A Passage to India, & not stopping when the plot ends


The plot in A Passage to India involves a Muslim Indian accused of assaulting an Englishwoman in the Marabar Caves. When the plot was wrapped up on page 257, I looked at the last page, and wondered why the book went on to page 362. I tried to guess what the next hundred pages were for, but couldn’t. I guessed, though, that it would have to do with the principles in my earlier post “The story isn’t over when the plot is“, which it did.

In retrospect, it seems obvious: The plot is about a conflict between the English rulers and their Indian subjects, but the story is about a friendship between the Englishman Fielding and a Muslim Indian, Aziz. The plot’s central question is resolved in a court room, but the story’s central question is whether an Englishman and an Indian can be friends. The plot shows the two men going to great efforts for each other’s sake, and one imagines on seeing its resolution that they must be fast friends forever afterwards. But the story’s claim is that this is impossible: The forces of Empire, and British society, and religion and race, which are vast and omnipresent, forbid it; struggling against them is quite beyond the capacities of humans, who seldom know why they do what they do, and make out better when they follow their feelings and the herd than when they try to act reasonably.

So the final hundred pages have the structure of a short story, which one can almost imagine existing independently of the novel preceding it. The two men begin it as friends, but disagreements, misunderstandings, and racial characteristics (Forster cannot seem to decide whether these are real or imagined) divide them. The key misunderstanding is cleared up, but the hate Aziz temporarily had for Fielding has already pushed him into a new state of mind from which he cannot return to loving Fielding, and they part knowing they will only drift further apart. The final paragraphs:

Aziz in an awful rage danced this way and that, not knowing what to do, and cried: “Down with the English anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty-five hundred years we shall get rid of you, yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then “–he rode against him furiously– “and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.”

“Why can’t we be friends now?” said the other, holding him affectionately. “It’s what I want. It’s what you want.”

But the horses didn’t want it–they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file; the temples, the tank, the jail, the palace, the birds, the carrion, the Guest House, that came into view as they issued from the gap and saw Mau beneath: they didn’t want it, they said in their hundred voices, “No, not yet,” and the sky said, “No, not there.”

It still puzzles me why the last 100 pages begins with a long description of a Hindu religious ceremony, which neither Fielding nor Aziz attend. My best guess is that, in a novel which pits the English Empire against India, and an Englishman against an Indian, it would be too easy to imagine that the Indian represents India. Forster repeats several times that no one can represent India, as a Muslim Indian understands the Hindu who lives next door to him less than a Scot can understand a Transylvanian. The purpose of the temple scene may be to remind us that Aziz is just one Indian, and to refute the view that Fielding the ex-Christian and Aziz the Muslim would each have that humans are important, singular, and somehow exempt from the rules that limit the actions of all other things.

(There is an extreme continuity error at one of the climaxes of the book: Two characters go out onto a lake in a rowboat and collide with another boat carrying idols that are a key part of the city’s biggest Hindu ceremony. When they fall in the water, two other main characters who were definitely not in the boat fall into the water with them, and their impossible presence adds nothing to the story. Forster seems to have vacillated at his climax between whether his viewpoint character’s boat was running into the boat containing the idols, or the boat containing the other two characters, and written it as being both simultaneously. This nonsensical scene presents a sticky problem for the translator or editor publishing a new edition after the author’s death.)


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