Fat Books & Thin Women


Long-Delayed Read: A Passage to India

I recently registered for the GRE Subject Exam for Literature in English,* which means that I sometimes am making flashcards on Restoration comedies and their authors, but more often am reading and trying to defend my leisure time reading from accusations that I should be studying for the exam. (I should be studying for the exam, though.) One way I’m doing this is by reading works that may show up on the exam. Surely the least efficient use of my study time is to read an entire novel on which there may be one or two questions, but if I am reading said novel during my free time, such a selection is admirable and defensible, as reading A Passage to India will undoubtedly be more useful to me come November 13th than Jeff Long’s (pretty excellent) The Descent.

From Wikipedia

The happy result of this is that I’ve finally cleared up a long-standing gap in my reading history: the aforementioned A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster. I’ve read A Room with a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, Howards End, before – even reread all of them – but this one has for some reason been left out for years.

Sometimes when I think I should read a book, I find myself incapable of doing so. I’ve started to read A Passage to India countless times before, but never made it past the first one or two chapters. This time, though, something landed right – and what a book. At times, I felt that the land of India itself is its own character, in the ways that it influences characters’ actions, pulling them together or pushing them away from each other.

The book’s plot is simple enough to describe. An Englishwoman, Adela Quested, visits India with Mrs. Moore, the mother of the man she may marry. Dr. Aziz, a Muslim physician, takes them on a trip to see the Marabar caves. Adela accuses Dr. Aziz of trying to rape her in one of the caves, and the case goes to trial.

Forster imagines place so strongly. The Marabar caves, for instance, often seem to be watching over the action of the novel as a whole. They are nearly always there, visible, the region’s only notable landmark. And, early in the novel, see how he describes Dr. Aziz’s passage into the English section of town:

As he entered their arid tidiness, depression suddenly seized him. The roads, named after victorious generals and intersecting at right angles, were symbolic of the net Great Britain had thrown over India. He felt caught in their meshes.

And shortly thereafter, as Dr. Aziz begins to walk (his bicycle tire having busted and no tongas – horse-drawn taxis – being available), the description of the land:

There is something hostile in that soil. It either yields, and the foot sinks into a depression, or else is unexpectedly rigid and sharp, pressing stones or crystals against the tread.

Throughout, there’s this sense of a failed effort to impose order on a land that won’t yield to that order – or yields too much. Forster’s description of the land, above, echoes in many ways his descriptions of certain Indian characters and their interactions with the British people they work with. As Adela Quested and her betrothed, Ronny, try to identify a bird, Forster writes:

But nothing in India is identifiable, the mere asking of a question causes it to disappear or to merge in something else.

There’s this sense of something you can’t quite grasp running through much of the novel. It applies to the land itself, to the often indefinable relations between the book’s British and Indian characters, and the events in the Marabar caves. And Forster, to his credit, doesn’t try to make any of these things understandable: rather, he shows the ways in which they so frequently are not.

The incident at the Marabar caves, on which the plot centers, takes place at the rough center of the book, with the shadow of those caves spreading forth over the novel in either direction. What happens in the caves is of secondary importance to other things, though: the ways in which characters related before the event, the manner in which it is reported and dealt with, and how the book’s characters choose to view one another following Adela’s accusations. Again, Forster’s descriptions of the landscape echo the novel’s events; much as the purported attempted rape in the cave will color the rest of Aziz’s life, the caves themselves dominate the landscape:

It was the last moment of the light, and as he gazed at the Marabar Hills they seemed to move graciously towards him like a queen, and their charm became the sky’s. At the moment they vanished they were everywhere, the cool benediction of the night descended, the stars sparkled, and the whole universe was a hill.

In many ways, Forster’s characters seem unable to control the direction of their own lives or actions. After Adela accuses Dr. Aziz of attempting to rape her, she has a persistent “echo” in her head, which she can’t rid herself of; and it seems that it’s this “echo” more than her own will that guides her actions in the time leading up to the trial. Likewise, characters’ attempts to cross over the boundaries drawn between British and Indian inevitably find themselves unable to do so, or to do so for long. Dr. Aziz and an Englishman, Cyril Fielding, develop a friendship that proves unsustainable. Fielding will, at the end of the day, inevitably remain an Englishman, with all the loyalties that his heritage demands. Forster writes that the English (and their predecessors) “…entered the country with intent to refashion it, but were in the end worked into its pattern and covered with its dust.” In this world, the intentions of characters matter little, as they are all in time overmastered by the land.

I didn’t expect Forster to provide any easy answers to the issues he raises – to how we rule, and submit to, one another; to how our attempts to “know” other countries are simply another form of colonialism; of how the agency we believe we have at times proves an illusion – and he doesn’t. The book ends on a note befitting its tone throughout, but this being a review of sorts I won’t go farther.

It’s a rainy day, and I’m planning to watch the film of A Passage to India a little later, for sake of comparison – but also, I’m not quite ready to let the book go. And out of curiosity, to the rare person who stumbles across this blog: have you recently read any “classics” – particularly any you’ve been putting off reading? And why do you delay reading books, even – or especially – ones by authors you love?

* I have helpfully included a link to the test registration page, so you too may may take this fine examination.

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3 Comments

A thoughtful blog post.
Forster remains one of my favorite authors
such detail –curtains being drawn so the furniture does not fade in summer light etc.
Have recently returned from India which added somewhat to my retrospective enjoyment of A Passage To…………

Comment by Elizabeth

[…] E.M. Forster – A Passage to India: Finally ended my long shame of not having read one of the best works by one of my favorite authors. Review here. […]

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[…] The Scarlet Letter (9/19/10) Kate Chopin – The Awakening and Selected Stories (9/14/10) E.M. Forster – A Passage to India (9/11/10) Jeff Long – The Descent […]

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