"But the crisis was still to come."
--E. M. Forster, A Passage To India
A Passage To India is a novel about moments, those both historical and topical, within which the immediate context of an utterance develops meaning and power. As an historical novel, Passage is mired in and defined by competing voices concerning the British Empire at the end of the nineteenth century. In 1924, when Passage was published, the imperial situation in India was at best "irreconcilable" and at worst ignitable.(1) E. M. Forster positioned himself as a kind of humanist barometer between points East and West, predicting and at times cautioning against British ignorance and pretentiousness as the imperial machine faced mounting threats of insurrection among the colonies. Forster viewed Britain's audacious political stance as emblematic of its ongoing blindness toward this tension. In various essays written around the time of publication of A Passage To India, Forster frequently characterized Britain's attitude toward its struggling colonies as pedantic and dangerous; in Salute To The Orient.! Forster suggested, for example, that Britain's imperial motto was akin to "Johnny'd rather have us than anyone else" when in fact "Johnny'd like to see the death of the lot," according to Forster (Abinger Harvest 269).(2)
Despite his sardonic commentaries on Anglo-India, there was nothing glib about the depths to which these divisive events affected the author personally. India reflected more than Forster's own past: Forster's life in India was integral to his literary and private personae. A Passage To India is, in consequence, part and parcel of his attempt to articulate conflicts raging among nations and civilizations while perpetuating the collective ethos of Anglo-India in the 1920s. The crux of Forster's effort is an interrogation of hegemonic rhetoric; Passage is an attempt both to criticize and, more covertly, to stifle the authoritative voice of British rule. Forster achieves his profound critique of imperial rhetoric subtly through a tender exploration of cross-cultural friendship, and overtly through an imperial legal crisis precipitated by the intangible experiences of the newly-arrived Briton, Adela Quested. It is this civic crisis,(3) fueled by Adela Quested's gender and nationality, that is the catalyst for anti-imperial consciousness between the novel's male protagonists, Cyril Fielding and Dr. Aziz.
In A Passage to India Adela Quested, described by the narrator as a "priggish" New Woman driven by personal/marital and cultural/national identity crises to "see the real India," becomes a vehicle of linguistic, legalistic, and eventually cultural subversion (A Passage To India 22).(4) From the moment that Adela is retrieved from the Marabar hills after her unsettling ordeal there, the official narrative of guilt begins to form within the British camp. It is clear from the outset that gender is to be their rallying point. For instance, the truth, as Fielding Sees it, is immediately waylaid by the Englishmen at the Club "speaking of `women and children'--that phrase that exempts the male from sanity when it has been repeated a few times" (184). Thus upon Dr. Aziz's return to Chandrapore from the Marabar the British have already devised an emotionally charged story of what happened based upon sketchy reports from Adela.
The reliability of Adela's memory is questioned by Fielding and, accordingly, by the reader. Yet despite Adela's apparent infirmity, the British act on the assumption that their account of the events is true. I want to focus here on the significance of the fact that in the end Adela does not comply with this contrived official story. She chooses instead to denounce the charges levied against Aziz, thereby reducing the primacy and stature of the British legal system and giving impetus to a wave of riots following the announcement of the verdict. During this moment of cultural crisis in the novel, Forster uncovers the fallacy of imperial Britain's univocality by converting British legal speech into a techne of anti-imperial rhetoric through Adela's disruptive testimony. …