A Passage to India By E. M. Forster Summary and Analysis Part II: Chapters 12-16

Having set the stage in Part I, Forster leads the reader into the height of his drama in Part II.

In the introductory chapter of Part II Forster describes the Marabar Caves. Though he describes them physically — their great geological age, their lack of shrines, their perfectly polished walls, their rough-hewn, manmade entrances — what remains in the mind is their sense of mystery, which Forster suggests but does not attempt to explain. There is "something unspeakable" in them; visitors come away with uncertain impressions; if the unopened caves were excavated, "nothing would be added to the sum of good or evil." Recall here Godbole's unwillingness to describe the caves in Chapter 7; the assumption there is that he understands their mystery, and they are thereby related to Hinduism.

It might be suggested that the caves symbolize in part the total negation of self, the complete rejection of the importance of all material things, which is the goal of the practice of Yoga; the sense of such negation and rejection would be terrifying to a totally unprepared person, especially to a Westerner reared in an individualistic environment. Yet even this interpretation is too simple; it will not bear the weight of all that the caves imply in the novel, the "something very old and very small . . . incapable of generosity" that dwells in them.

Aziz, with his peculiar combination of Eastern and Western thinking, has impulsively invited the guests of Fielding's tea party to an excursion to the Marabar Caves. The irresponsible, courteous Eastern half of his mind made the invitation; the Western half is obliged to carry it out. His plans include a curious, almost ludicrous, mixture of Indian and English entertainment. He provides a "purdah" car on the train for Mrs. Moore and Adela and serves them an English breakfast. At great expense he provides an elephant ride from the train to the caves — the one thing to which all tourists are treated and which Adela and Mrs. Moore did not want. Mrs. Moore, with her usual innate understanding, assures Aziz that he is the perfect host.

There is an ironic note on the subject of time, for it is Fielding, the Englishman, who misses the train. However, Professor Godbole is the real culprit, for he has been too long at his prayers.

Although the trip is busy with human activity, there is a spiritual atmosphere enveloping the participants. Mrs. Moore and Adela are in a state of apathy dating from the tea party and Professor Godbole's song. The impression that this has made upon them keeps them from being excited about the visit to the mysterious caves. Adela confesses to herself that she cannot get excited over Aziz's arrangements because they will not "bite into her mind," and she resolves to spend the time planning her wedding.

Mrs. Moore feels detached from the reality of any human activity, reflecting that "though people are important, the relations between them are not." In her reflections she senses the necessity for an understanding between men, an understanding that has not progressed despite all centuries of human relationships.

Several phrases are dropped by Forster to keep the spiritual note predominant. There is a "spiritual silence" during the elephant ride: nothing is important; everything is elusive and illusionary. Aziz cannot answer questions about the caves because he knows nothing about them. He wishes for Professor Godbole, for the professor is a spiritual man, the man most likely to be able to explain a mystery.

There is an early portent of the catastrophe about to take place when Aziz allows extra time for misfortune, which he says often happens "among my people."

Mrs. Moore suffers a violent reaction to her experience in the first cave. The whole party surges in; the press of the crowd stiffles her; and the echo terrifies her. Whatever is said in the cave produces a meaningless "bourn" or "ou-boom." As she sits alone, everything — poor little talkative Christianity," people, the universe — becomes meaningless, and she surrenders herself to complete apathy.

Forster, who has related Mrs. Moore's receptivity to Hindu philosophy, does not make her adopt Hinduism. Though she senses the universality of all creation, she does not consciously subscribe to it; though she feels at one with the heavenly bodies and, at the other end of the continuum, takes delight in the lowly wasp, she cannot conceive of a religion that is adequate to teach such a concept, and this disheartens and frightens her.

When Adela, Aziz, and the guide, in accord with Mrs. Moore's request, continue the investigation of the caves by themselves, Adela is pondering her marriage to Ronny. Her questions to Aziz about marriage are innocent attempts to find some answers to the dilemma of her engagement. She fails to see the agitation she engenders in Aziz when she asks him how many wives he has. Forster makes the point that Aziz is offended because he is proud of his Westernized thinking, which forbids polygamy. As Forster says, "it challenged a new conviction.... and new convictions are more sensitive than old."

This lack of understanding causes Aziz to leave Adela for a short time while he dashes into a cave to regain his composure. As Adela wanders aimlessly into another cave, pondering her feelings for Ronny, she precipitates a crisis that, for one thing, results in the resolution of her problem.

Because the caves are so much alike, Aziz is unable to locate the spot where he left Adela. When he sees her going down the hill he rationalizes away the peculiar circumstances of her hasty departure, such as the broken strap of her field glasses, which appear to have been unceremoniously dropped, and the disappearance of the guide. Fielding, with his logical English mind, is uneasy. Mrs. Moore remains unmoved.

By now the reader is aware of the many references which Forster makes to the differences in Oriental and Occidental thinking. As another example, note the contrast between the maxim which Aziz makes up to explain how frugality must give way to hospitality and the care of one's poor relatives, and the old, stuffy maxims upon which, Fielding says, "the British Empire rests."

The caves, which suggest infinity and menacing mystery when seen close-up, become "finite and rather romantic" seen from a comfortable distance.

Aziz reflects the Indian attitude toward the British Raj when he is arrested. He thinks of the disgrace to his name and his children, showing that in his opinion, being arrested is the same thing as being found guilty.

Glossary

tiffin Lunch.

fez A tapering felt cap, usually red, with a black tassel hanging from the crown (formerly worn by Turkish men).

pujah Religious worship.

mullah In India, a ravine or a watercourse. howdah A canopied seat on the back of an elephant for two or more persons to ride in.

shikar Hunting.

chin-chin A salutation; a toast (pidgin English).

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