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E. M. Forster’s “A Passage to India” Essay

The chief argument against imperialism in E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India is that it prevents personal relationships. The central question of the novel is posed at the very beginning when Mahmoud Ali and Hamidullah ask each other “whether or no it is possible to be friends with an Englishman.” The answer, given by Forster himself on the last page, is “No, not yet… No, not there.” Such friendship is made impossible, on a political level, by the existence of the British Raj. While having several important drawbacks, Forster’s anti-imperial argument has the advantage of being concrete, clear, moving, and presumably persuasive. It is also particularly well-suited to pursuit in the novel form, which traditionally has focused on interactions among individuals.

Forster does much more in his book…than simply deride the intolerance of a few accidental individuals. He carefully shows how this intolerance results from the unequal power relationship between English and Indians, from the imperialistic relationship itself… The process is best shown in the book in the case of Ronny, who has only recently come out from England to be City Magistrate of Chandrapore.

Ronny was at first friendly towards the Indians, but he soon found that his position prevented such friendship. Shortly after his arrival he invited the lawyer Mahmoud All to have a smoke with him, only to learn later that clients began flocking to Ali in the belief that he had an in with the Magistrate. Ronny subsequently “dropped on him in Court as hard as I could. It’s taught me a lesson, and I hope him.” In this instance, it is clearly Ronny’s official position rather than any prior defect of the heart which disrupts the potential friendship. And it is his position in the imperial structure which causes his later defect, his lack of true regret when he tells his mother that now “I prefer my smoke at the club amongst my own sort, I’m afraid.”

Forster tells us that “every human act in the East is tainted with officialism” and that “where there is officialism every human relationship suffers.” People cannot establish a friendship of equals when the Raj is based on an inequality of power…

The one possible exception to this process of corruption among Englishmen is Fielding. He is partially immune to the influence of the imperialistic power relationship because he works in education rather than government, and because, as he puts it, he “travels light”—he has no hostages to fortune. Fielding establishes a friendship with Aziz and maintains it in defiance of all the other Anglo-Indians. There is some doubt, however, whether he can maintain this course and still remain in imperial India. He is obliged to quit the Club and says he will leave India altogether should Aziz be convicted. After Fielding marries Stella, thereby ceasing to travel light, and after he becomes associated with the government as a school inspector, he undergoes a marked change of attitude toward the Raj. It would surely be a mistake to continue, as several critics do, to identify Forster with Fielding past this point.

The omniscient narrator pulls back and summarizes Fielding’s situation: “He had thrown in his lot with Anglo-India by marrying a countrywoman, and he was acquiring some of its limitations.” Like Ronny and the other English officials, Fielding begins to be corrupted by his position. Thinking of how Godbole’s school has degenerated into a granary, the new school inspector asserts that “Indians go to seed at once” away from the British. Fielding almost exactly echoes Ronny’s defense of the Raj to his mother when he excuses unpleasantness in the supposedly necessary imperial presence: he had “‘no further use for politeness,’ he said, meaning that the British Empire really can’t be abolished because it’s rude.” Fielding certainly did not start with a defect of the heart, but, as a result of his new position in the imperial structure, he is acquiring one.

The English, of course, aren’t the only ones corrupted by imperialism. Although most of the Indians in the book have a nearly unbelievable desire to befriend Englishmen, they are ultimately turned from it by the political reality. Some succumb to self-interest. Mahmoud Ali, for example, seems to have been the first to subvert his budding friendship with Ronny by advertising their smoke to potential litigants. More often the Indians succumb to the fear, largely justified but occasionally erroneous, that they will be scorned and betrayed. The prime example is Aziz.

He makes the horrible mistake of assuming that Fielding back in England has married his enemy Adela and further that Fielding had urged him not to press damages against his false accuser so Fielding himself could enjoy Adela’s money. Aziz, of course, has been conditioned to expect betrayal from his experience with other Anglo-Indians, and this expectation provides an undercurrent to the friendship from the very beginning. After Fielding returns to India, and Aziz learns he really married Stella Moore, their relationship is partially retrieved, but the damage has been done. The new school inspector has shifted toward the Raj, and Aziz, now leery of all Englishmen, has become a nationalist, saying of India, “Not until she is a nation will her sons be treated with respect.”…


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