on July 17, 2006
First of all, I'd like to commend the reviewer G.B. Talovich (in the Spotlight Reviews as I write this) for his analysis of the archetype underpinnings of the novel. It made me reconsider the novel as a whole and appreciate it all the more.
A Passage to India was written in 1924 and it bears similarities to some of Forster's literary contemporaries, most notably Orwell's Burmese Days and the short stories of Somerset Maugham. Here we have India, ancient, diverse, plagued with ancient schisms, a "muddle", under the authoricratic rule of colonial Britain. The British portrayed here conform to the rule: stuffy and prejudiced, with no love for their foreign station, maintaining a thin veneer of the Victorian role - to keep themselves "proper", warding away the dust and sweat and sweltering heat of an exoticism they can never truly understand, nor wish to incorporate. It's all about tennis and tea-time and the Club. As a contrast to these rigid expatriates, Forster introduces two arrivals, Mrs. Moore and Ms. Quested, initially starry-eyed and curious about the subcontinent, willing to taste the culture - if only taste, and nothing more - to satisfy the instinct for romance and adventure. This leads them into contact with the Muslim Dr. Aziz, who promises to show them India and ends up doing so more than any of them wish; "that incident at the Marabar Caves" results in explosively exposing the dichotomy of social conduct and temperament between disparate cultures, the superiority-wound ever-festering beneath the Western mandate to civilize and the East's own long-standing hierarchy establishment.
To wit: "It was, in a new form, the old, old trouble that eats the heart out of every civilization: snobbery, the desire for possessions, creditable appendages; and it is to escape this rather than the lusts of the flesh that saints retreat into the Himalayas. (chapter 26 pg 235, old penguin edition)"
At first I was a bit puzzled by Forster's approach, but as I read on it dawned on me that the author was displaying not just the discomfort and isolation of the British, but that of Aziz as well. As a Muslim, he is forced to inhabit three worlds: that of the dominant Hindu population, that of the snooty colonials and, deep within, that of his own faith and culture, marginalized by sheer population. Victimized as much by his own people as by the judgment-cry of the West, he eventually chooses exile, augmented in the final section `Temple'. The `Author's Voice' character, the atheist and open-minded Fielding, also capitulates to the home-town creed by the end of the novel, sacrificing his freedom for the reward of security, the buffer against the exile's loneliness, and his final meeting with Aziz - in which the earth itself seems to grumble that reconciliation between East and West cannot yet happen - is more powerful because of where these two characters have gone and what they have, in effect, given up due to outward pressures.
A Passage to India is widely regarded as a masterpiece of the 20th century, highlighting the internal conflicts that would, in time, lead to Indian independence, casting a caustic eye to the irrevocable differences endemic to East/West relationships whenever superstition and racism rear their ugly heads... an all too common occurrence. Recommended.