Friday 26 July 2013

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”

Sometime in the early 1900's, a young English woman named Adela Quested arrives in India
accompanied by the elderly Mrs. Moore with the the prospect of marrying her son, a government official stationed at Chandrapore. Adela has a romanticized idea of the East only to be severely disappointed upon discovering that the British Raj is a painfully dull place without any excitement. She longs to see "the real India" but her circle of European colonizers find her request oddly amusing since they perceive the natives with racist and discriminatory attitudes. They cannot fathom why a rich young woman is at all interested in associating herself with primitives rather than forming relationships with her own people: "Why, the kindest thing one can do to a native is to let him die," said Mrs. Callendar (27). This is just one of the many derogatory remarks aimed at Indians and their culture throughout the novel. The only people other than Miss Quested who are more open minded about British-Indian relations is Mrs. Moore and Mr. Fielding--the latter being one of the more important figures in the story who rejects British imperialism on account of defending his Indian friend, a doctor named Aziz who is convicted of sexually assaulting Adela during an excursion up in the Marabar caves. This causes the racial tensions to escalate even more dramatically. The British are quick to believe that the India man is guilty because of course, he's an uncivilized minority and it is in his nature to act immorally towards women. Aziz is given the due process of law but something unexpected occurs during the trial that radically disrupts British authority in India. 

Certainly, one could do a close-reading and examine the precarious relationship between east and west, social hierarchy, the emergence of nationalism or even gender (especially in relation to the Indian "purdah" where women are not allowed to be seen in the presence of men during social situations) but that seems unnecessary for me to do considering my aversion to this novel.

A Passage to India has so much potential to achieve greatness but fails to deliver an engaging story with convincing characters; the depiction of colonialism is oversimplified; the narrative takes many nonsensical digressions and Forster gets far too carried away with his excessively pompous style of prose. Many claim that his writing is poetic but I find it downright obnoxious and annoying. Enough already with the colorful descriptions of the hot weather and the landscape. Yes, India is known for its sweltering temperatures, we get it. You made that painfully clear the first twenty-seven times, Mr. Forster. Not to mention, a lot of the narrative is confusing or incoherent because he is keen to bombard to reader with an onslaught of extraneous details (sometimes stretching for several pages), which makes the story such an incredible chore to get through. Talk about a snore-fest.

Perhaps this novel created some controversy when it was published in 1924 since Forster is fairly critical of British imperialism but it seems severely dated. Its status as one of the great novels of the 20th century and high praise from many readers is baffling to me.
Forster's writing is priggish and dull. Sure, there are brief moments of insight or beauty but not enough to sustain the entire narrative. After being disappointed with Howards End and now this one, I have no intention of reading anything else by E.M. Forster in the near future.

This novel is part of my Classics Club Challenge.


  1. "Priggish and dull"? Hmmmm... Yes, there are different opinions, and rightly so. But honestly, in a novel, I would expect "many nonsensical digressions". Forster is one of the great masters of rhythm in fiction. He's written about it in his _Aspects of the Novel_. And in _A Passage to India_ you have the music, the chanting, the sound of the railtrack and the echo in the caves as well as the echo of the crowd during in the law court... plus, of course, the rhythm of symbols (like the bee/wasp). Well, anyway, if you want to read a text that is faster, directly to the point, without any detours (by the way, I think Novelis came up with the "Verwirrungsrecht des Autors"--a beautiful thing), I would recommend you to read Forster's short stories (e.g. "The Celestial Omnibus", "The Classical Annex", "Little Imber"). To people who miss a certain freshness in Forster, the standard recommendation is to read the novel _The Longest Journey_. This is also the novel, that Forster himself liked the most, that was getting closest to what he wanted to achieve... So, reconsider giving Forster another chance. :-)

  2. He's just not an author that I seem to be on the same wavelength with and his literary aesthetics just irk me. Perhaps "priggish" is a bit harsh but I can't help but feel that his tone is often self-righteous; his writing bloated and yes, incessantly dull. I honestly didn't find his use of rhythm or cadence of language to be the least bit memorable as you describe.

    Now that you mention it, I would probably enjoy his short-stories a lot more than his novel which tend to be overlong. I could handle him in small doses.

    Thanks for commenting Horatio. It is always good to consider opposing viewpoints.

  3. Hi Jason, I just finished A Passage to India, and I always try to compare a couple reviews. I didn't love it, but clearly didn't dislike it as much as you. I can relate to that though. There are other novels that everyone loves...that I just don't see it. Sometimes (not always) I think it's just the emporer's new clothes. Anyway...a good honest review. Cheers.
    My own review:

    1. Sorry, I missed your comments on this one Joseph. This novel just rubbed me the wrong way and just wasn't for me. "The emporer's new clothes" is a great idiom to describe my experience with a lot of classics as well. Wuthering Heights is another one that comes to mind.

      I'll be sure to check out your review, thanks.

  4. I have recently discover E.M. Forester so was interested to read your review. I agree with much of what you said. Although I didn't like his way of making everyone so one dimensionally unlikeable. He also didn't believe that anyone could ever really care of love another. Everyone's relationship's fall flat as a result. My own review is:
    Incidentally, critics site the fact the Forster had never even been to India so his account is based on hearsay. A more accurate depiction is by George Orwell in Burmese Days (which I also reviewed). However, I have to agree with you that both novels are a bit dated. That kind of blatant in your face racism isn't really allowed to exist anymore.

    1. Hello Sharon, thank you for stopping by. One-dimensional and characters, yes! I don't necessarily think it is important for great novels to always boast sympathetic characters but at least make them interesting. Not only the characters but every other aspect of this novel was just dull to me.

      Interesting tidbit about Forster never actually going over to India. It might help to explain the lack of verisimilitude along with the English imperialistic tone of the novel. Some authors are able deal with the complex issues of race in a profound way by showing both sides of the coin so to speak (Toni Morrison, James Baldwin, Richard Wright) but others like Forster come across as too narrow-minded in their views.

      I sure do like Orwell (Animal Farm along with many of his essays are fantastic) and might have to check out Burmese Days. Thanks for the recommendation.

      You have a great blog and consider me a new follower. :)