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A Passage to India: Forster's Treatment of Colonialism

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  1. 0:05 Background
  2. 2:07 Summary
  3. 8:44 Themes: Friendship & Colonialism
  4. 11:37 Lesson Summary
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Taught by

Ellie Green

Ellie holds a B.A. with Honors in English from Stanford University. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in English Literature at Princeton University.

'A Passage to India' is one of E.M. Forster's most celebrated novels. Watch this lesson to see why this sad story of British colonialism has stuck with audiences for almost a century.

Background

In a previous lesson, we talked about the life and work of E.M. Forster, and we talked about how one of his number one interests throughout all of his books is class. Forster loved to show how people from different economic backgrounds can come together to find their common humanity and connect and reach an understanding despite social pressures that maybe say they should stay apart. For his fifth novel - the one published 14 years after his previous four - he turned his attention to breaking down other social barriers - specifically, those of race.

As you might guess from the title, Forster's 1924 novel A Passage to India is set in India. It was completed after Forster himself spent some time in an administrative position there. This was the early 1920s, during a really tumultuous period when the Indian independence movement had begun to come to a head (and that's independence from England). This came right on the heels of Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent resistance movement that advocated for unity of all Indians in the face of British rule.

So India had been subject to British imperial power since the early 18th century, and, shockingly, they weren't wild about it. Two hundred years of being ruled from the outside is the background that inspired Forster to craft his last novel published during his lifetime and, to many, his most important (though to me, not my favorite).

We'll talk about the thematic implications of A Passage to India, but first let's just do some plot summary. We're going to go through the book, and keep in mind that colonialism, or one country exerting political power over another (generally not through pleasant means), is a really big theme through this book and a big deal to Forster. Throughout the novel, we'll see how British imperial attitudes hinder Forster's characters and, in some cases, lead to some really surprising developments. Also pay attention to this key question established early in the book by its main Indian character: is it possible for an Indian and an Englishman to be friends? Maybe we know how we feel about that now, but this was a bigger deal back in 1924.

Summary

Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore meet at a mosque
Passage to India Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore

So A Passage to India opens, as half of Forster's books do, with two Englishwomen on a vacation in a foreign country. The two women in question are Mrs. Moore, the mother to a British India city administrator, and Adela Quested, a young schoolmistress (which I think is an awesome name). Adela and Mrs. Moore are visiting the fictional city of Chandrapore, and they express interest in engaging with the real India instead of just the British conception of it, the way that some people don't just want to see the Eiffel Tower - they want to see how French people live. That's sort of what they're up to.

That explains why, one night, our main Indian character, Dr. Aziz, runs into Mrs. Moore in a mosque, or a traditional place of Indian worship, where maybe not every British tourist would go.

At first, Aziz is surprised and upset to see an English person there - he just came from a rough night at the hands of his British hospital administrator - but he quickly finds out that Mrs. Moore has a legitimate interest in and respect for Indian ways. So the two part the mosque as friends.

Mrs. Moore tells her friend Ronny and young Adela about her encounter with Aziz. Ronny's upset - he's a strong proponent of racial separation - but Adela's intrigued. Given her interest, another Chandrapore official throws a party that many gentlemen of both Indian and British persuasions are invited to. That party turns out to be kind of a bust, as members of both nationalities mostly keep to themselves (a la a seventh grade dance), but it's there that Adela meets Cyril Fielding, the novel's other main English character (with an incredibly awesome English name), and he's also the head of the city's government-run college for Indians. The two immediately hit it off, and Fielding decides to set up a tea date for Adela, Mrs. Moore and a few of his other Indian friends. On Adela's behalf, he also invites Dr. Aziz, which is nice.

At tea, Fielding and Aziz form an instant bond and become friends. The whole group gets along so well that Aziz invites them all to join him at the Marabar Caves, a fictional tourist destination based on the real Barabar Caves. Everyone agrees to go, although Adela's betrothed, Ronny, is outraged at the thought of them traveling with Indians because he's a racist. The two of them have a fight about it, and Adela actually vows not to marry him anymore because of this, though that night there will be a frightening car accident that will bring them back together. Still, doubt has been planted in her mind about Ronny's character and who he is.

Aziz and Fielding become fast friends
Passage to India Dr. Aziz and Cyril Fielding

Once they get to the caves, Mrs. Moore bows out pretty early; she claims to be claustrophobic (which I totally get), and the dark and echo-y nature of the tunnels don't appeal. Adela, Aziz and a lone tour guide press on ahead.

Adela is still full of doubts about her upcoming marriage to Ronny, and she decides to ask Aziz if he has multiple wives - she doesn't really understand why this is an inappropriate question. Aziz is unnerved by the stereotypical inquiry of Adela's - I think he thought better of her - and he ducks into the cave to regain composure while the guide waits outside and Adela presses ahead. Why? Who knows. When Aziz finally emerges from the caves, he sees that Adela has gone back to the car in town and thinks nothing of it.

It turns out that he's wrong, though, because when Aziz gets back to town, he's arrested by British police. Adela, apparently, has accused him of sexually assaulting her in the caves. This is an accusation that British authorities are all too happy to believe. Cyril Fielding defends Aziz and is ostracized by his British peers for defending an Indian guy when he's been accused by a British woman of a terrible crime.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Moore, who's pretty rational and sympathetic, doesn't believe that Aziz is guilty but doesn't really want to take his side either. The whole ordeal is way too much for her, and city administrators and Ronny happily arrange for her to go back to England, and, unfortunately, she will die en route. Spoiler alert.

When it's finally Adela's turn to take the stand in court, she has a moment of clarity where she realizes that actually Aziz did not assault her in the caves - the caves caused her to have a panic attack in which she imagined that Aziz attacked her. Because she was still pretty prejudiced, even though she was trying to learn more about the Indian culture, this wouldn't necessarily have been that big of a leap for her to make in her mind - at least, that's what we're supposed to believe. She clears Aziz of all the charges, and the case is dismissed, though the British are none too happy about it.

As you might guess, this whole ordeal put a lot of strain on Aziz, as being falsely accused of a violent crime might do, not to mention it's been hard on his relationship with Fielding because not a lot of Indian guys had British friends at the time. It's put Fielding in an awkward place, too, because it's caused a strain on his relationship with his British friends. Fielding wants to remain friends with Aziz, but he also wants to comfort Adela, who he believes was at least very brave to come forward and admit that she had falsely accused Aziz in the first place.

Dr. Aziz, Adela and a guide tour the caves together
Passage to India Cave Scene

That wasn't an easy thing to do at the time with all the prejudice that the British people felt for the Indians. He knows what the pressures of British society are like, and he's proud of her for standing up for herself, even though she acted wrong in the first place. Fielding eventually convinces Aziz not to sue Adela for damages. This is angering to Aziz, and he breaks off his friendship with Fielding, even going so far as to swear off British people in general. Meanwhile, Adela returns to England, but her engagement with Ronny is finally broken for good, which is probably for the best.

As it happens, business eventually will take Fielding out of India, and two years later, he will return and seek out Aziz again. However, Aziz hears that he married in England and, assuming that his bride was Adela, is now angrier than ever because he thinks that his friend married this woman who accused him of a crime, and he's pissed. Fair enough. But, of course, he's wrong. However, much as he did with Mrs. Moore so many years ago, Aziz encounters Fielding by chance and learns that he is not married to Adela but in fact to Stella Moore, Mrs. Moore's daughter from her second marriage. Aziz calms down, and Aziz and Fielding rekindle their friendship, but despite that, at the novel's end, Aziz recognizes that he and Fielding can never really be friends until the Indian nation is completely free of British rule.

Themes: Friendship and Colonialism

So that brings us back to that question that we asked at the beginning: is it possible for an Indian (a person living in India) and an Englishman to be friends during the time of British colonialism in England? Forster seems to think that the answer is 'no,' at least not while British imperialism is the setting. Note that many of the characters in A Passage to India are quite interested in breaking down cultural barriers - in fact, in comparison to some of his other novels (Howard's End, perhaps), some of these characters are practically saints. Yet they all have some failings in one way or another - they're not actual saints.

Let's start with Adela. For all of her interest in the culture of India, she still can't get past her prejudices and ends up accusing Aziz of assault. Mrs. Moore is accepting to a point, but when her homestead is challenged, her open attitude falters. The best examination really is when the friendship between Aziz and Fielding crumbles under the pressure of the trial and the accusation and the different attitudes towards Indian people and British people. We might feel bad for Cyril Fielding because he has an awesome name and he really wants to find a middle ground between Adela and Aziz; perhaps like Forster himself, he always seems to try to be negotiating connections and understanding between people of different backgrounds. He just wants everyone to get along. But, at the end of the book, it becomes pretty clear that that's not going to be possible, at least not in Aziz's eyes.

Fielding defends Aziz in court
Passage to India Court Scene

Why is that? In all of Forster's other novels, problems have been solved by human connection - when characters are willing to challenge social norms of acceptability, they always reap the rewards, but here, that doesn't seem to be enough. The most obvious reason seems to be A Passage to India's emphasis on colonialism. Forster's critique of this practice seems not to be so much political as it is personal: when one people assert their power over another, it makes true human connection impossible, no matter how hard the parties try - and Fielding and Aziz really do try.

And it's important to note that it's not just the colonized who suffer in Forster's vision - it's everybody. Adela and Mrs. Moore both meet less-than-noble ends when they get wrapped up in England's colonialist system and wrapped up in prejudices about Indian people because if you believe that people of a certain country are subject to you and your country, you can never really view them as equals. Even Fielding doesn't really get what he wants - he misses out on that great friendship with Aziz because of England and India's relationship and England's colonial rule.

When social systems impose a ruler/subject hierarchy, Forster seems to be saying that all parties will suffer in some way because they're reduced into these roles. The human connection that he so gladly celebrated in novels like Howard's End or A Room with a View just can't be found.

Lesson Summary

It seems fitting in this last novel that he would publish during his lifetime - it also has the most ponderous ending - nothing's really tied up in a neat little bow the way you might expect. There's no chance for happiness built into the novel until English colonialism is a thing of the past - that's what he seems to be arguing. In structuring his novel this way, Forster creates a really touching, sad story that has gone on to receive numerous accolades as well as becoming yet another movie, like most of his books have. But the movie is no substitute for reading the book!

For those of you who know your history, you'll of course know that India did in fact gain independence from England in 1948, well within Forster's lifetime, I might add. But though the actual historical circumstances that inspired his novel may not still apply, certainly A Passage to India stands as a testament to the necessarily dehumanizing business of one people making subjects of another - a lesson that stands the test of time. I hope you check out A Passage to India.

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