Intercultural relationships and national identities in E.M. Forster´s novel 'A Passage to India'

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2003
24 Pages, Grade: 2+ (B)


E.M. Forster´s novel A passage to India was published in 1924. The work is largely based on the personal experiences Forster made during his two visits to India and which are the source of the striking authenticity of the text. The first time, he went there in 1912 thanks to the enduring friendship he had developed with his former student, the young Indian, Syed Ross Masood, whom he had prepared for the entry to Oxford university. Masood also acquainted him with the Mahrajah of Dewas, who invited him to come back to India as his secretary after World War I, in 1921. During his voyages he travelled extensively throughout the whole country and got into close contact with the Indian population. The two visits to India provided him with the raw material for his novel: the intimate friendship with Masood and his emotional and spontaneous character can be seen as the basis for the differentiated and highly individualized portrayal of the young Indian Aziz and for the relationship between the two protagonists Fielding and Aziz. Forster also experienced the possibility of another view of life, that was opened up to him through his Indian friendships. On the other hand, he got to know the difficulties that spring up from so profoundly different approaches to life as the ones of the West and the East.

Due to his own attitude of liberal-humanism and his belief in the freedom of action and the individuality of each human being as the basis for any political action, he was upset by the racial oppression, the cultural misunderstandings and the hypocrisies he found in Anglo-India. He visited India in a period, when the dissolution of the British Empire could already be sensed. The novel reflects and alludes to some of the major steps towards the decline of the British Rule: the Indian non-co-operation movement led by Ghandi and the Amritsar massacre. The non-co-operation movement expressed the increasing self-awareness of the Indian people. It was a pacific protest against imperialism, racial oppression, and the idea of cultural superiority, abused as a justification for the British presence in India. They protested against the evils of the colonial society. In the novel, during the conversation between Aziz´ Indian friends and Fielding, the justification of the British Rule is also put into question.

“‘And does not morality [among the British] also decline?’

‘It depends what you call – yes, yes, I suppose morality does decline.’

‘Excuse me the question but if this is the case, how is England justified in holding India?’

There they were! Politics again. ‘It´s a question I can´t get my mind onto,’ he replied. ‘I´m out here personally because I needed a job. I cannot tell you why England is here or whether she ought to be here. It´s beyond me.’

‘Well-qualified Indians also need jobs in the educational.’

‘I guess they do; I got in first,’ said Fielding, smiling. - ‘Then excuse me again – is it fair an Englishman should occupy one when Indians are available?” (Forster 1979, p. 96)

The members of the movement, as well as Forster, wished the political system in India to be democratic and based on social equality between the colonized and the colonizers. They wanted Indians and British to live together peacefully and respectfully on terms of friendship.

They criticized the imperialist practice for impeding and destroying such attempts of friendship due to discrimination and stereotyping. Nevertheless, Ghandi hoped to turn the British Empire into the British out, a hope that Mrs Moore shares:

“One touch of regret – not the canny substitute but the true regret from the heart – would have made him a different man, and the British Empire a different institution.” (Forster 1979, S. 42)

But Forster felt that the movement was only one step further on the way to its decline. And he was proved to be right in the end. Aziz´ declaration in the last chapter seems nearly prophetic if we think that what he pronounced actually came true to certain extent in the course of history: “Until England is in difficulties we keep silent, but in the next European war – aha, aha! Then is our time.’ […] ‘India shall be a nation!” (Forster 1979, p. 287). A much more tragic event in British Colonial history is the Amritsar massacre in 1919, during which unarmed Indian nationalist demonstrators were killed on orders of General Dyer. The demonstration had been put forth in order to protest against Britain´s hostile attitude towards the Islamic movement of the Khilafat and Turkey in general, culminating in open enmity during World War I. Indians interpreted the British attitude as anti-Islam. The brutal use of force to handle the manifestation shocked Forster deeply and he reworked the actual happenings surrounding the massacre into the basic conflict of his novel - although he avoids mentioning a clear connection. In the aftermath of the massacres, some people of the mob, that had turned aggressive in front of the brutality of the British rule, actually attacked an English woman called F. Marcella Sherwood[1]. The ironic touch results from the fact that probably there has never been any assault at all in Chandrapore.

Against this background of immense cultural tensions and political unrest is set Forster´s novel A passage to India. But Forster is not so much interested in the political situation as in its consequences for successful interpersonal relationships. The whole structure of the novel is designed to embrace the problem of intercultural comprehension in a colonial system hostile to any authentic personal intercourse.The novel is divided into three main parts: (I) The Mosque (II) The Caves (III) The temple. This particular structure has been interpreted in many different ways,[2] one possible interpretation being a kind of Hegelian system of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. The first part functions as a kind of exposition during which the thesis or the main question is put forth: Is it possible for an Indian to be friends with an Englishman? The Mosque introduces the main characters, the setting and the main tensions between the two cultures. But still, there are optimistic attempts to bridge the gap between the two cultures. The most powerful example is the developing friendship between Dr. Aziz and Fielding, which forms the centre of the story. But each attempt of approach is tainted with the shadow of misinterpretations and misunderstanding. The second part, The Caves, functions as the Antithesis, because it presents the muddle that result from mixing oneself up with natives, as do Mrs. Moore, Adela Quested and Fielding. In the aftermath of the Marabar Caves the consequences become obvious: Mrs Moore gets embittered because the experience of the echo has challenged her hold on life. She leaves India but dies on her way home; Adela suffers even worse from the never-ending echo in her head. She thinks that she has been the victim of an alleged assault by Dr. Aziz. The latter is arrested and brought to trial. The friendship between Aziz and Fielding is hardly hit. Cultural tension and racial hate have come to a climatic crisis. The last part of the novel can be seen as a kind of synthesis as an “affirmative gesture, an embracing of mankind in a momentary vision of unity. It neatly brings together the various strands in the novel”[3]. But the notion of synthesis might be partly questioned because, ultimately, the two friends, Fielding and Aziz, have to part knowing that although “all the misunderstandings had been cleared up, […] socially they had no meeting-place” (Forster 1979, p. 285). The answer to the question of part one is a clear “‘No, not yet,’ […] ‘No, not there.’” (Forster 1979, p. 188). No ultimate reconciliation between the two nations is possible at that time. If we take into account the title´s allusion to Walt Whitman´s poem A passage to India, which is an optimistic vision of a world united by technical progress, the novel seems a rather ironic and sceptical comment on the latter´s prophecy, although the idealistic idea of unity and the dream of the “universal brotherhood” (Forster 1979, p. 128) is central to Forster´s work as well. Only, that in real life there seems to be no place for idealism and Aziz states that this dream “as soon as it was put into prose it became untrue” (Forster 1979, p. 128).

If we have a look on the first chapter of the book, we can already sense the gap between the British and the Natives. Their relation is artistically reflected in Forsters description of the setting. He displays a sharp contrast between the city of Chandrapore, where the natives live, and the Anglo-Indian Civil Station:

“The city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. […] The streets are mean, the temples ineffective and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest […] In the bazaars there is no painting and scarcely any carving. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. […] Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life ” (Forster 1979, p. 3)

In the description of Chandrapore, the native inhabitants do not seem to form part of the essence of the city. They are not mentioned as individual persons but as mud moving or in combination with passive constructions, which stresses the fact that they are exposed to outer forces: to nature, to the living entity of the city itself and to British rule in India. There are no actors in Chandrapore. It is the city itself that is ascribed human features and appears to be a living being. Thus, this short introduction gives the reader the sensation that the natives are objects rather than rational subjects.

“Inland, the prospect alters. […] Houses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground by the railway station. Beyond the railway – which runs parallel to the river – the land sinks, then rises again rather steeply. On this second rise is laid out the little Civil Station, and viewed hence Chandrapore appears to be a totally different place. It is a city of gardens. […] [Trees] glorify the city to the English people who inhabit the rise, so that newcomers cannot believe it to be as meagre as it is described, and have to be driven down to acquire disillusionment.” (Forster 1979, p. 3)

The British on the other hand are referred to explicitly as Eurasians, the English people, the newcomers. The Civil Station has nothing in common with the chaotic scenery of the bazaars, but is “sensibly planned, with a red-brick Club on its brow, and further back a grocer´s and a cemetery, and the bungalows are disposed along roads that intersect at right angles.” (Forster 1979, p. 4) This opposition between harmonic form and order, attached to the European world, and the muddle of the Indian world is taken up again in the end, when Fielding goes back to England and admires the architecture of Venice, where everything “stood in the right place, whereas in poor India everything was placed wrong” (Forster 1979, p. 150) In the passage quoted above, Chandrapore is viewed from another perspective. From the rise where the Civil Station is situated the City appears to be a garden because it is hidden by the exuberant vegetation. This reflects the attitude of the Anglo-Indians and their stereotyped view of the Indians. They have built their own little England out there and have shut out the realities of native life and culture. Another point which should be mentioned on examining the first chapter is the strong presence of negative expressions in order to describe Chandrapore: there is nothing extraordinary, “there are no bathing steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here” (Forster 1979, p. 3) etc. The author tells us only, what Chandrapore is not. This particular way of description “has the effect of denying any positive feature”[4] and, further, stressing the contrast to the Civil Station peopled by the Anglo-Indians and the social division between the two races.

In order to examine the relationship between the races we have to approach the two cultures separately. The British people, who are presented in the novel, are no longer in their own cultural context but live in a foreign context, in the colony India, where they are cut off from their roots and exposed to a different way of life, another set of values, and an alien, hostile natural surrounding. The process of stereotyping in order to reaffirm oneself and to assert one´s identity is a natural and even necessary way of coping with the disconcerting context. On the one hand, they have to establish their own identity. They have to adapt themselves to their own Anglo-Indian society. On the other hand, they reassure their identity through delimiting their social community from an abstract and threatening ‘other’. Identity has two aspects: the integration of the ‘self’ and the exclusion of the ‘other’.

The British define themselves primarily as the colonizers or rulers. They consider themselves to be the superior race, which is the principal justification for their presence as the ruling force in India. The official opinion is that they are in India only “for her good” (Forster 1979, p. 96) The highest local officials in the microcosm of the Anglo-Indian society are even ascribed divinity:

“A community that bows the knee to a Viceroy and believes that the divinity that hedges a king can be transplanted, must feel some reverence for any viceregal substitute. At Chandrapore the Turtons were little gods […].” (Forster 1979, p. 21/22)

Mrs Moore discloses the same kind of self-complacency and arrogance with Ronny:

“‘You´re sentiments are those of a god’ she said quietly […] ‘And Englishmen like posing as gods’ ” (Forster 1979, p. 41)

Being in the position of the Rulers, the British are those who impose the standards to which everyone must adhere. The trial is naturally held in the English language. They can choose the judge they consider to be appropriate and, if they choose an Indian subordinate, they can be sure, that he will decide on their behalves for being exposed to the arbitrariness of the English authority. Das, the Hindu judge, is probably

“more frightened of acquitting than convicting, because if he acquits he´ll lose his job,’ […] Ronny did mean that, but he cherished ‘illusions’ about his own subordinates […], and he liked to maintain that his old Das really did possess moral courage of the public-school brand.” (Forster 1979, p. 191)

Ronny prefers to present himself as believing in the good nature of the Indians, although, in fact, it is a strategic movement to choose Das as judge in order to avoid political upheavals. Ronny can be seen as the typical Anglo-Indian official. He takes his job seriously and revels in self-satisfaction for assuming Kipling´s White Man´s Burden. In conformity with the Anglo-Indian norms, he considers the Indians to be only a side-issue:


[1] Das, G.K. (1985): A passage to India: a Socio-historical Study. In: Beer, John (ed.): A Passage to India. Essays in interpretation. Tiptree, Essex.

[2] Kazan, Francesca (1987) Confabulation in A Passage to India. In: Stape, J.H. (ed.): E.M. Forster. Critical Assessments. Vol. III. Mountfield, East Sussex. S. 373

[3] Kazan, Francesca (1987) Confabulation in A Passage to India. In: Stape, J.H. (ed.): E.M. Forster. Critical Assessments. Vol. III. Mountfield, East Sussex. S. 373

[4] Edwards, Mike (2002): E.M. Forster. The Novels. Hampshire.

Excerpt out of 24 pages


Intercultural relationships and national identities in E.M. Forster´s novel 'A Passage to India'
University of Würzburg  (Philosophy Institut II - Anglistics)
Writing the British Empire
2+ (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
521 KB
Intercultural, Forster´s, Passage, India, Writing, British, Empire
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Sarai Jung (Author), 2003, Intercultural relationships and national identities in E.M. Forster´s novel 'A Passage to India', Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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