Thursday, August 22, 2013

A Passage to India - E.M. Forster

In my continuing quest to read Modern Library's list of the 100 Best Novels, I found myself again facing a book and author I had never heard of before this challenge.  I have a feeling this will be a recurring theme.  It's amazing how much quality literature a solid education omits.  Or maybe the amazing thing is how much quality is out there to begin with...

Unlike my experience with Booth Tarkington's work, E.M. Forster's novel does fall into a historical period which habitually enchants me.  The book is set in colonial India around the 1920s.  At the time of its publication, the novel paralleled current events.  Forster, in fact, wrote the work based on his own experiences in the country.

The book centers around Dr. Aziz, an Indian doctor, Mrs. Moore, an older English woman, Adela Quested, a young English girl engaged to Mrs. Moore's son, and Cyril Fielding, an Englishman who has befriended Aziz.

At its start, the book explores some generic and all-together uneventful days following the arrival of Mrs. Moore and Adela in India.  Mrs. Moore meets and befriends Aziz at a mosque, despite an initial misunderstanding of each other's intents.  This encounter and subsequent ones all highlight the differences between the Indians and the British.  While the characters are too polite - or perhaps too sanctimonious - to discuss the differences with each other, they continually cause misconceptions between parties.  Each party is simply unable to read the other culture's social cues.

This is most evident when a series of statements and invitations uttered only out of courtesy lead to a day trip to explore some caves.  Aziz escorts Mrs. Moore and Adela to the national landmarks.  In the first cave, Mrs. Moore realizes caving does not fall under her activities of choice; she opts to sit out the remainder of the exploration.  Once alone with the guide, Aziz and Adela exchange awkward conversation and then the trip is disbanded without ceremony when Adela disappears during a rest. Aziz returns to the camp to discover she left with a friend.  The remaining group returns to town where Aziz is arrested for attacking Adela.

The remainder of the novel covers the trial and the changed relationships between the main characters. Again, the divergence between British and Indian culture radiates from near every line.  

It takes little imagination to see that Forster's work is an exploration of multicultural friendship.  He seeks to determine whether such a phenomenon is even possible.  The characters are plagued from the start by their cultural differences and this traits do seem to remain insurmountable for them, even to the last page.  Forster's seems to have concluded that the Indian people could never befriend the British as long as they remained subservient to them.  

Forster tackles heady issues of his time.  When reading A Passage to India, the reader can never forget to take into account its historical context.  Situations and interactions between cultures that seem absurd or impossible now happened with regularity, particularly under the canopy of colonialism.  When viewed in comparison to its contemporary works, it's easy to see how India made such a mark on its readers.

Still, in the end, Forster still offers the conclusion that multicultural friendship has too many hurdles to overcome.  His characters go their separate ways, unable to broach the great divide between them.  The one character who seemed truly to disregard the differences, Mrs. Moore, dies while on a return trip to England.  Aziz, Fielding, and Adela all make their peace and seem to harbor no ill will; yet, they hold no affection either.  I found it to be quite a sad ending.  I wonder if the ending had been different had Forster written the novel 50 or even 75 years later.

Do you think Forster's conclusion bows to the culture of his day?  Or is it enough that he explored the topic at all?

Pages: 404
Date Completed: August 15, 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment