Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apropos of Nothing: Chance and Narrative in Forster's 'A Passage to India.' (E.M. Forster)

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Apropos of Nothing: Chance and Narrative in Forster's 'A Passage to India.' (E.M. Forster)

Article excerpt

"Passage to more than India!

Are thy wings plumed indeed for such far flights?

O soul, voyagest thou indeed on voyages like these?

Disportest thou on waters such as these?

Soundest below the Sanskrit and the Vedas?

Then have thy bent unleash'd."

Walt Whitman, "Passage to India"

India, without a doubt, made a profound impression on E. M. Forster. One of the things that most fascinated him about the country and its culture was the strange fusion of chaotic disorder and deep (if to him often baffling) spirituality he witnessed there. The Hindu Festival of Gokul Ashtami, for instance, which is recreated in the concluding section of A Passage to India, was one of the more memorable of Forster's Indian experiences. The eight-day celebration in honor of Krishna combined seemingly irrational activities with profound religious elements in a particularly wrought and intense way: "The frivolity, triviality goes on," he observed, "and every now and then it cracks ... and discloses depths." At one point in the ceremony he learned what the groups of worshippers were singing: "some praised God without attributes, others with attributes: the same mixture of fatuity and philosophy that ran through the whole festival."(1) When he came to write his Indian novel, Forster tried to find a narrative equivalent for this "mixture of fatuity and philosophy"--the peculiar combination of absurdly meaningless and transcendentally meaningful actions and events--that he observed in India.

The three sections of Forster's A Passage to India, "Mosque," "Caves," and "Temple," each represent a different aspect of Indian religious and cultural belief. Of course, more accurately, the three parts of the novel comprise different versions of an English writer's Western perspective on certain aspects of Indian culture. In this essay I want to characterize three different narrative modes Forster uses in relation to the three areas of Indian culture he considers in the novel, exploring the way he accommodates his subject matter and storytelling technique to the place, meaning, and philosophico-religious importance of Moslem mosque, pre-historic cave, and Hindu temple. In doing so, my emphasis will be not on India in its many aspects but instead on aspects of the novelist--that is, E. M. Forster's ideas about the sub-continent as they materialize in specific narrative practices. The storytelling techniques associated with the first two novelistic topoi are fairly conventional and exemplify a distinctively modernist narrative form; but as I hope to show, the "Temple" section of the novel is something else again, offering as it does an innovative version of the theory and practice of narrative in the British novel that strains the limits of modernist aesthetics. What distinguishes the narrative experiments of the third part of A Passage to India is its concern with the idea and importance of chance.

I.

The "Mosque" section of A Passage to India uses Moslem ideas of friendship and connection to thematize possible friendships and connections between the English and the Indians in the novel. The exceptional cross-racial intimacy of Dr. Aziz and Mrs. Moore, whose chance meeting in a moonlit mosque initiates the novel, as well as of Aziz and Cyril Fielding, are the signal instances of Part One's narrative method which proceeds, quite simply, by bringing characters together. Every chapter of this section stages a meeting or grouping of some kind, if not to dramatize the progress of Aziz's friendships then to make some comparison between East and West, usually at the expense of the Anglo-Indians. The so-called "Bridge Party" arranged for the new English visitors to India is the formal and institutional version of the "Mosque" section's effort to bring English and Indians together, and it is notable for its failure; genuine contact across racial and cultural barriers in Forster's novel takes place not in official convocations but in the informal and fragile tropisms of a cultivated friendship. …

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