Books Magazine

Book #61: A Passage To India

By Robert Bruce @robertbruce76

I expected to like this book more than I did.

I love the idea behind it. In the middle of the British occupation of India during the early 20th century, an Indian doctor is wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a British woman.

All hell breaks loose when the doctor goes on trial and the woman begins doubting her story. It’s a powerful novel that deals with issues of racism, class, and groupthink. Forster is a superb writer.

All of these things made me think I would, more than likely, love A Passage To India by the time I finished with it. But I don’t.

If I rated these novels on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would probably put it somewhere in the 5 to 6 range. At times, it moved me. At other times, I drifted off into wondering if I had set my fantasy football rosters yet.

The problem with A Passage To India, as I see it: It’s painfully slow. The pacing of the novel is brutal.

So, by the time I finished the book, I felt like I had read a 500 page novel that should have been 300 pages but felt like it was about 700 pages.

That’s my main beef with this novel.

Other than that, I can’t put my finger on why A Passage To India did little for me. But maybe that’s all I needed for it to weigh me down.

Maybe Forster was hinting about the novel’s style when, within the pages of A Passage To India, he writes this:

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”

That’s a theme with this book. There is adventure, and there is plot, and there is tension, but it’s not going to happen in the speed at which you (or me) might prefer. It reminds me a little of An American Tragedy in that sense. Sometimes I just wanted to say, “Let’s get to the point, Forster!”

I talked a good bit about A Passage To India and Forster over the last couple of weeks. There’s the uncomfortable racism, and the historical context and the film based on the novel. I won’t rehash all of that, but seeing as racism is a major issue in the book, I thought I’d go back over a couple of key quotes.

This first quote is from Mrs. Turton, an aristocratic Englishwoman living in India, as she talks to the younger, more progressive, Adela:

You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”

How lovely.

And then there’s McBryde, the superintendent of police in India. In an earlier post, I compared him to Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby.

In fact, I think Tom said something almost exactly like this:

[McBryde] remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa – not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact which any scientific observer would confirm.

The British characters in this novel, excluding Fielding, aren’t very likeable because of the racist attitudes they wear on their sleeves. Sometimes, I read a sentence or two that literally made me cringe.

NPG 4698,Edward Morgan Forster,by Dora Carrington

E.M. Forster (Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of pure style, Forster is one of the better writers I’ve come across while reading the Time list. His writing is clean and crisp. Though the pacing of the novel is slow, he writes with an economy of words. There’s no wasted space in the sentences themselves.

He’s a great writer, and it still amazes me that Forster never wrote another novel after A Passage To India, an issue he discusses in the video I highlight in this post.

I like the way Nish, a commenter on 101 Books, explained the novel after I mentioned it reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird in my preview of the book:

Now, it may not resonate with too many. I wouldn’t compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is quite a straightforward narrative. A Passage to India is quite different…it kind of tackles everyone’s point of view, and you see how one incident is viewed through so many different lenses, based on prejudice.

That’s a great summary.

And she’s exactly right. A Passage To India didn’t resonate with me as much as I wanted it to.

In the end, this is a middle-of-the-road novel for me. I wanted so much more from it, but that didn’t happen.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Except for the Marabar Caves–and they are twenty miles off–the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

The Meaning: Worlds collide. The British have occupied India. Racism and cultural bias is rampant. These two groups of people can’t get along. The novel is a powerful look into what it means to be an outsider in your own country.

Highlights: I thought Forster wrote strong characters, especially Aziz, the accused doctor. He gave me a good sense of what it might have been like to live in India in the early 20th Century.

Lowlights: I’ve already mentioned this several times. The pacing of the novel is painfully slow.

Memorable Line: “They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better. I give any Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton. It is only the difference of a letter. And I give any English woman six months. All are exactly alike.”

Final Thoughts: Ultimately, A Passage To India just didn’t do much for me. As always, this is a matter of personal taste. You might love the novel. I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it. But I doubt I’ll be reading it again.


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