A Passage to India | Study Guide

E. M. Forster

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A Passage to India | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1924—25 years before India achieved independence from Great Britain—A Passage to India explores the troubled connections between the colonial English and their Indian subjects. E.M. Forster's final novel tells the story of two Englishwomen who travel to India so that the younger, Adela Quested, can meet the son of the elder, Mrs. Moore, and perhaps marry him. They become friendly with Dr. Aziz, an Indian Muslim, who takes them to a tourist site. After their outing, Adela claims Aziz tried to rape her, and though the charges are eventually dropped, the ensuing events explore the racial tensions and cultural misunderstandings that poisoned the colonial relationship.

Considered Forster's masterpiece, A Passage to India focuses on the cultural and political conflicts of the modern world and the cracks in British imperialism that would soon lead to its end. It offers no easy answers but illuminates those problems, making it clear to readers that the issues facing Forster's characters are still present today.

1. The novel's title comes from a poem by American poet Walt Whitman.

The title A Passage to India comes from a poem in the 1871 edition of Walt Whitman's collection Leaves of Grass. The poem's title is "Passage to India," and in it Whitman celebrates the completion of the Suez Canal, which linked Europe and Eastern lands. He also speaks in the poem of the Pacific Railroad, which linked the eastern and western United States. In the poem, Whitman writes:

Passage to India!
Lo, soul, seest thou not God's purpose from the first?
The earth to be spanned, connected by network

Forster read the poem as he was finishing the novel and felt that it reflected the theme of East versus West being explored in his book. However, the tones of the two works are vastly different.

2. Forster initially went to India to visit a man with whom he was in love.

Forster tutored an Indian man named Sayed Ross Masood in 1906 and soon fell in love with him. Masood didn't return these feelings, but the men remained friends, and when Masood went to India after completing his law education, Forster followed him. The author had already begun thinking of setting a novel in India, inspired perhaps by Masood's statement: "You know my great wish is to get you to write a book on India, for I feel convinced from what I know of you that it will be a great book."

He traveled throughout the country for six months; many of his experiences, from an Indian wedding he attended, to anti-English sentiment directed against him, found their way into the book.

3. It took Forster 11 years to write A Passage to India.

Forster began writing A Passage to India in 1913. However, he stopped his work on it to write Maurice, his novel of homosexual love, which wasn't published until 1971—after Forster's death. Though he finished Maurice in a year, he was unable to return successfully to A Passage to India until he spent a year in India in 1922 as the private secretary to the maharaja of Dewas. Even then, he worked on the novel for two more years before it was published in 1924.

4. Forster told an actress she should star in the film version of A Passage to India—and she did, some 20 years later.

In 1962 Forster had met the British actress Peggy Ashcroft at a performance of the stage adaptation of the novel and said to her, "I hope one day you will play Mrs. Moore." At the time, Ashcroft was offended, as she felt she was too young for the part. Director David Lean asked her to take the role in the film in 1984, and at that point she feared she was too old. However, she accepted the part, and her brilliant performance earned her an Oscar.

5. A Passage to India was Forster's only novel set entirely outside of England.

Forster's novels are typically set against an English backdrop, with works such as A Room With a View (1905) and Where Angels Fear to Tread (1908) taking place partially in Italy. However, A Passage to India is his only novel to take place entirely in India.

6. Forster intended the three sections of A Passage to India to reflect the three Indian seasons.

A Passage to India is divided into three sections, which Forster titled "Mosque," "Caves," and "Temple." However, Forster claimed that the divisions were meant to reflect the "three seasons of the Cold Weather, the Hot Weather, and the Rains, which divide the Indian year." The cold weather is the most pleasant time in the country; the hot weather is the time when greenery dies; and the rains bring about rebirth, mirroring the events in the novel.

7. A Passage to India was Forster's last novel, though he wrote for 40 more years after its publication.

A Passage to India was immensely successful, selling more than 70,000 copies in its first year. Forster wrote articles, essays, and short biographies after its publication, but he never wrote another work of fiction. He explained why in a 1958 interview:

I think one of the reasons why I stopped writing novels is that the social aspect of the world changed so very much. I'd been accustomed to write about the old vanished world with its homes and its family life and its comparative peace. All of that went. And though I can think about it I cannot put it into fiction form.

8. Forster intended the relationship between the characters of Aziz and Fielding to represent the relationship between the East and West.

In A Passage to India, Dr. Aziz is a somewhat Westernized Indian man who attempts to bridge the gap between the colonial British and their Indian subjects. When he is wrongly imprisoned and tried for attempting to rape Adele Quested in the Marabar Caves, he bitterly rejects the West and its representative, his friend Cyril Fielding. Forster sums up the possibility of a relationship between the British West and the Indian East near the novel's end:

But the horses didn't want it—they swerved apart; the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion...they didn't want it. "No, not yet," and the sky said, "No, not there."

9. Character names in A Passage to India are believed to have specific meanings.

Critics claim Forster chose many of the character names in the novel for their meanings. Aziz, for example, means "loved" or "dear" in Arabic, which suits the character of Dr. Aziz. Forster gave the names Fielding and Moore to the English characters who are most open-minded and appreciative of nature, as the words field and moor might imply. Adela Quested is clearly "questing" throughout the novel, looking both for the true India and for truths about herself and her actions.

10. The 1984 film adaptation of A Passage to India won Academy Awards—but endured on-set controversy.

The film of A Passage to India won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Best Original Score and was nominated for nine other Oscars. However, behind the scenes, the award-winning movie had more than its share of conflict. Director David Lean and well-known actor Alec Guinness, cast as Godbole, sparred frequently on the set, and when Guinness learned that Lean had cut much of his part from the film, he never spoke to the director again.

Actress Judy Davis, who portrayed Adela, told Lean he couldn't direct, actor Victor Bannerjee (Aziz) called him "obnoxious," and even Peggy Ashcroft (Mrs. Moore) was angry at Lean for his "lack of respect." Lean also angered the production crews; at one point the camera operators were instructed to say, "good morning" to the director every day to try to keep the atmosphere civil.

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