A Passage to India: Forster's Treatment of Colonialism

An error occurred trying to load this video.

Try refreshing the page, or contact customer support.

Coming up next: Overview of Literary Modernism: Authors, Context, and Style

You're on a roll. Keep up the good work!

Take Quiz Watch Next Lesson
Your next lesson will play in 10 seconds
  • 0:05 Background
  • 2:07 Summary
  • 8:44 Themes: Friendship &…
  • 11:37 Lesson Summary
Save Save Save

Want to watch this again later?

Log in or sign up to add this lesson to a Custom Course.

Log in or Sign up

Speed Speed

Recommended Lessons and Courses for You

Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

'A Passage to India' is one of E.M. Forster's most celebrated novels. Watch this lesson to see why this sad story of British colonialism has stuck with audiences for almost a century.


In a previous lesson, we talked about the life and work of E.M. Forster, and we talked about how one of his number one interests throughout all of his books was class. Forster loved to show how people from different economic backgrounds can come together to find their common humanity and connect and reach an understanding despite social pressures that maybe say they should stay apart. For his fifth novel - the one published 14 years after his previous four - he turned his attention to breaking down other social barriers - specifically, those of race.

As you might guess from the title, Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India is set in India. It was completed after Forster himself spent some time in an administrative position there. This was the early 1920s, during a really tumultuous period when the Indian independence movement had begun to come to a head (and that's independence from England). This came right on the heels of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance movement that advocated for unity of all Indians in the face of British rule.

So, India had been subject to British imperial power since the early 18th century, and, shockingly, they weren't wild about it. Two hundred years of being ruled from the outside is the background that inspired Forster to craft his last novel published during his lifetime and, to many, his most important (though to me, not my favorite).

We'll talk about the thematic implications of A Passage to India, but first let's just do some plot summary. We're going to go through the book, and keep in mind that colonialism, or one country exerting political power over another (generally not through pleasant means), is a really big theme through this book and a big deal to Forster. Throughout the novel, we'll see how British imperial attitudes hinder Forster's characters and, in some cases, lead to some really surprising developments. Also, pay attention to this key question established early in the book by its main Indian character: is it possible for an Indian and an Englishman to be friends? Maybe we know how we feel about that now, but this was a bigger deal back in 1924.


Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore meet at a mosque
Passage to India Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore

So, A Passage to India opens, as half of Forster's books do, with two Englishwomen on a vacation in a foreign country. The two women in question are Mrs. Moore, the mother to a British Indian city administrator, and Adela Quested, a young schoolmistress (which I think is an awesome name). Adela and Mrs. Moore are visiting the fictional city of Chandrapore, and they express interest in engaging with the real India instead of just the British conception of it, the way that some people don't just want to see the Eiffel Tower - they want to see how French people live. That's sort of what they're up to.

That explains why, one night, our main Indian character, Dr. Aziz, runs into Mrs. Moore in a mosque, or a traditional place of Indian worship, where maybe not every British tourist would go.

At first, Aziz is surprised and upset to see an English person there - he just came from a rough night at the hands of his British hospital administrator - but he quickly finds out that Mrs. Moore has a legitimate interest in and respect for Indian ways. So, the two part the mosque as friends.

Mrs. Moore tells her friend Ronny and young Adela about her encounter with Aziz. Ronny's upset - he's a strong proponent of racial separation - but Adela's intrigued. Given her interest, another Chandrapore official throws a party that many gentlemen of both Indian and British persuasions are invited to. That party turns out to be kind of a bust, as members of both nationalities mostly keep to themselves (a la a seventh grade dance), but it's there that Adela meets Cyril Fielding, the novel's other main English character (with an incredibly awesome English name), and he's also the head of the city's government-run college for Indians. The two immediately hit it off, and Fielding decides to set up a tea date for Adela, Mrs. Moore and a few of his other Indian friends. On Adela's behalf, he also invites Dr. Aziz, which is nice.

At tea, Fielding and Aziz form an instant bond and become friends. The whole group gets along so well that Aziz invites them all to join him at the Marabar Caves, a fictional tourist destination based on the real Barabar Caves. Everyone agrees to go, although Adela's betrothed, Ronny, is outraged at the thought of them traveling with Indians because he's a racist. The two of them have a fight about it, and Adela actually vows not to marry him anymore because of this, though that night there will be a frightening car accident that will bring them back together. Still, doubt has been planted in her mind about Ronny's character and who he is.

Aziz and Fielding become fast friends
Passage to India Dr. Aziz and Cyril Fielding

Once they get to the caves, Mrs. Moore bows out pretty early; she claims to be claustrophobic (which I totally get), and the dark and echo-y nature of the tunnels don't appeal. Adela, Aziz and a lone tour guide press on ahead.

Adela is still full of doubts about her upcoming marriage to Ronny, and she decides to ask Aziz if he has multiple wives - she doesn't really understand why this is an inappropriate question. Aziz is unnerved by the stereotypical inquiry of Adela's - I think he thought better of her - and he ducks into the cave to regain composure while the guide waits outside and Adela presses ahead. Why? Who knows. When Aziz finally emerges from the caves, he sees that Adela has gone back to the car in town and thinks nothing of it.

Dr. Aziz, Adela and a guide tour the caves together
Passage to India Cave Scene

It turns out that he's wrong, though, because when Aziz gets back to town, he's arrested by British police. Adela, apparently, has accused him of sexually assaulting her in the caves. This is an accusation that British authorities are all too happy to believe. Cyril Fielding defends Aziz and is ostracized by his British peers for defending an Indian guy when he's been accused by a British woman of a terrible crime.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Moore, who's pretty rational and sympathetic, doesn't believe that Aziz is guilty but doesn't really want to take his side either. The whole ordeal is way too much for her, and city administrators and Ronny happily arrange for her to go back to England, and, unfortunately, she will die en route. Spoiler alert.

When it's finally Adela's turn to take the stand in court, she has a moment of clarity where she realizes that actually Aziz did not assault her in the caves - the caves caused her to have a panic attack in which she imagined that Aziz attacked her. Because she was still pretty prejudiced, even though she was trying to learn more about the Indian culture, this wouldn't necessarily have been that big of a leap for her to make in her mind - at least, that's what we're supposed to believe. She clears Aziz of all the charges, and the case is dismissed, though the British are none too happy about it.

Fielding defends Aziz in court
Passage to India Court Scene

As you might guess, this whole ordeal put a lot of strain on Aziz, as being falsely accused of a violent crime might do, not to mention it's been hard on his relationship with Fielding because not a lot of Indian guys had British friends at the time. It's put Fielding in an awkward place, too, because it's caused a strain on his relationship with his British friends. Fielding wants to remain friends with Aziz, but he also wants to comfort Adela, who he believes was at least very brave to come forward and admit that she had falsely accused Aziz in the first place.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account