Gabrielle's Reviews > A Passage to India

A Passage to India by E.M. Forster
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bookshelves: uk, own-a-copy, classics, cultural-shock, read-in-2017, movie-fodder, reviewed

The more I explore E.M. Forster’s books, the more I come to realize that he was a man who held very unconventional views for his days. In “A Room with a View”, he discussed the independence of spirit of women, in “Howards’ End”, the subtle ways the class division separates people and in “A Passage to India”, he expresses very anti-colonialist views about what was once the jewel of the crown: British-occupied India.

Racial tensions and prejudices turn a misunderstanding into quite a drama. The portrait Forster paints of the British occupants is very far from flattering: they consider the natives to be inferior in every way, often can’t be bothered to be civil to them and easily blame them for anything not going as smoothly as they wished, even when they are very obviously the ones at fault. The Indians in turn view the English as untrustworthy – except of course for those who seek to emulate them in every way. These combined attitudes reinforce many levels of animosity between races, religions and castes. Loyalty and justice are not easily defined for those living in this strange setting, and this further muddles the water.

After just a few pages, I knew that Aziz would get himself in trouble: he is just too candid and honest to play the hypocritical social game required to stay on the good side of the British. No one directly accuses him of anything, but people assume right off the bat that he has done something wrong, that like all members of his race, he is deviant and has a natural inclination towards criminal activities. A strange series of event makes him look guiltier and brings to the surface a lot of anger and resentment that proper social behavior had simply concealed under the surface. And the end result of that is the amplification of the negative prejudices both sides have towards each other. It is so easy to say – out of innocent ignorance – something that will be interpreted as appalling to the other side, but if there is no sensible and open dialogue, there is no resolution.

Forster went to India twice, and wrote this book soon after returning to England. Obviously, the experience had not been a positive one, and the racist attitudes of his compatriots disgusted him. But the novel is not didactic: the complexity of the situation is described in great details, to really convey to the reader that no easy solution can reconcile the politics of colonialism and personal relationship between diverse groups. Tensions are unavoidable, as are disagreement, but without openness and compassion, the conflict will remain irreconcilable.

The cultural differences in this book feel impossible to overcome because of power dynamics, but it is interesting to note that the different groups of Indians are just as virulent in their opposition to each other as the British are towards them. I was worried at first that this would be a Rousseauist story about noble savages and big bad white dudes, but Forster does not idealize the Indians and demonize the British; he simply shows that all humans are flawed despite their best intentions. He also makes clear that some of his characters’ attitude do not come from ingrained prejudices, but from parroting the hateful nonsense spewed by their superiors. By simply emulating senior officers, Mr. Heaslop doesn’t have to think too much about his direct experience of India, but he unwittingly propagates the disdainful attitudes of the racists at the top.

I’m from a corner of the world where there is a linguistic divide: English-speakers and French-speakers have been (metaphorically and literally) at each other’s throat for about 300 years and despite the historical rearview mirror, people still feed each other’s prejudices by generalizing intolerant attitudes and accusing each other of cultural colonialism with the only result of driving a wedge between perfectly decent people who just can’t give up this idea of colonial oppression. “A Passage to India” echoed this strange contemporary dynamic, and also made me think of the racial profiling police forces can’t seem to help in the United-States. Some things are very hard to overcome, and institutionalized hatred is certainly one of them.

Forster’s humanist views are expressed with great sensibility and intelligence in all of his books. His prose is beautiful and takes you right to this exotic setting that you discover along with Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore. You will turn the last page and think about it for a long time. I gave it four stars simply because as interesting and well-written a book as it is, I did not enjoy it as much as “Howards End” or “A Room with a View”: maybe because the subject matter, while important, is a lot less pleasant, or maybe because I couldn’t get attached to any characters the way I did to Lucy or Margaret. In other words, this is a wonderful book that touched me less personally than Mr. Forster’s other works.
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Reading Progress

July 23, 2015 – Shelved
July 23, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: uk
September 1, 2016 – Shelved as: own-a-copy
May 3, 2017 – Shelved as: classics
May 3, 2017 – Shelved as: cultural-shock
July 21, 2017 – Started Reading
July 21, 2017 – Shelved as: read-in-2017
July 22, 2017 –
page 106
28.19%
July 24, 2017 –
page 199
52.93%
July 27, 2017 – Shelved as: movie-fodder
July 27, 2017 – Shelved as: reviewed
July 27, 2017 – Finished Reading

Comments Showing 1-9 of 9 (9 new)

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Julie Gabrielle,
Nice review. I was nodding my head when I read, "but the novel is not didactic." You are so right; that was something I felt while I was reading it. He remains impartial, and tells the story. He was so modern, so ahead of his time.


Gabrielle Julie wrote: "Gabrielle,
Nice review. I was nodding my head when I read, "but the novel is not didactic." You are so right; that was something I felt while I was reading it. He remains impartial, and tells the s..."


Thank you Julie! He really was ahead of the curve, wasn't he? I love that the final message is really simply that the only way out of conflict is to be kind.


message 3: by Christie (new) - added it

Christie This is a Forster I've been saving for myself to read so I won't run out (lol) but from the others I have read I think you have hit a lot of nails on the head. I tend to think that his homosexuality probably made it hard for him to see life in the same terms that everyone else in the day learned by rote from childhood. I'm straight so that is truly just a theory; it just seemed to make sense.


Gabrielle Christie wrote: "This is a Forster I've been saving for myself to read so I won't run out (lol) but from the others I have read I think you have hit a lot of nails on the head. I tend to think that his homosexualit..."

Thank you Christie! I agree that it probably gave him a much more compassionate outlook on people who are marginalized and ostracized. I am glad his experience did not make him bitter!


message 5: by Barry (new)

Barry Turner I come from a colonial background and lived in the Far East for many of my years. I assume it is drummed into people that the colonial masters are superior. As a child I didn't feel any intolerance towards locals, indeed relished childhood friendships.


Gabrielle Barry wrote: "I come from a colonial background and lived in the Far East for many of my years. I assume it is drummed into people that the colonial masters are superior. As a child I didn't feel any intolerance..."

I am very glad to read that! I think the condesending attitude comes from some sort of social conditioning; its nice to see that didn't get to you!


message 7: by Barry (new)

Barry Turner In fact I married an African lady and have a dual heritage child,


message 8: by Gerhard (new)

Gerhard Wonderful review. I heartily recommend 'Arctic Summer' by Damon Galgut a perfect companion piece elucidating the struggle that Forster distilled into this masterpiece.


Gabrielle Gerhard wrote: "Wonderful review. I heartily recommend 'Arctic Summer' by Damon Galgut a perfect companion piece elucidating the struggle that Forster distilled into this masterpiece."

Thank you Gerhard, I will look it up!


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