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A Passage to India

E. M. Forster

Summary and Analysis Part I: Chapters 1-3

Chandrapore is an undistinguished Indian town except for the outlying Marabar Caves. The language that Forster uses to describe the town creates the feeling of monotony, vast space, and infinity. The separation of the English settlement from the Indian is as distinct in the character and attitudes of the people as it is in the physical appearance of the houses and grounds.

Forster uses the sky as the symbolic arch which is almost the only common link between the two national groups. By implication, he contrasts the infinite power and mystery of the immense sky with the discordant affairs of earthbound men.

Changes in weather and types of weather are common symbols used by authors to indicate changes in moods or deeper meanings. In this book, Forster shows the sky as a source of strength as it governs the weather and the seasons. The earth is shown to be dependent upon the caprices of the sky. Words such as "glory" and "benediction" give the sky divine attributes. In his notes in the Everyman Edition, Forster records that the three parts of the book correspond to the three seasons of India: the cold season, which is just ending in the Mosque section, the hot season, which dominates the Caves section, and the rainy season, which occurs during the Temple section.

A central question of the novel is presented in Chapter 2: "Can the Indians and the English become friends?" The problems involved in interracial relationships determine the main lines of the plot's structure.

The Indians are introduced as intelligent and perceptive people who resent their treatment by the British but generally accept it with a humorous cynicism. Forster, although he depicts Indian failings, quite frankly sympathizes with the Indian attitude rather than with the English. Part of his concern was to show the evils of political rule of one nation over another. The major Indian characters in this novel are educated men who are capable of independent action. They must serve under minor or major British officials who rarely make any effort to consider the Indian viewpoint about anything. The Indians are expected to obey the British without question.

Some of the older Indians judge the English both as a group and as individuals: Hamidullah, for example, recalls the fine English people with whom he lived in Cambridge. In India, however, only the English are free to make overtures of friendship. The Indians know from past experiences, too, that the friendly English newcomers usually become tiresomely condescending in a short time under the influence of the career British officials. (It will be seen throughout the book that most of the English think of the Indians as a group. It is a rare English person who dignifies an Indian as an individual.)

The reader meets Aziz's aunt, a Moslem woman in purdah (an Indian custom by which women live in seclusion). The only men to see women's faces were the men in their immediate families. It was commonly thought that Indian women were unimportant shadows in the background. Forster suggests that the sheltered Indian women were often women with lively minds whose opinions were sought and valued. Their men enjoyed visiting with them as equals.

Part 1, therefore, begins with an introduction to India from the Moslem viewpoint. (The term "Mohammedan," used by Westerners as a synonym for "Moslem," is considered objectionable by the professors of this faith. Mohammed, or Muhammed, was not divine; he was simply the messenger of Allah. The terms "Moslem" to define the person and "Islam" to mean the religion are considered correct.) This viewpoint is shown primarily through the warm, impulsive, young Aziz.

It is important to remember that Aziz calls Mrs. Moore an Oriental. The conflict of the Oriental mind and the Western mind is an important one in this novel, because it is the basis of much of the misunderstanding. Mrs. Moore has the ability to cross the lines. It is further important to remember the inscription that Aziz would choose for his tomb: he cherishes the "secret understanding of the heart" and values that quality in others.

Forster uses Chapters 2 and 3 to contrast Indian and English customs, attitudes, and beliefs. He shows the Indians at home discussing the English, followed by the English at the club discussing the Indians. Both groups are revealing likes, dislikes, and preconceived judgments about each other. Only the reader is seeing both sides and the elements that shape the problem ofAnglo-Indian dissension in India.

It is well to review these two chapters in detail to gain the feeling of differences between the groups. Look for contrasting viewpoints. For example, notice the difference in attitudes in the Major Callendar-Aziz episode. The major expected Aziz promptly; Aziz tarried with his friends and was delayed further by an accident to his bicycle. The underlying conflict is in the attitude toward time.

Highly organized nations and people put a premium on promptness; visitors to foreign lands, where life is slower, often notice that their time has only relative value. Punctuality, to a native of a country such as India, is not a major virtue; but courtesy is. The major, however, waiting to go to the club, becomes impatient at the delay and dashes off to settle the matter without leaving a message, without considering that Aziz may have a social life which would take him away from his house. Both men feel a sense of injustice.

Such opposing points of view serve as a constant source of irritation on both sides. Very few of the characters are able to overlook such petty differences and to find planes of common respect. Underlying these surface differences is, of course, the feeling of superiority of the British ruling class and the sting the Indian feels as the subject race.

The principal characters begin to emerge more distinctly from this point. Mrs. Moore and Aziz are revealed as persons of spirit and determination. Fielding's one line at the club, "Try seeing Indians," discloses that he shares their broader thinking.

Ronny Heaslop is shown for what he is: the kind of person who seems to have been stamped out with a cookie cutter. He is a product of England's public school system and adopts quickly and completely the attitudes of his British colleagues in India. This solves the inconvenience of thinking for himself and, of course, simplifies his relationship with his colleagues.

Contrast Ronny's statement about the subject race with the ideas of the newcomers, Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested. One should give careful consideration to the way Mrs. Moore begins her acquaintance with India. She respects what she cannot understand, as at the mosque. She puzzles her son, Ronny, by describing Aziz as a "young man" rather than as a young native. Later, she is almost swayed by Ronny's interpretation of the incident until she realizes that Ronny does not really know Aziz and that he is judging him simply as an Indian. Aziz is, to Ronny, not a young man to whom one accords the dignity of his position, but a young Indian who has dared to converse on an equal basis with an Englishwoman.

Adela Quested develops as a possible "thorn-in-the-side" person because she questions blanket judgments. She is a plain, fair-minded young woman with a questing mind and with (so she believes) an interest in knowing the Indians as they really are. She has the perception to wonder if she can be happy with a "rubber-stamp" British official as she questions Ronny's acceptance of the opinions of the 20-year men in the British Raj.

Fielding's comment, "Try seeing Indians" is a key to understanding this man's broader thinking. He seems to be saying: Stop looking at India. Try seeing the Indians as people with all the common problems that people everywhere have to meet.

The comments and thoughts of Fielding and Mrs. Moore should be observed closely. Their viewpoints, although different from each other, are unusually objective, and through their eyes the reader is able to view the problems more objectively.

In the opening chapters observe Forster's use of symbols. These symbols carry a thread of meaning throughout the novel. For instance, in the first chapter special significance is given to the sky. In Chapter 3 the moon becomes a symbol of universality: Mrs. Moore wonders if she is looking at the other side of the moon, the side never seen in England. A person passing by overhears, and comments that even on the other side of the world, it is still the same old moon.

Consider the implied meanings. Geographical location may change, but the same moon shines down upon everyone. There is a universal oneness — the oneness that might be achieved among all people, but which now exists only in the natural world. Later, when Mrs. Moore looks up at the moon, she feels a curious kinship with all heavenly bodies. This is the first portent of the transcendent nature of Mrs. Moore's thoughts.

The wasp symbol which crops up throughout the novel appears here for the first time. It is associated with Mrs. Moore's spiritual sensibility; and later the Hindu, Professor Godbole, is to associate the wasp with his memory of Mrs. Moore when he is participating in a religious ceremony. Both Mrs. Moore and the professor have an appreciation for the importance of everything — people, animals, insects, and even inanimate objects — in the divine scheme.

The geniality with which Collector Turton offers to give the "Bridge Party" (a party supposedly intended to bridge the gap between nationalities), to satisfy Adela Quested's desire to see Indians is indicative of the courtesy the English tender to their own kind. This serves as a contrast to the lack of courtesy they show to their Indian subjects.


maidan In southern and western Asia, an open space as for military exercises or for a marketplace; an esplanade.

hookah A pipe with a long flexible stem, so arranged that the smoke is cooled by passing through water.

sais A groom.

purdah A curtain or screen used to screen women from public observation. This custom prevents women from participating in social and public affairs.

chuprassi A messenger or servant wearing an official badge.

pan The betel leaf; also the chewing of it.

tonga A kind of light two-wheeled vehicle, usually for four persons, drawn by ponies or bullocks.

Huzoor A respectful title of address used by native servants.

sahib The title used by natives when addressing or speaking of a European gentleman; a general title affixed to the name or official title of a European, e.g., Colonel Sahib.

burra A title of respect to designate a father, elder brother, or a chief officer.

Hakim In Moslem countries, a ruler or a judge.

pukka Good or thoroughgoing of its kind; genuine, substantial.

topi A pith hat or helmet, generally worn by Europeans in India.