A Passage to India Essay
A Passage to India
In E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India, identities and the labels placed on identities create a vicious environment in which little can be achieved. The English colonists and their Indian subjects are on polar sides of the struggle. The Indians acknowledge that labels are subject to limitation and can blind one to critical differences. The English, however, insist on assigning a label to all components of their lives. A tiny and unidentifiable green bird symbolizes this struggle between these two groups, as they are embroiled in the “muddle” of India. The indeterminate green bird hints at the irreconcilability of the two cultures.
India’s mystery, just as the bird’s, cannot be explained when approached from two wholly different methodologies. Miss Adela Quested and Ronny Heaslop argue over the green bird, and in doing so, illustrate how the English handle identity. Foremost, it is imperative to the two that they identify what kind of bird it is. Forster admits that although the bird “was of no importance,” (91) the two, and therefore the English whom they represent, feel a need to assign a name to the bird. His narration is certain that identifying the bird “would somehow have solaced their hearts. ” (91)
Critically, the two have just agreed to call off the wedding plans for which Adela had journeyed to India. The two ex-lovers are surprisingly mechanical when discussing this new course of action. The two agree that had they “quarreled” (90) about this change of plans, it “would have been too absurd. ” (90) Emotions do not seem to hold an important part in English interpersonal relationships. Adela describes their apparent detachment as being “awfully British. ” (90) In fact, although Ronny felt “angry and bruised” (90) by his dismissal, he refuses to show his pain because of pride, furthering the message of English emotional detachment.
From a modern perspective, if Ronny loves Adela deeply, it would be unthinkable that he could let his pride keep him from pursuing her. Instead of addressing their emotional problems, the two pursue the green bird and try to force it to have some degree of English order. The small green bird symbolizes India; it defies English labeling, it is constantly changing and it is far more complex than a single name could communicate. Adela does her best to describe the bird by noting its physical characteristics and location. She hopes that Ronny can explain this bird to her once he knows that it is green and in the tree above them.
Similarly, Adela hopes she will understand India once Aziz lists a few characteristics. Yet, she is unable to determine between fact and opinion as “she accepted everything Aziz said as verbally true. ” (76) Just as Ronny is unable to name the bird, Aziz will be unable to explain India. Adela makes the mistake that a label will suffice to create understanding. However, “nothing in India is identifiable” (91) and by asking the very question Adela has already started a ripple that will cavitate through picture which she asks to see. For example, one cannot study water in any detail without placing oneself into the water.
However, by entering the water, one will have created a ripple and the water has forever changed. It is an unreasonable hope to observe an experiene without concurrently changing or interacting with it. Studying birds is much the same; one cannot study the bird if it is unaccustomed to ones presence and while one appears foreign to the environment the bird will not act as it would naturally. Therefore, as long as the English neither assimilate into their environment nor attempt any reconciliation with it, they will be unable to appreciate it.
Ronny Heaslop is unable to visualize the problem he faces; he does not begin to imagine that his presence in an environment changes it and therefore requires some adjustment on his own part. An example of this problem is when Ronny encroaches Fielding’s luncheon and is rude to the Indian guests. While it is possible to imagine the guests might normally ignore such behavior and assume it was merely English, for the past few hours they have been attending an “unconventional party” (71) in which they were treated as equals and with respect by all parties.
Yet Ronny brings the party back to the reality where “[s]uch affabilitiy is seldom seen. ” (77) When Ronny deals with Indians as “private individuals he [forgets] them. ” (81) As Fielding finally confronts Ronny with the results of his actions, Ronny responds, “Well its nothing I’ve said … I never even spoke to [Aziz. ]” (83) He is completely unaware that ignoring Aziz is exactly what has infuriated him. Ronny ignores Aziz because he has labeled him. In the standard English colonists’ mind there are three types of people in India.
There are the British, the Indians in professional environments and the natives. To the colonists, only the first group requires any acknowledgement — otherwise Ronny would obviously have greeted Aziz or Godbole. The last and overwhelmingly largest group includes everyone who does not come under the first two headings. The natives are unworthy of respect, should not be trusted and certainly are not gentlemen. As Aziz is therefore unworthy of respect, in Ronny’s mind, Ronny simply could not be rude to him. It is physically impossible to offend a native.
In Ronny’s logic, if he were told he had been rude to one of the British he would be ashamed and apologetic; with regard to Indians, he simply does not see his transgressions. In the same capacity, because he is British he is unable to vary in his treatment of Indians; “the man who doesn’t tow the line is lost. ” (190) The English do not understand there is a problem with the way the two cultures interact. From the English perspective, the natives are brutish and almost worthless. From the Indian perspective, the English are rude and unaccommodating. It is unfortunate that the two groups cannot find a middle ground.
Nevertheless, Forster’s description of these troubled dealings is practically flawless. If the English and the Indians are able to find a common ground and communicate with each other, it is likely that the two cultures could co-exist in Forster’s world. The green bird will remain indecipherable to the English and Indian to the Indians. India requires the acceptance and embracing of variation; when the English realize this, their interaction will improve, not before.
Forster, E. M.. A Passage to India. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989.