Modes of Visuality in E. M. Forsters "A Passage to India"

Essay 2014 7 Pages

Didactics - English - Literature, Works



Whoever tries to analyse Edward Morgan Forster's most enigmatic novel “A Passage to India” has to deal with difficulties that complicate every possible interpretation: The most important events of the narrative are actually untold . Justifying these gaps merely with Forster's “dislike of the prominence of a plot in a novel”[1] seems to be too easy, it rather seems that an analysis of these blank spaces opens up new possibilities for understanding the novel as a whole. Taking into account the importance of the gaps in the narrative, this essay examines how the author creates a world of misunderstanding by the use of shifting perspectives that first seem to produce meaning, but eventually merely emphasize that reality is always a matter of perception. A main focus of the essay are the mysterious events at the Marabar Caves that raise political tensions between the colonizer and the colonized. Taking into account that India is a place where not only race determines the hierarchy, but also gender, the role of Indian women in “A Passage to India” will be analysed as well. The conclusion summarises the important aspects and attempts to give an outlook on further questions that could be raised.

Modes of Visuality in „A Passage to India“

The first chapter of the novel starts with a bird's eye view on the landscape that seems to suggest an omniscient and neutral narrator. However, a close reading reveals that the fictional city Chandrapore, where a major part of the action takes place, is almost exclusively described with negations and negative attributes:

There are no bathing-steps on the river front, as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest.[2]

An invited guest would not be deterred by the filth, but the passage clearly suggests that the narrator is not invited at all. Readers get the impression that his perspective is more subjective than it first seems. Not later than in the second paragraph where the narrator remarks that “[h]ouses belonging to Eurasians stand on the high ground”[3], it gets clear that he takes a superior position. The view from the top symbolizes the basic situation of the novel: The British Empire looks down on India, Anglo-Indians rule the country but will never feel at home or understand the racial Other , a term from post-colonial theory that perfectly describes how the Anglo-Indians in the narrative see the original inhabitants of India.

One of the protagonists at least tries to find out more about the foreign country: Adela Quested arrives in Chandrapore in order to decide whether she wants to marry her fiancé, city magistrate Ronny Heaslop. She travels with his mother, the elderly Mrs Moore. It soon becomes clear that the two women are bored by all the tea parties in the Anglo-Indian community and want to see „the real India“.[4] Adela Quested looks for a quest that gives a new meaning to her travel to India, since her connection to Ronny turns out not to be as strong as she thought before. She is in search of a general truth about India that is not shaped by her perspective.[5] In order to fulfil Adela's wish, the well-educated Indian doctor Aziz takes her and Mrs Moore to an expedition to the Marabar Caves, even though he has not seen them himself before. It is common sense between the Indians in the novel that the Caves are an important landmark near Chandrapore, but no matter who tries to describe what is so special about them, he has to fail.

The narrator's very first sentence also suggests that the Caves should be the perfect setting for the climax of the novel: “Except for the Marabar Caves – and they are twenty-miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”[6] Note the use of negation – nothing and except – that readers find not only in this sentence, but throughout the whole novel. However, even though the narrator labels the Caves as “extraordinary” in the beginning, he seems to contradict his earlier statement in the twelfth chapter when he describes the experience a visitor gets from exploring the Caves:

Having seen one such cave, having seen two, having seen three, four, fourteen, twenty-four, the visitor returns to Chandrapore uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all. He finds it difficult to discuss the caves, or to keep them apart in his mind, for the pattern never varies, and no carving, not even a bees' nest or a bat, distinguishes from one another. Nothing, nothing attaches to them, and their reputation – for they have one – does not depend upon human speech.[7]

The Caves are indeed “extraordinary”, but not in a way a human being could understand. They can only be described “in terms of negation” since they “absolutely resist signification”[8], as Timothy Christensen points out in his essay. Hence, they could never fulfil Adela's desire to understand India. Her breakdown in the Marabar Caves symbolizes the fact that a general truth is not accessible and reality is always a matter of perception – a fundamental critique on the reality paradigm of the British Empire.

Consequentially, Forster often uses internal variable focalization in order to reveal the characters' thoughts and prejudices, which means that representation is usually bound to one of the character's perspectives in the novel. Dialogues take turns with passages of free indirect discourse. The perspective multiplicity emphasizes the fact that the character's prejudices against the unknown culture lead to a whole series of misunderstandings: Story and discourse are wonderfully interwoven here. One of many examples can be found when Adela continues the expedition at the Marabar Caves with Aziz alone while the elderly Mrs Moore is taking a rest:

What a handsome little Oriental he was, and no doubt his wife and children were beautiful too, for people usually get what they already possess. She did not admire him with any personal warmth, for there was nothing of the vagrant in her blood, but she guessed he might attract women of his own race and rank [...] Probably this man had several wives – Mohammedans always insist on their full four, according to Mrs Turton.[9]

Adela is interested in the foreign culture, but her perspective is shaped by prejudices. Her superficial view on the racial Other recognises Aziz's handsomeness, but totally ignores his intellectual skills.[10] When Adela asks him whether he has more than one wife, he is shocked by her impudence and jumps into one of the caves alone. Adela, uncertain what to do, goes into another one.

Interestingly enough, the narrator does not provide any information about Adela's actual experience in the cave. Since most of the narrative is told from a character's perspective and Adela's senses are lost in the dark, there is nothing to be told here. Her loss of sight is dramatized through the loss of her field-glasses, and the echo that remains the same no matter what one shouts into the cave emphasizes the lack of meaning. The nothingness of the Marabar Caves, the holes where everything is absent symbolize the gaps in Forster's narrative. Even after Adela reports to the British authorities that Aziz, the embodiment of the racial Other, tried to assault her in the dark, readers have to guess what the charge really is about. The word “rape” seems to be an unsayable one which is never mentioned at all, the events in the cave are at the most referred to as an “insult”[11], so the reader is confronted with another gap.


[1] Sinyard, Neil: “'Lids tend to come off': David Lean's film of E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.“ The Classic Novel: From Page to Screen. Ed. Robert Giddings and Erica Sheen. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, pp. 147-162, here: p. 152.

[2] Forster, Edward Morgan: A Passage to India . London: Penguin, 2005, p. 5.

[3] Ibid., p. 5.

[4] Ibid., p. 23.

[5] Compare with Christensen, Timothy: “Bearing the White Man's Burden: Misrecognition and Cultural Difference in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction . 39.2 (Spring 2006): pp. 155-178, here: p. 121.

[6] Forster., p. 5.

[7] Ibid., p. 116.

[8] Christensen, p. 125.

[9] Forster, p. 143.

[10] Many critics suggest a sexual reading of the scene in the Marabar Caves: Adela feels unsatisfied with Ronny and unconsciously desires the „handsome“ racial Other.. Irrespective of how plausible that interpretation is, it seems less important to ask why Adela raises such a charge than what political tensions follow from it.

[11] Forster, p. 152, 157.


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Title: Modes of Visuality in E. M. Forsters "A Passage to India"