23 March 2017

Review: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

Trade paperback, 362 pages
Published 1984 (originally 1924)

Acquired June 2014
Read September 2014
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

I had actually never read any E. M. Forster before teaching this novel. There's a lot going on in it: it amazes me to think that anyone could have ever wondered if it was pro-British or pro-Indian, but maybe that's my modern anti-colonialist biases at work. (Though maybe as a feminist, I should believe the accusation.) The crux of the whole book is arguably the incident in the caves, but the alleged sexual assault is just one part of that. There's a weird break in the narration at that moment-- if there is a sexual assault, it occurs between pages, and that feels like a cheat designed to up the ambiguity, given how closely Forster renders point-of-view throughout the rest of the novel.

But is it a cheat? If there was a sexual assault, it's a very modernist move to indicate it through a break in narration: the trauma of the event would render it unthinkable and therefore unnarratable. (It's kind of like, but very different to, how Hardy handles the rape of Tess in Tess of the D'Urbervilles, which I taught in the same class.)

However, then the cheat becomes: if there wasn't a sexual assault, why is there a break in the narration? The answer to that, I would argue, lies earlier in the novel, where we are told, "Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence" (146). Like all moments where fiction tells you about what fiction does, you have to read this as indicative of what this work of fiction is or is not doing. According to A Passage to India, there are long passages of time where nothing happens, where the brain is lying if it indicates emotion was actually felt: "a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent" (146). So if nothing happened in the caves, of course there's a break in the narration, because if nothing is happening, the book must be silent since this book is a "perfectly adjusted organism," not an exaggerator like all those earlier works of fiction.

What is easy to overlook if you focus on the sexual assault, I think, is that there's another act of violence in the cave: Mrs. Moore's crisis of faith. Mrs. Moore struggles with what she thought were fundamentals of existence when she finally travels to a place where they are not true. India is older than anything in world (135), upsetting her beliefs in Britain and in Christianity, and the darkness of the cave shows how a whisper can be echoed to seem all-consuming (166). She thinks the cave is evil, but it turns out to just be that the cave amplifies what is brought into it; I never thought I'd make this comparison, but it's basically the cave from The Empire Strikes Back. In the end, she cannot write down what happened (165)-- it really was too traumatic for her. Later we are told that there is no sorrow like Mrs. Moore's sorrow, the experience of an utterly unprofound vision. When East meets West, Mrs. Moore accesses the modern condition and realizes how meaningless life is. Poor woman.

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