Aziz seems to be a mess of extremes and contradictions, an embodiment of Forster’s notion of the “muddle” of India. Aziz is impetuous and flighty, changing opinions and preoccupations quickly and without warning, from one moment to the next. His moods swing back and forth between extremes, from childlike elation one minute to utter despair the next. Aziz even seems capable of shifting careers and talents, serving as both physician and poet during the course of A Passage to India. Aziz’s somewhat youthful qualities, as evidenced by a sense of humor that leans toward practical joking, are offset by his attitude of irony toward his English superiors.
Forster, though not blatantly stereotyping, encourages us to see many of Aziz’s characteristics as characteristics of Indians in general. Aziz, like many of his friends, dislikes blunt honesty and directness, preferring to communicate through confidences, feelings underlying words, and indirect speech. Aziz has a sense that much of morality is really social code. He therefore feels no moral compunction about visiting prostitutes or reading Fielding’s private mail—both because his intentions are good and because he knows he will not be caught. Instead of living by merely social codes, Aziz guides his action through a code that is nearly religious, such as we see in his extreme hospitality. Moreover, Aziz, like many of the other Indians, struggles with the problem of the English in India. On the one hand, he appreciates some of the modernizing influences that the West has brought to India; on the other, he feels that the presence of the English degrades and oppresses his people.
Despite his contradictions, Aziz is a genuinely affectionate character, and his affection is often based on intuited connections, as with Mrs. Moore and Fielding. Though Forster holds up Aziz’s capacity for imaginative sympathy as a good trait, we see that this imaginativeness can also betray Aziz. The deep offense Aziz feels toward Fielding in the aftermath of his trial stems from fiction and misinterpreted intuition. Aziz does not stop to evaluate facts, but rather follows his heart to the exclusion of all other methods—an approach that is sometimes wrong.
Many critics have contended that Forster portrays Aziz and many of the other Indian characters unflatteringly. Indeed, though the author is certainly sympathetic to the Indians, he does sometimes present them as incompetent, subservient, or childish. These somewhat valid critiques call into question the realism of Forster’s novel, but they do not, on the whole, corrupt his exploration of the possibility of friendly relations between Indians and Englishmen—arguably the central concern of the novel.
Of all the characters in the novel, Fielding is clearly the most associated with Forster himself. Among the Englishmen in Chandrapore, Fielding is far and away most the successful at developing and sustaining relationships with native Indians. Though he is an educator, he is less comfortable in teacher-student interaction than he is in one-on-one conversation with another individual. This latter style serves as Forster’s model of liberal humanism—Forster and Fielding treat the world as a group of individuals who can connect through mutual respect, courtesy, and intelligence.
Fielding, in these viewpoints, presents the main threat to the mentality of the English in India. He educates Indians as individuals, engendering a movement of free thought that has the potential to destabilize English colonial power. Furthermore, Fielding has little patience for the racial categorization that is so central to the English grip on India. He honors his friendship with Aziz over any alliance with members of his own race—a reshuffling of allegiances that threatens the solidarity of the English. Finally, Fielding “travels light,” as he puts it: he does not believe in marriage, but favors friendship instead. As such, Fielding implicitly questions the domestic conventions upon which the Englishmen’s sense of “Englishness” is founded. Fielding refuses to sentimentalize domestic England or to venerate the role of the wife or mother—a far cry from the other Englishmen, who put Adela on a pedestal after the incident at the caves.
Fielding’s character changes in the aftermath of Aziz’s trial. He becomes jaded about the Indians as well as the English. His English sensibilities, such as his need for proportion and reason, become more prominent and begin to grate against Aziz’s Indian sensibilities. By the end of A Passage to India, Forster seems to identify with Fielding less. Whereas Aziz remains a likable, if flawed, character until the end of the novel, Fielding becomes less likable in his increasing identification and sameness with the English.
Adela arrives in India with Mrs. Moore, and, fittingly, her character develops in parallel to Mrs. Moore’s. Adela, like the elder Englishwoman, is an individualist and an educated free thinker. These tendencies lead her, just as they lead Mrs. Moore, to question the standard behaviors of the English toward the Indians. Adela’s tendency to question standard practices with frankness makes her resistant to being labeled—and therefore resistant to marrying Ronny and being labeled a typical colonial English wife. Both Mrs. Moore and Adela hope to see the “real India” rather than an arranged tourist version. However, whereas Mrs. Moore’s desire is bolstered by a genuine interest in and affection for Indians, Adela appears to want to see the “real India” simply on intellectual grounds. She puts her mind to the task, but not her heart—and therefore never connects with Indians.
Adela’s experience at the Marabar Caves causes her to undergo a crisis of rationalism against spiritualism. While Adela’s character changes greatly in the several days after her alleged assault, her testimony at the trial represents a return of the old Adela, with the sole difference that she is plagued by doubt in a way she was not originally. Adela begins to sense that her assault, and the echo that haunts her afterward, are representative of something outside the scope of her normal rational comprehension. She is pained by her inability to articulate her experience. She finds she has no purpose in—nor love for—India, and suddenly fears that she is unable to love anyone. Adela is filled with the realization of the damage she has done to Aziz and others, yet she feels paralyzed, unable to remedy the wrongs she has done. Nonetheless, Adela selflessly endures her difficult fate after the trial—a course of action that wins her a friend in Fielding, who sees her as a brave woman rather than a traitor to her race.
As a character, Mrs. Moore serves a double function in A Passage to India, operating on two different planes. She is initially a literal character, but as the novel progresses she becomes more a symbolic presence. On the literal level, Mrs. Moore is a good-hearted, religious, elderly woman with mystical leanings. The initial days of her visit to India are successful, as she connects with India and Indians on an intuitive level. Whereas Adela is overly cerebral, Mrs. Moore relies successfully on her heart to make connections during her visit. Furthermore, on the literal level, Mrs. Moore’s character has human limitations: her experience at Marabar renders her apathetic and even somewhat mean, to the degree that she simply leaves India without bothering to testify to Aziz’s innocence or to oversee Ronny and Adela’s wedding.
After her departure, however, Mrs. Moore exists largely on a symbolic level. Though she herself has human flaws, she comes to symbolize an ideally spiritual and race-blind openness that Forster sees as a solution to the problems in India. Mrs. Moore’s name becomes closely associated with Hinduism, especially the Hindu tenet of the oneness and unity of all living things. This symbolic side to Mrs. Moore might even make her the heroine of the novel, the only English person able to closely connect with the Hindu vision of unity. Nonetheless, Mrs. Moore’s literal actions—her sudden abandonment of India—make her less than heroic.
Ronny’s character does not change much over the course of the novel; instead, Forster’s emphasis is on the change that happened before the novel begins, when Ronny first arrived in India. Both Mrs. Moore and Adela note the difference between the Ronny they knew in England and the Ronny of British India. Forster uses Ronny’s character and the changes he has undergone as a sort of case study, an exploration of the restrictions that the English colonials’ herd mentality imposes on individual personalities. All of Ronny’s previously individual tastes are effectively dumbed down to meet group standards. He devalues his intelligence and learning from England in favor of the “wisdom” gained by years of experience in India. The open-minded attitude with which he has been brought up has been replaced by a suspicion of Indians. In short, Ronny’s tastes, opinions, and even his manner of speaking are no longer his own, but those of older, ostensibly wiser British Indian officials. This kind of group thinking is what ultimately causes Ronny to clash with both Adela and his mother, Mrs. Moore.
Nonetheless, Ronny is not the worst of the English in India, and Forster is somewhat sympathetic in his portrayal of him. Ronny’s ambition to rise in the ranks of British India has not completely destroyed his natural goodness, but merely perverted it. Ronny cares about his job and the Indians with whom he works, if only to the extent that they, in turn, reflect upon him. Forster presents Ronny’s failing as the fault of the colonial system, not his own.
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