A Passage to India
Edward Morgan Forster was born into a comfortable London family in 1879. His father, an architect, died when Forster was very young, leaving the boy to be raised by his mother and great‑aunt. Forster proved to be a bright student, and he went on to attend Cambridge University, graduating in 1901. He spent much of the next decade traveling and living abroad, dividing his time between working as a journalist and writing short stories and novels.
Many of Forster’s observations and experiences from this time figure in his fiction, most notably A Room with a View (1908), which chronicles the experiences of a group of English people vacationing in Italy. Two years after A Room with a View, the novel Howards End (1910), in which Forster criticized the class divisions and prejudices of Edwardian England, solidified his reputation as a social critic and a master of incisively observational fiction.
Long before Forster first visited India, he had already gained a vivid picture of its people and places from a young Indian Muslim named Syed Ross Masood, whom Forster began tutoring in England starting in 1906. Forster and Masood became very close, and Masood introduced Forster to several of his Indian friends. Echoes of the friendship between the two can be seen in the characters of Fielding and Aziz in A Passage to India. By the time Forster first visited India, in 1912, the Englishman was well prepared for his travels throughout the country.
At the time of Forster’s visit, the British government had been officially ruling India since 1858, after the failed Sepoy Rebellion in 1857, in which Indians attempted to regain rule from the British East India Company. The East India Company, a privately owned trading concern, had been gaining financial and political power in India since the seventeenth century. By the time of Forster’s visit, Britain’s control over India was complete: English governors headed each province and were responsible to Parliament. Though England had promised the Indian people a role in government in exchange for their aid during World War I, India did not win independence until three decades later, in 1949.
Forster spent time with both Englishmen and Indians during his visit, and he quickly found he preferred the company of the latter. He was troubled by the racial oppression and deep cultural misunderstandings that divided the Indian people and the British colonists, or, as they are called in A Passage to India, Anglo-Indians. The prevailing attitude among the British in India was that the colonists were assuming the “white man’s burden”—novelist Rudyard Kipling’s phrase—of governing the country, because the Indians could not handle the responsibility themselves. Forster, a homosexual living in a society and era largely unsympathetic to his lifestyle, had long experienced prejudice and misunderstanding firsthand. It is no surprise, then, that Forster felt sympathetic toward the Indian side of the colonial argument. Indeed, Forster became a lifelong advocate for tolerance and understanding among people of different social classes, races, and backgrounds.
Forster began writing A Passage to India in 1913, just after his first visit to India. The novel was not revised and completed, however, until well after his second stay in India, in 1921, when he served as secretary to the Maharajah of Dewas State Senior. Published in 1924, A Passage to India examines the racial misunderstandings and cultural hypocrisies that characterized the complex interactions between Indians and the English toward the end of the British occupation of India.
Forster’s style is marked by his sympathy for his characters, his ability to see more than one side of an argument or story, and his fondness for simple, symbolic tales that neatly encapsulate large‑scale problems and conditions. These tendencies are all evident in A Passage to India, which was immediately acclaimed as Forster’s masterpiece upon its publication. It is a traditional social and political novel, unconcerned with the technical innovation of some of Forster’s modernist contemporaries such as Gertrude Stein or T.S. Eliot. A Passage to India is concerned, however, with representing the chaos of modern human experience through patterns of imagery and form. In this regard, Forster’s novel is similar to modernist works of the same time period, such as James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925).
A Passage to India was the last in a string of Forster’s novels in which his craft improved markedly with each new work. After the novel’s publication, however, Forster never again attained the level of craft or the depth of observation that characterized his early work. In his later life, he contented himself primarily with writing critical essays and lectures, most notably Aspects of the Novel (1927). In 1946, Forster accepted a fellowship at Cambridge, where he remained until his death in 1970.
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