A Passage to India: Themes & Analysis

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  • 0:02 'A Passage to India'
  • 0:35 Summary of the Plot
  • 2:32 Themes & Analysis
  • 5:11 The Marabar Caves
  • 6:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Terri Beth Miller

Terri Beth has taught college writing and literature courses since 2005 and has a PhD in literature.

This lesson explores E.M. Forster's masterpiece, 'A Passage to India.' The lesson also examines and analyzes key themes within the novel and discusses the novel's significance in relation to modern English literature.

A Passage to India

There's a reason why A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster, is considered by many to be the best novel written during the author's illustrious career. It captures all of the complexities of the modern era and casts a critical eye on the dynamics of political oppression and the very real toll that it takes. In this story of British-controlled India in the years just prior to its independence in 1947, Forster shows us the human face of oppression - the people, places, and relationships ravaged in the name of political power.

Summary of the Plot

The novel begins with two English women, Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested, traveling to India, where Adela is to become engaged to Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Moore, a magistrate for the city of Chandrapore. There, they befriend Cyril Fielding, the principal of Chandrapore's government college, and Dr. Aziz, an Indian physician.

During a picnic given by Dr. Aziz at the fictional Marabar Caves, Adela admits that she doesn't love Ronny. Impulsively, she asks Aziz, a Muslim, if he has more than one wife. Offended, Aziz stalks off and when he returns, he finds that Adela has taken the car back to the city alone. Back in Chandrapore, the friends learn that Adela has accused Dr. Aziz of attempted rape, and he is quickly arrested.

The nation divides along racial and ethnic lines. Mrs. Moore doubts Adela's claims but can't bring herself to publicly oppose the young woman; she decides to return to England, but dies on the sea voyage home. Fielding is one of the sole Britons to support Dr. Aziz.

Ultimately, Adela admits her lie and Dr. Aziz is freed. Fielding admires Adela's courage in telling the truth and befriends her, which disgusts Aziz and threatens his friendship with Fielding. When Adela returns to England and Fielding follows shortly thereafter, Aziz assumes that their friendship is pretty well dead. When he learns that Fielding has married, he also assumes Adela is the new bride and bids good riddance to them both.

Two years later, Dr. Aziz runs into Fielding and Fielding's brother-in-law, Ralph, visiting an ancient temple. Fielding has not married Adela, but Mrs. Moore's daughter, Ralph's sister. Ralph and Dr. Aziz hit it off, but Aziz's feelings toward Fielding are still pretty raw. Ultimately, Aziz realizes that he and Fielding can never truly be friends until the British leave India once and for all.

Themes & Analysis

Some of the themes in 'A Passage to India' include the impact of colonization, search for the 'real' India, and sexual stereotypes.

Let's start with the impact of colonization. Forster's novel is set in the final years of British colonial rule over India, and we can see this unequal power dynamic infecting every level of the novel. It contaminates every relationship, not just relations between the English and the Indians, but even among those of the same race, religion, and nationality.

In the novel, Adela and Mrs. Moore are torn apart, Fielding and Aziz can never cultivate their friendship, and Aziz's suspicion that an Indian and an Englishman can never be friends is proven right. There is simply too much inequality, too much abuse, and too much distrust. Forster's novel shows that the fissures of political oppression run deep, tearing apart not only the oppressor and the oppressed, but also friends and families alike.

Early on, Mrs. Moore declares that she wants to find the 'real India,' but ultimately abandons her project in despair. There is no such thing, she concludes, only an irreconcilable multitude of 'Indias.' That's really what Forster's novel as a whole boils down to: English imperialism. The imperialists view the 'real India' as exotic, alluring, and primitive and in need of rescue, or civilizing, by the English.

The truth is that India is not one thing, and it is certainly not the primordial paradise in need of English salvation. Instead, India is as varied, complex, and contradictory as the individuals who live there, from the Muslim Aziz to the Christian Fielding to the Hindu majority that they serve. To insist upon a single story of the 'real India' is to create a lie, one so often used to justify hatred, exploitation, and oppression. The imperialists need this fiction of the 'real India,' a primitive India, to legitimize their conquest by calling it the advancement of 'civilization.'

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