A Passage to India: Summary & Characters

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  • 0:01 A Passage to India:…
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Francesca Marinaro

Francesca M. Marinaro has a PhD in English from the University of Florida and has been teaching English composition and Literature since 2007.

A Passage to India is one of E. M. Forster's most famous novels. It took him ten years to complete between 1913 and 1924. In this lesson, we'll cover a plot summary and briefly discuss a few of the book's major themes and characters. We'll finish with a quiz to test your knowledge.

A Passage To India: Plot Summary

Have you ever visited a foreign place and experienced the feeling of being intrigued by the people and customs you encountered while also missing the familiarity and comfort of home? Have you ever struggled to communicate with someone from a different cultural, racial, or religious background? Each of us can probably identify with an experience of this kind, and it is this struggle to overcome human differences and explore the foundations of political and social tension between people and nations that influenced the writing of E. M. Forster's novel A Passage to India. Forster completed the novel in 1924 after two trips to India, and it explores English-Indian relations during a period when India was still under British rule.

The story unfolds in the fictional town of Chandrapore, India, where a young English schoolteacher, Adella Quested, and her friend Mrs. Moore have traveled to visit Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop, the city magistrate. Adella is supposed to marry Ronny and has made the trip to see him and decide whether or not she truly wants to. While visiting a mosque, Mrs. Moore meets the young Dr. Aziz, a Muslim, who at first shouts at her not to defile the sanctity of the mosque but realizes that she, in fact, has respect for native customs; she has even removed her shoes and acknowledges God to be present there.

Adella and Mrs. Moore are both curious about the natives, and one of the English tax collectors arranges a tea party for them to meet some of the Indian gentlemen in town. There, they also meet Cyril Fielding, the headmaster of a British government-run college for Indians. Fielding invites Adella and Mrs. Moore to another tea party, and Adella requests that he invite Dr. Aziz. Fielding and Aziz become fast friends. At the party, Aziz offers to take the women on a tour of the Marabar Caves.

Dr. Aziz arranges an expedition to explore the caves with Mrs. Moore and Adella as promised. Mrs. Moore, however, becomes overwhelmed by claustrophobia and the echoes in the first cave and declines to continue. With a local guide, Dr. Aziz and Adella continue their exploration of the caves, but when Adella's curiosity about Indian customs prompts her to ask him if he has more than one wife, he leaves her abruptly and ducks into a cave to compose himself. When he returns, Adella has gone off by herself into another cave, and he finds her binoculars lying broken on the ground. As he looks down the hill he notices that Fielding has arrived to join the party with another young English woman, Miss Derek. Dr. Aziz runs down the hill to greet them, but Adella departs with Miss Derek without any explanation.

When Dr. Aziz, Mrs. Moore, and Fielding return to Chandrapore later that day, they are met by the police, and Aziz is charged with sexually assaulting Adella. Adella has reported that he followed her into a cave and attempted to touch her, and she got away by swinging her binoculars at him. The only piece of evidence is the pair of broken binoculars Dr. Aziz found, but despite this, English prejudice makes nearly everyone assume that he is guilty. Mrs. Moore and Fielding both insist on his innocence, but because Ronny, in his position as magistrate, is determined to find Aziz guilty, he decides to send his mother back to England to prevent her from testifying on Aziz's behalf.

Adella suffers a nervous breakdown before the trial and becomes confused. At the trial, she is directly asked if Dr. Aziz assaulted her, and she has a flashback to the moment in the cave. As it turns out, she had experienced a similar attack of claustrophobia to Mrs. Moore, ran around the cave confused, smashed her binoculars, and escaped. She mistook the experience and the echoes for an attack by Dr. Aziz. With this information given, the case is dismissed.

Though proven innocent, Dr. Aziz is embittered by the experience and vows never to be friends with an English man or woman ever again. He feels especially betrayed by Fielding, who befriended Adella after the trial and allowed her to stay in his home until she could return to England.

At the novel's end, Fielding, having gone back to England and married one of Mrs. Moore's daughters, returns to India and seeks out Dr. Aziz. At first, Dr. Aziz does not wish to forgive him, and while he eventually forgives Fielding, he tells him sadly that the men cannot be friends until India is free from British rule.

The novel explores colonial tension between England and India, which was still under British rule at the time Forster wrote it. Although Aziz is proven innocent, the supposed attack on a white, English woman's body by an Indian man represents the colonized subject's frustration with his oppression under British rule and the British fear of supposed native savagery.

Major Characters

The struggle between the colonizer and colonized is enacted in the relationships between the English and Indian characters in the novel.

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