A Passage to India: Essay Q&A

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1. What really happens to Adela in the cave?
What happens to Adela in the Marabar Cave is the pivotal moment in the novel, and yet the incident is never, on the literal level, satisfactorily explained. It is clear that if she was assaulted, as she and all the English believe, the culprit was not Aziz, who does not even find Adela attractive and whose only desire was to entertain his visitors as well as he could. Fielding considers that Adela may have suffered from a hallucination, a theory that may be quite close to the mark. Perhaps in the case of Adela, the Marabar cave she entered might symbolize the depths of the unconscious mind. She admits to hearing the same mysterious echo that Mrs. Moore heard, and which had such a catastrophic effect on the old lady's peace of mind. For these two Westerners, the caves break down their conscious, carefully constructed personalities and lay bare what is under the surface. Adela is a somewhat reserved, even repressed character. She is intellectual and curious, but not at home with her emotions, and her relationship with Ronny, who at this point is her fiancee, is stilted and awkward. Before Adela enters the cave, she has realized with a jolt that she does not love Ronny; she has also just asked Aziz whether he has more than one wife. Perhaps as she steps into the cave, some of her unconscious fears about love and marriage and sex are let loose, leading her to imagine that she has been assaulted.

After the incident, from time to time she doubts whether her accusation against Aziz is true, but she represses these doubts. But just before the trial, the echo she has been hearing in her mind ever since the incident finally goes away. Her mind is returning to normal. Then at the trial, McBryde's logical, sequential questioning brings her back to the rational world of facts and evidence. It also brings back a sense of justice and fairness that had been obscured by her mental confusion. This enables her to see more clearly again, and to retract her accusation. But the mystery is never really solved. After the trial, Adela's vague statement to Fielding about the matter, "Let us call it the guide" is unsatisfactory, as they both know. The Marabar caves, and their effects on people, are part of the mystery of India, which the Western mind cannot grasp.

2. How is the theme of friendship developed, and how does it reflect the theme of culture clash?
The most important relationship in the novel is that between two men, Aziz and Fielding. The relationships between men and women-primarily those between Adela and Ronny, and Adela and Fielding-are superficial by comparison. Aziz and Fielding like each other immediately they meet, and an intimacy and depth of feeling springs up between them. When Fielding invites Aziz to tea, Aziz goes out of his way to please his host, offering him his own collar stud when Fielding breaks his. Later, when Fielding visits him, Aziz shows him a picture of his dead wife. Fielding has none of the prejudice against Indians that the other English people have, and is happy to reciprocate Aziz's trust and affection. However, he feels a trifle uncomfortable with the emotional Aziz, because his own nature is more reserved, and he does not usually form close friendships.

But the friendship does not survive unscathed, partly because the two men are so different in temperament. Aziz is emotional, imaginative, and poetic: "In every remark he found a meaning, but not always the true meaning, and his life though vivid was largely a dream" (chapter 7). The down-to-earth Englishman who relies on facts and information to solve life's problems could hardly be more of a contrast. Aziz is also quick to take offense, and even Fielding eventually starts to believe that all Indians are likely to let a man down.

The friendship breaks down after Aziz is arrested. He accuses Fielding of deserting him, even though Fielding had been prevented by Mr. Turton from accompanying him to jail, and had staunchly declared his belief in Aziz's innocence. After his release, an embittered Aziz rejects Fielding's friendship. After Fielding returns to England, Aziz, who wrongly believes that Fielding has married Adela, destroys Fielding's letters unread.

The collapse of the friendship between Aziz and Fielding also shows the difficulty of friendship and communication between West and East, between the occupying power and the disenfranchised indigenous inhabitants. This is not a recipe for a relationship between equals. The end of the novel poignantly expresses the gulf that circumstances and race have placed between Aziz and Fielding, and which cannot be bridged. Although they both want to continue their restored friendship, Aziz insists that it cannot happen until the English leave India.

3. What is the significance, if any, of the titles of each section: Mosque, Caves and Temple?
The Islamic mosque and the Hindu temple present positive images of the two dominant religions of India. The Caves draw out some of the significance of Indian spirituality-Hindu rather than Islamic-that are problematic for Westerners.

In chapter 2, the mosque at Chandrapore is viewed through the sympathetic eyes of a devout Moslem. The mosque stimulates Aziz's loftiest thoughts and allows his imagination to soar. It is also the place where Aziz meets Mrs. Moore, and they strike up a friendship. The mosque therefore suggests the possibility of understanding between people of different religions. However, as the later chapters show, there are many powerful forces that interfere with this worthy goal.

The Marabar Caves represent the mysterious depths of Indian spirituality, which cannot be grasped by Westerners. The Caves signify a cultural divide, a kind of stumbling block that negates all efforts to circumvent it. As such, it is in Part 2 of the book ("Caves") that the two communities, English and Indian, are driven furthest apart.

Part 3 ("Temple") presents the popular Hindu festival, Gokul Ashtami, celebrating the birth of Lord Krishna. The descriptions of the temple, with its profusion of images of the gods, is a marked contrast to the mosque depicted earlier, which is devoid of images and possesses only the inscriptions of the ninety-nine names of God. But just as the mosque was depicted as a place where cross-cultural friendship might be established, so too is the Hindu temple, its chaotic appearance notwithstanding. The festival that proceeds from the temple produces a wave of good feeling that embraces even Aziz, the Moslem. It is also while the festival is going on that Aziz and Fielding are reconciled.

4. Does Forster present the Indians in a more favorable light than the British?
Any reader will be quick to notice the arrogance of the English in Chandrapore. They have convinced themselves that their presence is necessary for India, because they believe Indians are unable to lead themselves. In the English club, a kind of group-think prevails. The English always think the Indians are devious and act from some ulterior, usually unworthy, motive. For example, when Mrs. Moore tells Ronny that Aziz, whom she met in the mosque, had spoken ill of Major Callendar, Ronny says Aziz must have done this to impress her: "It's the educated native's latest dodge. They used to cringe, but the younger generation believe in a show of manly independence" (chapter 3). Habitually indulging in stereotyping, generalizations and condescension, the world of the English is a narrow one. It is no coincidence that the more attractive English characters are either the new arrivals, Adela and Mrs. Moore, who have not yet had time to assimilate the attitudes of their fellow countrymen and women, and Fielding, who thinks for himself and is not part of the Chandrapore establishment.

But the Indians are not presented as innocent victims or as a noble, oppressed people. They also indulge in generalizations and stereotyping of the English. For example, in chapter 2, Hamidullah tells Mahmoud Ali, of the Englishmen, "They all become exactly the same." As for Englishwomen, "All are exactly alike." The latter statement is later shown to be quite untrue, since Mrs. Moore and Adela are very different from Mrs. Turton and the other English ladies.

Of the other Indian characters, Aziz is hardly a hero. He has a habit of believing whatever he wants to believe. The excitable Mahmoud Ali always thinks the absolute worst of the English and is rendered ineffective by his hatred. His conduct at the trial only confirms English stereotypes of the way Indians behave.

The narrator sums up the failings of each side in chapter 31, when he says that the dominant Indian fault is suspicion, and the dominant Western fault is hypocrisy.

5. What is the significance of negation in the novel, with particular reference to the Marabar Caves?
The word "nothing" occurs frequently in A Passage to India, especially in Part 2, which deals with the Marabar Caves. The word does not appear by accident; it suggests an important aspect of Indian religious thought.

Central to Hinduism is the concept conveyed by the words "neti, neti," which means "not this, not this." The ultimate reality is beyond anything that can be known by the senses, mind or intellect. It is eternal, without form or attributes. It is beyond the subject-object distinction and cannot be known in the way that the things of the world are known. Anything that is said about it must be false, since it is beyond the realm of language. (In Western thought, this is known as the "via negativa," the negative way.) The ultimate reality is in this sense nothing, "no-thing," which yet contains the potential of all things.

A careful examination of the way the Marabar Caves are described clearly suggests this "neti, neti" dimension of Indian thought (although it does not exhaust the meanings of this potent symbol).

The Marabar Caves are renowned, and yet, curiously, there is very little to be said about them. In chapter 7, Adela tries to get some information from Professor Godbole about what the caves are like. But Godbole talks only about what they are not. When Adela prompts him, suggesting some attribute the caves must have, such as ornaments or sculptures, Godbole's refrain is "Oh no, oh no." He repeats this negation four times, in a clear parallel to "neti, neti."

Then Aziz asks Godbole to describe the caves, and he says it will be a pleasure, but no details are forthcoming. Aziz thinks Godbole is holding something back. Perhaps the caves are full of stalactites, but again, the answer is in the negative: "but no, they weren't."

Other descriptions of the caves emphasize their nothingness: "Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation-for they have one-does not depend on human speech" (Chapter 12). Later in the same chapter, the numerous caves that have never been unsealed are described as follows: "Nothing is inside them, they were sealed up before the creation of pestilence or treasure; if mankind grew curious and excavated, nothing, nothing would be added to the sum of good and evil" (chapter 12).

When the expedition reaches the caves, Aziz speaks of the Mogul Emperor Akbar, who tried to unite India: "Nothing embraces the whole of India, nothing, nothing, and that was Akbar's mistake." (chapter 14).

In each of these passages, it is striking how the word "nothing" is always used twice: "Nothing, nothing."

The fact that the caves have such an adverse effect on two of the English people, Adela and Mrs. Moore, suggests the strangeness of this idea of nothingness to the Western mind. For them, the "nothing" that is the caves is more like a frightening void than the infinite potential out of which all creation arises. It is yet another example of how the Western mind struggles and fails to understand the mysterious nature of India.