History of Literature

E. M. Forster


E. M. Forster



E. M. Forster

born Jan. 1, 1879, London
died June 7, 1970, Coventry, Warwickshire, Eng.

British novelist, essayist, and social and literary critic. His fame rests largely on his novels Howards End (1910) and A Passage to India (1924) and on a large body of criticism.

Forster’s father, an architect, died when the son was a baby, and he was brought up by his mother and paternal aunts. The difference between the two families, his father’s being strongly evangelical with a high sense of moral responsibility, his mother’s more feckless and generous-minded, gave him an enduring insight into the nature of domestic tensions, while his education as a dayboy (day student) at Tonbridge School, Kent, was responsible for many of his later criticisms of the English public school (private) system. At King’s College, Cambridge, he enjoyed a sense of liberation. For the first time he was free to follow his own intellectual inclinations; and he gained a sense of the uniqueness of the individual, of the healthiness of moderate skepticism, and of the importance of Mediterranean civilization as a counterbalance to the more straitlaced attitudes of northern European countries.

On leaving Cambridge, Forster decided to devote his life to writing. His first novels and short stories were redolent of an age that was shaking off the shackles of Victorianism. While adopting certain themes (the importance of women in their own right, for example) from earlier English novelists such as George Meredith, he broke with the elaborations and intricacies favoured in the late 19th century and wrote in a freer, more colloquial style. From the first his novels included a strong strain of social comment, based on acute observation of middle-class life. There was also a deeper concern, however, a belief, associated with Forster’s interest in Mediterranean “paganism,” that, if men and women were to achieve a satisfactory life, they needed to keep contact with the earth and to cultivate their imaginations. In an early novel, The Longest Journey (1907), he suggested that cultivation of either in isolation is not enough, reliance on the earth alone leading to a genial brutishness and exaggerated development of imagination undermining the individual’s sense of reality.

The same theme runs through Howards End, a more ambitious novel that brought Forster his first major success. The novel is conceived in terms of an alliance between the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen, who embody the liberal imagination at its best, and Ruth Wilcox, the owner of the house Howards End, which has remained close to the earth for generations; spiritually they recognize a kinship against the values of Henry Wilcox and his children, who conceive life mainly in terms of commerce. In a symbolic ending, Margaret Schlegel marries Henry Wilcox and brings him back, a broken man, to Howards End, reestablishing there a link (however heavily threatened by the forces of progress around it) between the imagination and the earth.

The resolution is a precarious one, and World War I was to undermine it still further. Forster spent three wartime years in Alexandria, doing civilian war work, and visited India twice, in 1912–13 and 1921. When he returned to former themes in his postwar novel A Passage to India, they presented themselves in a negative form: against the vaster scale of India, in which the earth itself seems alien, a resolution between it and the imagination could appear as almost impossible to achieve. Only Adela Quested, the young girl who is most open to experience, can glimpse their possible concord, and then only momentarily, in the courtroom during the trial at which she is the central witness. Much of the novel is devoted to less spectacular values: those of seriousness and truthfulness (represented here by the administrator Fielding) and of an outgoing and benevolent sensibility (embodied in the English visitor Mrs. Moore). Neither Fielding nor Mrs. Moore is totally successful; neither totally fails. The novel ends in an uneasy equilibrium. Immediate reconciliation between Indians and British is ruled out, but the further possibilities inherent in Adela’s experience, along with the surrounding uncertainties, are echoed in the ritual birth of the God of Love amid scenes of confusion at a Hindu festival.

The values of truthfulness and kindness dominate Forster’s later thinking. A reconciliation of humanity to the earth and its own imagination may be the ultimate ideal, but Forster sees it receding in a civilization devoting itself more and more to technological progress. The values of common sense, goodwill, and regard for the individual, on the other hand, can still be cultivated, and these underlie Forster’s later pleas for more liberal attitudes. During World War II he acquired a position of particular respect as a man who had never been seduced by totalitarianisms of any kind and whose belief in personal relationships and the simple decencies seemed to embody some of the common values behind the fight against Nazism and Fascism. In 1946 his old college gave him an honorary fellowship, which enabled him to make his home in Cambridge and to keep in communication with both old and young until his death.

Although the later Forster is an important figure in mid-20th-century culture, his emphasis on a kindly, uncommitted, and understated morality being congenial to many of his contemporaries, it is by his novels that he is more likely to be remembered, and these are best seen in the context of the preceding Romantic tradition. The novels sustain the cult of the heart’s affections that was central to that tradition, but they also share with the first Romantics a concern for the status of man in nature and for his imaginative life, a concern that remains important to an age that has turned against other aspects of Romanticism.

In addition to essays, short stories, and novels, Forster wrote a biography of his great-aunt, Marianne Thornton (1956); a documentary account of his Indian experiences, The Hill of Devi (1953); and Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922; new ed., 1961). Maurice, a novel with a homosexual theme, was published posthumously in 1971 but written many years earlier.

John Bernard Beer




Type of work: Novel
Author: E. M. Forster (1879-1970)
Type of plot: Social criticism
Time of plot: About 1920
Locale: India
First published: 1924

A Passage to India can be read on two levels: political and mystic. Politically it deals with the tension between the British and the native Indians, as well as with the tension between Hindus and Muslims. Mystically it is concerned with the search for the infinite and eternal so characteristic of Oriental religion, and with the illogical and inexplicable in human life. The visit to the Marabar Caves illustrates the malignant side of mysticism, the Temple-Festival at the close, its benignity. Forster divides the novel into three sections which correspond to the three seasons of the Indian year: the Cold Weather, the Hot Weather, and the Rains.


Principal Characters

Dr. Aziz (a-zez'), an amiable, sensitive, and intelligent young Muslim doctor in Chandrapore, India. Ignored and snubbed by the English colony, he nevertheless becomes friendly with three English newcomers to India— Mr. Fielding, Mrs. Moore, and Miss Quested. When he takes them on a tour of the sinister Marabar Caves, Miss Quested becomes separated from the party and later she accuses him of attempted rape. Jailed and humiliated, he becomes markedly anti-British. After Miss Quested withdraws her charge at his trial, he wants to collect damages, but Fielding dissuades him. Suspicious of Fielding's motives, he breaks off the friendship. Two years later the two men meet again and each realizes that any true communion between them is impossible because of their racial differences.
Cecil Fielding, the principal of the government college, a middle-aged, maverick intellectual who resists the herd instinct of his fellow Englishmen. He has Indian friends; he defends Aziz against the English bigots, and when Miss Quested is ostracized after the trial he offers her the protection of his home. Tired of the whole situation, he takes a trip to England, marries, and then returns to India, where he finds Aziz less cordial than before.
Adela Quested, the priggish young woman who goes to India to marry Ronald Heaslop, the City Magistrate; she announces that she is eager to see the real India. Her trip to the Marabar Caves proves disastrous. Thinking that she has been the victim of an attempted attack, she accuses Aziz; however, she shows courage by retracting the charge at his trial. The scandal ruins her prospective marriage and causes her to be avoided by almost everyone. She returns to England alone.
Mrs. Moore, Ronald Heaslop's mother, a lovely, sensitive old woman who accompanies Miss Quested to India. She has great regard for Dr. Aziz, but at the Marabar Caves she has a strange psychic experience, an unhappy intuition that life is worthless. When she irritably defends Dr. Aziz to her son, he sends her home and she dies on the way.
Ronald Heaslop, the self-righteous city magistrate, a man coarsened by life in India. Wishing his mother and fiancee to have nothing to do with the natives, he finds himself in a position where he must reject both to preserve his own standards and vanity.
Professor Godbole, a gentle old teacher at the college, a friend of Dr. Aziz and Fielding. He represents the Hindu mystical aspects of India as opposed to the narrower nationalisms of the Muslims and British.
The Nawab Bahadur, a wealthy Muslim who, acting as an unofficial diplomat between the Muslims and English, does favors for the whites. When Dr. Aziz is tried, he rejects the British.
Hamidullah, Dr. Aziz' well-to-do, Anglophobic uncle, a Cambridge barrister who conducts his nephew's defense.
Mahmoud AH, a family friend of Hamidullah and Dr. Aziz. Cynical and embittered toward the English, he makes an emotional, histronic defense of Dr. Aziz at the trial.
Mohammed Latif, a poor, sneaky relative of Hamidullah and Aziz.
Major Callendar, the civil surgeon, Dr. Aziz's brutal superior, who believes that "white is right."
Mr. Turton, a white official who is willing to extend courtesy to the native and nothing more; a man who has succumbed to power and race snobbery.
Mrs. Turton, his haughty wife, who comforts Adela Quested after the incident at the Marabar Caves.
Mr. McBryde, the chief of police, an intelligent man who treats Dr. Aziz decently but at the same time supervises the prosecution. He is provincial in his attitudes.
Miss Derek, a selfish young woman who takes advantage of her Indian employers.
Amritrao, Dr. Aziz' defense lawyer, imported from Calcutta, who gets Miss Quested to withdraw her charges.
Mr. Das, Heaslop's subordinate, the judge at the trial, a Hindu who later becomes friendly with Dr. Aziz.
Ralph Moore, Mrs. Moore's odd son, a boy who finally gets Cecil Fielding and Dr. Aziz together again.
Stella Moore, Mrs. Moore's daughter, a sensitive girl who marries Cecil Fielding.


The Story

Dr. Aziz had been doubly snubbed that evening. He had been summoned to the civil surgeon's house while he was at supper, but when he arrived, he found that his superior had departed for his club without bothering to leave any message. In addition, two Englishwomen emerged from the house and took their departure in the hired tonga without even thanking him.
The doctor started back toward the city of Chandrapore afoot. Tired, he stopped at a mosque to rest and was furiously angry when he saw a third Englishwoman emerge from behind its pillars with, as he thought, her shoes on. Mrs. Moore, however, had gone barefoot to the mosque, and in a surge of friendly feelings, Dr. Aziz engaged her in conversation.
Mrs. Moore had newly arrived from England to visit her son, Ronald Heaslop, the City Magistrate. Dr. Aziz found they had common ground when he learned that she did not care for the civil surgeon's wife. Her disclosure prompted him to tell of the usurpation of his carriage. The doctor walked back to the club with her, although as an Indian, he himself could not be admitted.
At the club, Adela Quested, Heaslop's prospective fiancee, declared she wanted to see the real India, not the India which came to her through the rarified atmosphere of the British colony. To please the ladies, one of the members offered to hold what he whimsically termed a bridge party and to invite some native guests.
The bridge party was a miserable affair. The Indians retreated to one side of a lawn and although the conspicuously reluctant group of Anglo-Indian ladies went over to visit the natives, an awkward tension prevailed.
There was, however, one promising result of the party. The principal of the Government College, Mr. Fielding, a man who apparently felt neither rancor nor arrogance toward the Indians, invited Mrs. Moore and Adela to a tea at his house. Upon Adela's request, Mr. Fielding also invited Professor Godbole, a teacher at his school, and Dr. Aziz.
At the tea, Dr. Aziz charmed Fielding and the guests with the elegance and fine intensity of his manner. The gathering, however, broke up on a discordant note when the priggish and suspicious Heaslop arrived to claim the ladies. Fielding had taken Mrs. Moore on a tour of his school, and Heaslop was furious at him for having left Dr. Aziz alone with his prospective fiancee.
Adela was irritated by Heaslop's callous priggishness during her visit and informed him that she did not wish to become his wife; but before the evening was over, she changed her mind. In the course of a drive into the Indian countryside, a mysterious figure, perhaps an animal, loomed out of the darkness and nearly upset the car in which they were riding. Their mutual loneliness and a sense of the unknown drew them together, and Adela asked Heaslop to disregard her earlier rejection.
The one extraordinary aspect of the city of Chandra-pore was a phenomenon of nature known as the Marabar Caves, located several miles outside the city. Mrs. Moore and Adela accepted the offer of Dr. Aziz to escort them to the caves; but the visit proved catastrophic for all. Entering one of the caves, Mrs. Moore realized that no matter what was said, the walls returned only a prolonged booming, hollow echo. Pondering that echo while she rested, and pondering the distance that separated her from Dr. Aziz, from Adela, and from her own children, Mrs. Moore saw that all her Christianity, all her ideas of moral good and bad, in short, all her ideas of life, amounted only to what was made of them by the hollow, booming echo of the Marabar Caves.
Adela entered one of the caves alone. A few minutes later she rushed out in a terrified state and claimed that she had been nearly attacked in the gloom. She also claimed that Dr. Aziz was the attacker, and the doctor was arrested.
There always had been a clear division between the natives and the Anglo-Indian community, but as the trial of Dr. Aziz drew nearer, the temper of each group demanded strict loyalty. When Mrs. Moore casually intimated to her son that she was perfectly certain Dr. Aziz was not capable of the alleged crime, he had her shipped off to a coastal port of embarkation at once, and when Fielding expressed an identical opinion at the club, he was promptly ostracized.
The tension that marked the opening of the trial had a strange resolution. The first sensational incident occurred when one of Dr. Aziz's friends pushed into the courtroom and shouted that Heaslop had smuggled his mother out of the country because she would have testified to the doctor's innocence. When the restless body of Indian spectators heard the name of Mrs. Moore, they worked it into a kind of chant, as though she had become a deity. The English colony was not to learn until later that Mrs. Moore had already died aboard ship.
The second incident concluded the trial. It was Adela's testimony. The effects of the tense atmosphere of the courtroom, the reiteration of Mrs. Moore's name, and the continued presence of a buzzing sound in her ears that had persisted since the time she left the caves, combined to produce a trancelike effect upon Adela. She virtually relived the whole of the crucial day as she recollected its events under the interrogation of the prosecuting attorney. When she reached the moment of her lingering in the cave, she faltered, dramatically changed her mind, and withdrew all charges.
Chandrapore was at once and for several hours thereafter a great bedlam. Anglo-India sulked while India exulted. So far as Anglo-India was concerned, Adela had crossed the line. Heaslop carefully explained that he could no longer be associated with her. After accepting Fielding's hospitality for a few weeks, she returned home. Despite Dr. Aziz's increased anglophobia, Fielding persuaded him not to press Adela for legal damages.
Two years later, the Muslim Dr. Aziz was court physician to an aged Hindu potentate who died on the night of the Krishna Festival. The feast was a frantic celebration, and the whole town was under its spell when Fielding arrived on an official visit. During the two years he had married again, and Dr. Aziz, assuming he had married Adela Quested, tried to avoid his old friend. When he ran into him accidentally, however, he found out it was Mrs. Moore's daughter, Stella, whom Fielding had married. The doctor's shame at his mistake only caused him to become more distant.
Before they parted for the last time, Dr. Aziz and Fielding went riding through the jungles. The misunderstanding between them had now been resolved, but they had no social ground on which to meet. Fielding had cast his lot with his countrymen by marrying an Englishwoman. The rocks that suddenly loomed before them, forcing their horses to pass in single file on either side, were symbolic of the different paths they would travel from that time on. The affection of two men, however sincere, was not sufficient to bridge the gap between their races.

Critical Evaluation

E. M. Forster was a member of the intellectually select Bloomsbury group, which flourished in London just before and after World War I. Educated at Cambridge, as were many of the group, Forster became one of England's leading novelists during the prewar Edwardian period. In the Bloomsbury group, his friends included Lytton Strachey, a biographer; Virginia Woolf, a novelist; Clive Bell, an art critic; Roger Fry, a painter; John Maynard Keynes, an economist; and G. E. Moore, the philosopher. The group rejected convention and authority, placing great faith in its own intellect and good taste. Forster wrote several good novels between 1905 and 1910: Where Angels Fear to Tread, The Longest Journey, A Room with a View, and Howards End. After a hiatus of fourteen years, he published A Passage to India in 1924. No other novels were published during his lifetime. A posthumous novel, Maurice, was published in 1970. Forster once confessed that he did not understand the post-World War I values and had nothing more to say. A Passage to India, however, belies this statement; it is a novel for all seasons, which is underlined by the fact that a major motion picture was made in 1984 based on the novel.
Forster's title comes from the Whitman poem by the same name. This choice is ultimately ironic, for Whitman's vision is of the total unity of all people. In the novel, the attempt to unite people fails at all levels.
The book is divided into three sections: Mosque, Cave, Temple. These divisions correspond to the three divisions of the Indian year: cool spring, hot summer, wet monsoon. Each section is dominated by its concomitant weather. Each section also focuses on one of the three ethnic groups involved: Muslim, Anglo-Indian, Hindu. The Cave could also be called "The Club." Just as the Mosque and the Temple are the Muslim and Hindu shrines, so is the Club the true Anglo-Indian shrine. Forster, however, is not writing a religious novel. He realizes that religious-ethnic divisions control social modes of activity. The Muslims are emotional; the British rely on intellect. Only the Hindus, in the person of Godbole, have the capacity to love.
The novel is not merely a social or political commentary. Forster belittles social forms on all sides of the conflict. He favors neither Indians nor British. The bridge party, Fielding's tea party, and Aziz's cave party are all failures. More important than social forms are the relationships among individuals. The novel's theme is the search for love and friendship. It is primarily the male-male relationships that have the capacity for mutual understanding, and it is the male characters that are most clearly defined. The females, Mrs. Moore and Adela Quested, have no real possibility of finding friendship across ethnic lines. Mrs. Moore is too old; Adela is too British. Both women want to see the "real" India, but they are unprepared for it when the experience comes. Mrs. Moore, at the mosque and the first cave, Adela, at the cave and the courtroom, discover the real India, and both suffer an almost catatonic withdrawal.
The male characters are more complex. With his Muslim sensitivity, Aziz is determined to find humiliation no matter what the experience. He tries to be both physician and poet—healer of body and soul, but he is inept at both attempts. In the last section, readers see him abandoning both. More than a type, Aziz needs love and friendship. Ultimately he is incapable of establishing a satisfying relationship among his own people, with the Hindus, or, more important, with Cecil Fielding. Muslim sensitivity prevents him from accepting friendship when it is offered.
Out of the multiple failures of the first two sections of the novel there is only the relationship between Aziz and Fielding that holds any promise of reconciliation. Muslim and Anglo-Indian, they meet in the final section in the Hindu province. Both men desire friendship and understanding, but it is too late. In the final scene, the very land seems to separate them; they are not in tune with nature, which is renewing itself in the monsoon downpour. Neither man has come to accept the irrational. They are not ready, in the Hindu sense of love, to accept things as they are. Only Godbole, a Hindu, can accept India and her people for what they are. The nothingness of the caves and the apparent chaos of the people do not disturb the Hindu.
The most crucial scene in A Passage to India is the visit to the Marabar Caves. These caves puzzle and terrify both Muslims and Anglo-Indians and form the center of the novel. Only Godbole instinctively understands them. The Hindus possessed India before either Muslims or British. The caves are also elemental; they have been there from the beginnings of the earth. They are not Hindu holy places, but Godbole can respect them without fear. Cave worship is the cult of the female principle, the Sacred Womb, Mother Earth. The Marabar Caves, both womb and grave, demand total effacing of ego. The individual loses his identity; whatever is said returns to him as Ommm, the holy word.
The caves are terrifying and chaotic to those who rely on the intellect. The trip itself emphasizes the chaos that is India. Godbole can eat no meat; Aziz can eat no pork; the British must have their whiskey and port. The confusion of the departure epitomizes the confusion that pervades the novel. Significantly it is Godbole, the one man who might have helped, who is left out. Once in the caves, the party encounters the Nothingness that terrifies. Only Mrs. Moore seems to accept it on a limited scale, but the caves have reduced her will to live. She retreats from the world of experience; nothing matters anymore. She has come to India seeking peace; she finds it in death. Ironically, as her body is being lowered into the Indian Ocean, she is being mythified into the cult of Emiss Emoore.
The conclusion of the novel emphasizes the chaos of India, but it also hints at a pattern that the outsider, Muslims or British, cannot understand. The last chapters portray the rebirth of the God Shri Krishna. It is the recycling of the seasons, the rebirth and renewal of the earth which signals the renewal of the Hindu religious cycle. Godbole shows that man may choose to accept and participate in the seeming chaos, or he can fight against it. Man, however, must be in tune with the natural rhythms of the universe in order to receive true love and friendship. One must accept. Neither Fielding nor Aziz, products of Western civilization, can accept the confusion without attempting to impose order. They still rely on the rational. Although they have moved toward the irrational in the course of the novel, they have not moved far enough.



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