Wednesday, December 17, 2014

A Passage to India

I have long wanted to read up on India, knowing that I have an appalling lack of real understanding of the country, region, its history, and the dynamics around that history.  A Passage to India by E.M. Forster has been on my shelf for years, but this year I put it on my TBR Pile Challenge list and hence read it.

After I finished it, I read up on its background on Wikipedia, and discovered that it is on many 100 Best Novels lists.  Midway through I might have argued with that, but the full experience of reading (or in my case, listening) this novel confirms its reputation.  Written in 1924, it is the last of Forster's novels, although Maurice was published posthumously in 1971, it was written in 1913-1914.

I like Forster's novels, having read A Room With a View several times and just finished Howard's End in November, right before I started A Passage to India.

So why is A Passage to India considered one of the best novels ever?  For starters, Forster is a master of clear, deep eloquence.  His works are a pleasure to read--their structure is taut and tends to be circular or perhaps more of a spiral.  There's a sense of completeness as the story folds back to the beginning, but with a difference in time and space and events.

Forster is brutal in his depiction of prejudice, stupidity, narrow-mindedness, and status quo.  He is also balanced.  For example, in A Passage to India, not all the English are boorishly stupid and arrogant, though a good many are.  Likewise, not all the Indians are good and decent people just trying to live their lives.  Some are spiteful, some are arrogant, some are prejudiced themselves.

What I found heartbreaking and real was Forster's depiction of the gulf between people, even when they try hard to find ways to bridge that gulf.  In the end though, friendship, real friendship can exist between members of different tribes, and it is that friendship that becomes the saving grace.  People may not truly understand each other's condition or mind, but trying to makes the difference.

So do I have a better handle on India having read A Passage to India?  A bit, I think.  Although I confess that I feel a bit like Miss Adela Quested herself--armchair traveling, trying to see the "real" India, but reading an Englishman's story about it.

The other thing I want to say about A Passage to India is that I think the whole story is allegorical with regards to the English experience in India.  I don't know whether Forster intended this or not (I would love to read some lit crit on him), but reading A Passage to India felt somewhat like reading A Pilgrim's Progress or Dante's Inferno.  The plot itself was just a device for the journey, the passage from the mosque to the caves to the temple.

I hope to watch the David Lean film from 1984 soon, which I've heard is great.


  1. Very interesting and astute review, Jane! I read this many years ago, in school, and although I don't remember it in a detailed manner, felt as if I revisited it today, here.

  2. I also read this many years ago, when I first discovered EM Forster via the film of A Room with a View (the Maggie Smith et al version) - and I can't remember it at all! You've made me think I need to re-read it - and Forster in general.

  3. This is one of my favorite books. I think that you were really on the target in regards to the allegorical elements here.

    I loved the metaphysical and existentialist musing throughout the work. I never made the connection to Pilgrims Progress but I think that you are correct about that and this is what Forster had in mind.

  4. Nicely written review, Jane. I haven't read any Forster just yet, and will only start with Howards End next year, but you have made me wanted to read this one too.

  5. E.M. Forster believed in "the secret understanding of the hearts" but sadly depicted how an attempt to overcome barriers and differences could end up in tragedy (Howard's End, Where's the Angels fear to tread, A Passagge to India). Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this great novel. It's always interesting to read your reviews, Jane.

  6. Beautiful review, getting right down to the essence as usual--the misunderstandings between people, the possibility of an allegorical reading of the whole thing. I left most of my comments over at Goodreads. :)