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Jan 7, 2016

A Passage to India


A Passage to India

Forster's 1924 novel, A Passage to India, begins and ends with a question - can the English and Indian races be friends and, at the end of the novel, the answer appears to be no, "No, not yet". The novel, in dramatizing the repercussions following Aziz's attempts to be decent to the English , his subsequent arrest, trial and final anti-English sentiments, is largely constructed around this question. Throughout the novel the barriers to inter-racial friendship in a colonial context are explored, and personally experienced by Fielding and Aziz. This is the first important point I would make - Forster's emphasis is firmly placed on the realms of the personal and the individual, rather than the social and political. And this, as we shall see, is an inherent characteristic of his own sustained liberal humanist world-view, with the premium it places on personal experience, individual experience, and the sanctity of the personal.
In this sense one can approach the novel in terms of a slogan first coined in the 1960s; "the personal is political, the political is personal". And this is the vantage point from which I will explore the novel. However, it is worth noting that A Passage is a rich, multi-layered novel, highly complex in both form and argument, and it is indeed one of the most critically discussed novels within the canon. This complexity derives from one of the narratives central mysteries (or muddles): what exactly does happen in the Marabar Caves? What do the Caves mean or suggest within the narrative? Furthermore Forster, from the self-confessed perspective of the enlightened Western visitor, suggests that the Caves themselves are symbolic for the "alien" "otherness" of India itself: complex, ungovernable, bewildering, enigmatic…
Various critical approaches have been applied to the novel, and a host of allegorical interpretations attached to its central mysteries: it is about the Encounter with sexuality, with Death, with the Hostility of Nature itself and the emptiness at the "Heart of Things", the Encounter with the Unconscious or the 'Shadow'. Alternatively it is a narrative concerned with the limits of Christian humanism or liberal idealism in the post-1918 world, or it is an exploration of Imperialism, or it is a kind of existentialist exploration (underwritten by an awareness that we need to impose meanings on the World or Nature, but must also recognise that such meanings are inherently or finally false). How then does one attempt to come to terms with the bewildering range of interpretation? My answer would be to suggest that the novel is deliberately and consciously polyphonic and symphonic in design, in common with many of Forster's works. It deliberately raises the above issues and perspectives, weaving together through various means - symbolism, imagery, the use of leit-motifs. It is not a monophonic text, a thesis novel, although at times it might appear to present itself in these terms.

Colonialism and Imperialism

It's a useful comment, from Martin Green, that "One could read all the works of the Great Tradition, and never know that England had an empire" - the canonical English texts deal, he comments, with "women and marriage, personal relations, and alternatives to politics", but the financial source of the wealth which lubricates these personal and social relationships is left generally unspoken of. Forster's work faces that silence head on, raising issues of empire and race in ways which had not been attempted earlier. His principal, and contrasting antecedent as, of course, Kipling, and it is against Kipling's representation of the 'East' as a training ground for manliness, decency and character-building which Forster wishes to challenge. When the novel appeared, in 1924, many Anglo-Indians were outraged: the portrayal, Forster admitted, was exaggerated, but only slightly. Ronnie's views on his career are parallel to the sympathies of contemporary young Anglo-Indians for whom the 'East' was, in the words of Disraeli, "a career". India was also seen, from this Kiplingesque perspective, as a training ground, a frontier, a gymnasium within which qualities such as manliness and character were to be assessed. We find echoes of the influence of such views of India in George Orwell's portrayal of his experiences in the 'East', in Burmese Days or 'Shooting an Elephant'.
Forster clearly ironises such views of the India as Career, as gymnasium or testing ground, but it is the nature of the debunking which is important. Forster, in common with a number of upper middle class intellectuals (such as Virginia Woolf) was an anti-Imperialist, but his criticism of imperialism is liberal, as opposed to Socialist or Marxist. For Forster, with his liberal emphasis on education and individualist psychology, approaches the critique of Anglo-Indian imperialism in terms of the predominance amongst the upper middle classes of the "Public School Attitude": the priggishness, snobbery, complacency, censoriousness, the lack of imagination and subtlety, the philistinism and narrow-mindedness which the novel sees in the Anglo-Indians is, for Forster, testimony of something deficient within the English national character.
This emphasis on national psychology is a recurrent issue throughout Forster's work, coupled with his ironic, and often highly satirical, portraits of the English middle class culture from which he had emerged and, briefly, lived within. In a 1921 article, 'Notes on the English Character' Forster outlines his case more fully: "For it is not that that the Englishmen can't feel - it is that he is afraid to feel. He has been taught at his public school that feeling is bad form. He must not express great joy or sorrow, or even to open his mouth too wide when he talks - his pipe might fall out if he did. He must bottle up his emotions, or let them out only on a very special occasion."
Forster, as someone who partly admires the virility of this type of Englishman, remains ambivalent about the English Public School Character and the "undeveloped heart" of the typical Englishman. Nevertheless, in A Passage, his criticism of Anglo-Indian prejudice, snobbery and narrow-mindedness is remorseless.
Whilst Forster emphasises the personal experience of Imperialism two points should be noted: (i) he recognises that Imperialism in India is a system (political, economic and social) and that India is a colonial subject, and (ii) that Forster's account of India is culturally and historically specific. Although the novel was first conceived in 1912, it is set in an India shortly after the Amritsah Massacre, a notable and brutal episode in the history of English rule over India, when there were debates about how Anglo-Indian rule could be liberalised through new attitudes of courtesy and decency. Forster spent two years in India, in 1912 and again in 1921/2, and did so as a paid secretary at a Hindu court. He was closely involved in Indian affairs, supported the Ghandi Non-Co-operation movement of the early 1920s, and continued to remain interested in Indian affairs as a broadcaster and commentator in the inter-War period. For these reasons Forster's portrait of Anglo-Indian rule is a well-observed portrait, from the pen of someone who was thoroughly familiar with the realities of the Raj.

Personal Realities

Why the interest in India? For Forster the interest was highly personal. Forster was a homosexual and it was his love affair with an Indian, Syed Ross Massood, a long and turbulent affair, which opened his eyes to India. The novel is dedicated to Massood and is, partly at least, an attempt to come to terms with that relationship through its exploration of Anglo-Indian friendship. Massood died in 1923, when Forster was working on the novel, and inevitably his thoughts and feelings regarding the relationship worked themselves into the novel's characterisation, its imagery, and its treatment of personal relationships. It certainly explains a great deal about the characterisation of Aziz and the narrative's attempt to see events from Aziz's point of view. In part also Forster's treatment of inter-racial friendship draws upon his other affairs, most notably with Mohammed, whom Forster had first met in Alexandria in 1917. Throughout his novels Forster explores ways in which the barriers - of race, of class, of age and gender - can be broken down or even transcended. In Howards End, for example, the novel's insistence on the need to connect("only connect") permeates the exploration of the various friendships, and Forster's other Edwardian narratives continue this in their presentation of Anglo-Italian relationships, or in the friendships which cross the barriers of class. As a liberal novelist Forster is determined to explore these friendships from all perspectives, from a variety of points of view.

A Polyphonic Novel

This takes us back to the issue of A Passage as a "polyphonic" novel, as a novel with multiple points of view or perspectives, and also as a novel split across a number of levels - political/social observation, spiritual/philosophical speculation, and straightforward drama. One's reading of the novel is, therefore, determined by the point of view from which the action is seen. If, for example, we identify Fielding with Forster, as many readers do (and partly correctly), the novel is about friendship and the difficulty of leading a life by liberal principles Fielding, in terms of this reading, is the hero. From Aziz's point of view, however, the novel takes on a different quality: Aziz moves from the naïve good-natured innocent who is eager to please to a more rigidly Indian nationalist perspective. However, the novel also presents us with two more points of view, that of Adela Quested and Mrs Moore. In the case of Adela the novel allegorises her growth in personal honesty and personal truth - she moves from a shallow desire to "see India" towards a more truthful sense of self, of sexual and psychological honesty, than she had previously possessed. But it is the point of view of Mrs Moore, who also confronts something in the Marabar Caves, an emptiness and hollowness which undermines her form of Christian idealism, which makes the novel particularly enigmatic. What is in the caves, if anything, challenges all Mrs Moore's idealistic belief in the intrinsic friendliness of Nature and of the Universe - she realises, possibly, that Nature is, at best, indifferent, and possibly hostile. From this perspective many critics have seen Forster using Mrs Moore's point of view as a means of exploring fundamental issues about Good and Evil, about Truth and Reality. Certainly the novel permits this reading, a reading of the "shadow side" of Christian humanism and of the basic tenets of Western civilisation, and a prophetic anticipation of the spirit which would lead to Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Yet over-arching all of these perspectives is the design of the novel itself, with its tripartite structure modelling the 3 Indian seasons. It is also a novel structured by the quest for India itself. The novel portrays a ever-shifting and panoramic view of an 'India' which cannot grasped. References to mystery/muddle that is India are frequent throughout the novel, but by the end all we can say for sure is that we have various visions, but India remains. 

Forster's Art

What then can be said of the novel's style, language, structure etc., assessed in purely aesthetic terms? And what does Forster bring to the Novel form that it did not have before? The answer is, I would suggest, that the novel is essentially modernist, in its use of polyphony, its patterning, its refusal to offer final interpretations. The perspectives offered through the novel are multiple, characterisation shifts between the socially stereotypical and the elusive and enigmatic. Forster appears, at first sight, to be an old-fashioned novelist, in the mode of an earlier novelist such as Jane Austen, especially in his use of ironic and omniscient narration. But look again. What we see is a consistent blurring of narrational and character-based points of view, the indeterminate attribution of perceptions, comments and observation. And all of this is part of a larger whole in which subjectivity and personal perspectives predominate and are celebrated. Forster was, at the time of writing Passage, consciously under the influence of the French novelist Proust and, as a writer he was certainly not unaware of the wider development of European modernism within the novel form. The modernist novel, with its tendency towards the subjective, the indeterminate, representing the flux and process of experience, was seeking to find new ways of expressing reality, and Forster's novel is one further example of this general tendency in twentieth century writing. However, we cannot forget also that Forster's style also clings to the more traditional role of the novelist, to represent and comment upon the social and empirical world. The balance of modernist and traditional elements makes for an intriguing reading experience, and characterises an individual writing talent who has been so influential on later writers such as Paul Scott, Angus Wilson, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, and so many more. 

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