E.M. Forster – A Passage to India (1924)

Englishwoman Adela Quested and her incipient mother-in-law Mrs. Moore are hanging about in India while Adela tries to decide whether she wants to marry the hyper-nationalistic and dull Ronny Heaslop. Mrs. Moore runs in Dr. Aziz and sparks up a friendship. Aziz is also friends with Cyril Fielding, a Brit who is about as friendly and cosmopolitan as one could imagine. Aziz invites them all to the Marabar caves, partially to satisfy Adela’s craving to see “the real India.” While there, Mrs. Moore is stricken with claustrophobia, and the echo “Boum” in the cave, obliterating all forms of linguistic differentiation, is so great that she doubts her Christianity–that is, her country. Adela and Aziz press on with a guide. Adela wanders into a cave and the same echo is so great that she thinks Aziz has attempted to rape her. She flees. Aziz is arrested when he returns by train. Cryril defends him. When Mrs. Moore apathetically expresses her belief in his innocence, Ronny sends her back to England; she dies during the voyage. During the trial, Adela realizes that it was only an echo, not a rape. Aziz is free and everyone parts. Eventually Cyril Fielding returns with his new wife to visit Aziz in the hindu town where he now lives. Both are still friends, but because of the colonial relationship, the sky says, “not yet.”

“Except for the Marabar Caves–and they are twenty miles off–the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary…” So the novel opens. Two things: the urban India is rigorously dull in the narrator eyes–a narrator that frequently slides into extensive descriptions of India life in the present tense, much like the narrator of Howard’s End did 14 years earlier with regard to London. So while there is center-periphery divide (told through the eyes of the characters, mostly) the narrator reproduces many of the local divides (country/city, upper/lower) that exist in both England and India. The narrative effects are drawn to overtly:

Most of life is so dull there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. (132)

Yet this precedes by a few pages the incredible (discredible?) echos that drive Mrs. Moore and Adela into hysteria. Perhaps the hysterics are caused by the echo’s truth revealing function with regard to the narrative’s stance towards national and religious difference:

The echo in a Marabar cave is not like these, it is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum.” or “ou-boum,”–utterly dull. (147)

“Dullness” thus becomes a linguistic, existential and national character–and the blending of these three registers is in itself dull. Can think of the echo as a too perfect mimesis, subverting the claims for English superiority that are insisted on throughout. Note that it is precisely the threat of “miscegenation” that gets the English folks all up in arms about Aziz–another potential “dullness.” When Fielding returns years later to see Aziz, they get into a minor boat crash: “That was the climax, as far as India admits of one” (315).

Aziz’s concluding assertion of national independence (the outburst is sort of ridiculous) is registered (by the sky) as the precondition for an interpersonal connection. An ethics of difference or something of that sort.

 

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