th-century novels. Forster presents a confusing and incomprehensible world—one in which the institutions of society are suspect and humans are often insignificant.

Failure of Rationality

When the British extended their empire into India in the 19th century, they saw themselves as a beneficent, rational force bringing science and order to an ignorant, chaotic subcontinent. They believed in empiricism and objectivity, and they assumed they could simply observe others and then make objective decisions about how to act and interact with them. They took pride in establishing in India the British legal system, which becomes a central arena of literary action in the novel, as well as Western medicine, which both the protagonist Aziz and antagonist Major Callendar practice.

In A Passage to India Forster illustrates the limits of these values: a "rational" approach to life fails to enable the English to understand India or Indians; empiricism often leads to incorrect conclusions or no conclusions; and those who believe they are being objective often miss important truths. The English tend to observe, identify, and label, but they often fail to do so, just as Ronny and Adela fail to identify a green bird. Major Callendar assumes he always knows where Aziz is; Ronny thinks Aziz's collar perfectly sums up the Indian; and McBryde confirms his ideas about Aziz based on the "evidence" found in his bungalow. The English in the novel, especially those charged with administering the law, think they are objective and rational, but the reader sees how biased and misguided they can be. The English characters who are more successful are those who allow themselves to be guided by emotion or intuition, such as Mrs. Moore or Fielding. Mrs. Moore "feels" the holiness of the mosque; she thinks Aziz to be innocent because she knows his character; during his tea party, Fielding chooses not to correct Aziz about the water in the mosque because he cares more for "truth of mood" than objective truth; when Fielding enunciates an emotional understanding of the reason for purdah, Aziz senses his kindness and feels understood; and Ralph Moore, by instinctively knowing who is his true friend, is, like his mother, "an Oriental." But Adela, honest and well-intentioned, fails to understand India or Indians and is unable to convince or communicate with them because she has no real affection for them.

Forster's narration shows the limits of objectivity. Much of the time the narrative voice is not objective, but instead comes from a particular character's point of view. In this way Forster favors subjectivity over objectivity; the truest picture of reality comes from a combination of several subjective views, not one objective view. Only occasionally, when the narrator seems to look down from the sky on the affairs of humans—as in Chapters 1 and 10, and briefly in Chapters 5 and 14—does the novel take on what can be called an objective perspective, and in these cases, it is clear no single individual could have this perspective. Finally, some things remain a mystery to all—such as the truth of what happened to Adela in the cave. Not everything in life can be explained.


The novel demonstrates how colonialism, or the control of one country over another, warps and hinders human interaction and even deprives individuals of their full humanity. Readers see this initially through the talk of Aziz and his educated friends at the beginning of the novel: their dinners are interrupted, they are snubbed, their tongas are taken, and they clutch at scraps of civility English people may have tossed them. Often, they can express themselves only through whispered sarcasm. Hamidullah's experience is very telling; he was practically a member of the Bannister family when he lived in England, but he would not dream of approaching the son, now a merchant in India.

Forster sees this as a curse not only to the colonized, but also to the colonizers. The English in India are both empowered and limited by their official identities. The nature of the colonial official is a frequent topic in the novel: Forster uses the word "official" in some form 54 times. The "official" relationship impedes genuine human interaction: "Where there is officialism, every human relationship suffers." Ronny is a great example; after initial "missteps," he can no longer socialize with Indians, and when he encounters an Indian who is not his subordinate, he doesn't know how to interact. In England he had been a different person, less judgmental and more artistically inclined. The effects of officialism can most clearly be seen in the contrast between the English in England and the English in India. When Turton says, "India does wonders for the judgment," he is acknowledging that after a year or two in India, the Anglo-Indians lose a part of their humanity. They become unable to think as individuals and instead become part of the "herd."

Adela and Mrs. Moore are different because they are fresh from England and not a part of officialdom, although Adela worries about how she might change after living in India. Fielding—because he is an educator and not an official—does much better with the Indians. He sees himself as an individual, not a part of the herd, and therefore under no obligation to take on their viewpoints. But even his actions become tinged with officialism in the third part of the novel, when he is on an inspection tour of schools.

Human Insignificance

At various points throughout the novel, the focus of literary action—namely, the realm of normal human affairs—is suddenly rendered small or insignificant by a variety of factors. This starts in the first chapter, in which the narrative eye sees a world far vaster than anything any of the human inhabitants can see. Then, after readers are absorbed with human affairs for nine chapters, they are reminded once again, in Chapter 10: "It matters so little to the majority of living beings what the minority, that calls itself human, desires or decides."

The reader also sees this view from a Hindu perspective from time to time, as when in Godbole's song, Krishna fails to come to the milkmaidens, or when the Indians speaking to the missionaries ask if wasps and bacteria may also enter the kingdom of heaven. The Hindu desire to be one with the universe puts normal human intercourse in perspective. But Mrs. Moore also experiences this in a negative way after her visit to the Marabar cave, where the echo has rendered all things equal: "She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time."

The Inscrutability of India

Despite their powers of rationality and empiricism, the British find India—both its human inhabitants and its nature—inscrutable. The British lack empathy for the Indians, which hinders their understanding. Furthermore, both the British and Muslim characters—as well as readers—are mystified by ideas from Hinduism, such as the appeal to Krishna in Godbole's song. But the landscape of India is also beyond their—and the readers'—understanding. Adela and Ronny fail to identify the animal that hits the Nawab Bahadur's car and later cannot identify a little green bird. On their way to the Marabar, Adela and Mrs. Moore think they will see a beautiful sunrise but are disappointed; and the caves themselves remain a mystery to the end of the novel.

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