Monday, June 16, 2014

Rites of Passage: A Passage to India by E. M. Forster

E. M Forster was born in England in 1879 and died in 1970. As a child, he inherited enough money from his great aunt to travel and live as a writer after attending public school and King's College, Cambridge. His interest in writing was influenced at Cambridge by membership in a discussion society called the Apostles that included a number of intellectuals such as John Maynard Keynes and Ludwig Wittgenstein. Forster maintained a loose association with the group during the early 1910s and 1920s as it added members and became known as the Bloomsbury Group. The Group was composed of a variety of creative individuals including writers of fiction. Virginia Woolf was an active member. After leaving Cambridge, Forster traveled with his mother extensively in Europe where he developed ideas for subsequent novels including: A Room With A View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and Howards End. For years, he maintained a privacy regarding his homosexual identity and behavior understanding that it would limit his freedom to publish his work.

In the early 1920s, Forster worked in India as the private secretary for a Maharaja during the period of the British Raj. The Raj was a time of occupation of India by British diplomats and soldiers who imposed some controlled structure on the economic and legal system of the largely disparate states within the country ruled loosely by a monarchy. After returning to London from India, Forster published A Passage to India in 1924 based on his experiences during the period when British influence was waning and an Indian Independence movement was developing.

The novel is an interesting character study involving structure opposed to substance, self-control over impulse, conformity versus individual freedom, restriction of thought rather than tolerance, and arbitrary racial discrimination limiting open enculturation. There are several characters described in stereotypical ways with representatives of the British ruling and middle classes in the Raj and Hindu, "Moslem", and royal leaders within Indian society. These descriptions set the stage for the interaction of four main characters that illustrate the complexity of two cultures seemingly unyielding in their Western versus Eastern world views.

In the novel the reader's attention is focused on the interactions and perceptions of four main characters: Dr. Aziz, Miss Adela Quested, Cyril Fielding, and Mrs. Moore:

Dr. Aziz is an Indian physician who works at a British hospital. He is a Muslim man strongly influenced by his religion but intellectually active in his beliefs and impulsive in his emotions and actions. He is tolerant of differences in cultures within his country and the strained relationship between Indians and the British. The tolerance, however is largely on the surface, and when his religious beliefs and secular freedom are threatened by the actions of the Raj, he is quick to feel strong resentment.

Adela Quested is a young British teacher who has traveled to India to see if she and a British magistrate are compatible for marriage. Like Dr. Aziz, Adela seems outwardly open to new experiences. She seems to be tolerant in learning about the exotic Eastern culture of India. The reader sees that she is actually intolerant and frightened but fancies herself an enlightened woman willing to step beyond the conventions of her British character. Adela regresses to her British comfort zone in a panic when confronted with the mysterious and unstructured life of India.

Cyril Fielding is a teacher at a small British college for Indian citizens. Now in his early middle age, the unmarried administrator has maintained his life of personal intellectual and emotional freedom by keeping a low profile within the British foreign service system and maintaining an open attitude about British and Indian tension during the Raj. He seems to be more willing to understand the cultural differences between West and East than Adela because he has maintained a personal code of ethics largely hidden from both the British and Indian people in the rural district. He is a clever individual who has assumed a role that conforms minimally to the expectations of each culture. He is insightful and aware that his surface behavior is accepted with reservations by both groups and is content to have independence in the deep structure of his personality. Although Fielding is not an avowed homosexual, the reader gains some interesting indications from the character of Forster's private life. Unlike the author, Fielding returns to England, marries a very British woman, and returns to India a more structured man but largely conflicted in his hidden personal identification.

Mrs. Moore is an elderly British widower who has accompanied Adela during the trip from England to India. She is the mother of the British magistrate that the younger woman has come to visit. Mrs. Moore is a lifelong British subject who has reached the endpoint of caring, having lived her life for her children with a feminine stiff upper lip. In somewhat delicate health, the trip has been a major sacrifice for Mrs. Moore, but she has done her escort duty. Because of her end of life situation and active life review, she is open to the spiritual aspect of Indian life that is so different from her British structured religious beliefs. Unlike Adela, Mrs. Moore is willing to open herself to Eastern thoughts and beliefs with a substantial lowering of psychological defenses. She seeks answers to the question, what is the meaning of her life of service to her family that cost her own freedom and dignity? Specifically, when can she stop taking responsibility for others and come to some meaningful resolution of the doubts about her life decisions? When faced with negative conclusions during her life review, she embraces a delusion of a tolerable, structured life and begins a journey back to her British home.

I highly recommend this novel (Forster's last published work of fiction) for readers who want to examine their own depth of understanding of life and their tolerance of the lives of others in chaotic times. An interesting experience I had reading the novel was an illusive desire to live during the early decades of the 20th Century in India to see how I would react personally to a rapidly changing world perspective. Of course, parallel, dramatic cultural challenges exist in the U. S. today, but perhaps we are too close in time to the effects of the challenges to develop the comprehensive point of view presented in A Passage to India.

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