The hills containing the Marabar Caves are older than anything else on earth. The rocky hills thrust up abruptly from the soil and resemble nothing else in the surrounding landscape. Each cave has a narrow entrance tunnel that leads to a large, dark, circular chamber. If a match is lit inside the caves, its reflection appears clearly in the polished stone of the cave walls. The caves seem to embody nothingness; their reputation spreads not just by word of mouth, but seemingly through the earth itself or through the animals. On the highest hill of the rock formations precariously rests a large boulder, which is thought to be hollow. The hill is called Kawa Dol.
Looking toward the Marabar Hills one day, Adela remarks that she would have liked to visit them with Aziz. Her servant overhears the remark, and exaggerated word of it travels to Aziz, who feels that he must make good on his earlier offer. The outing involves many details and much expense on Aziz’s part, but he organizes everything and invites Fielding and Godbole, along with the two ladies, to Marabar. Ronny gives permission for the women to go, as long as Fielding goes along with them.
The train that travels to the hills leaves just before dawn, so Aziz, Mohammed Latif, and many servants spend the night at the train station to avoid being late. Mrs. Moore, Adela, and the women’s servant, Antony, arrive early in the morning. Adela dislikes Antony and, on Aziz’s suggestion, orders him to go home. Antony refuses, however, on Ronny’s orders, until Mohammed Latif bribes him to leave.
Though Fielding has not yet arrived with Godbole, Aziz is not nervous because he knows that Englishmen never miss trains. Aziz reviews the details of the trip with Mohammed Latif, who is to oversee the railway carriage. Suddenly, the train starts to move just as Fielding and Godbole arrive at the station. Fielding yells that Godbole’s overlong prayers have made them late, and the Englishman tries unsuccessfully to jump on the train. Aziz becomes panicked and desperate, but Mrs. Moore and Adela reassure him that the outing will continue successfully without Fielding. Aziz suddenly feels love for the two women—Mrs. Moore especially—for their graciousness and blindness to race.
[Mrs. Moore] felt . . . that, though people are important, the relations between them are not, and that in particular too much fuss has been made over marriage.
Ever since they heard Godbole sing his Hindu song at Fielding’s tea, Adela and Mrs. Moore have lived as though inside cocoons—not feeling anything. Mrs. Moore accepts her apathy, but Adela blames herself for her feelings of indifference. Adela even fakes excitement at times because she feels like she should be excited.
During the train ride, Adela thinks and chats with Mrs. Moore about her future plans. The elder Englishwoman, who is not in good health, feels impatient with marriage. She thinks to herself that society’s valuation of marriage over other relationships has stunted its understanding of human nature.
Nearing the hills, the train comes to a stop next to an elephant. For Aziz’s benefit, Adela and Mrs. Moore feign excitement about taking an elephant ride. Aziz feels happy and relieved, as he indeed went to great trouble to obtain the elephant for the outing. The group climbs up onto the elephant, and many villagers gather and walk with it to the Marabar Caves. In the pale early morning light, the landscape appears colorless and somewhat lifeless, suffused with an odd silence. Illusions abound, but there is no romance. Adela mistakes a tree branch for a snake; the villagers concur that it is a snake and refuse to let Adela correct their error. The group finally reaches the hills, but Adela and Mrs. Moore do not find them beautiful, and Aziz does not know enough about the area to act as an effective tour guide.
While Aziz’s servants prepare tea for the women, Aziz reflects happily that the trip is a success thus far. He likens himself to the Mogul Emperor Babur, who never stopped showing hospitality and never betrayed a friend. The women ask Aziz about Babur and about another Mogul emperor, Akbar. Aziz has only contempt for Akbar, who foolishly thought he could use religion to unite all of India, when nothing can accomplish that goal. Adela expresses her hope that there will be something universal in India, if only to keep her from becoming snobby and rude like the other Englishwomen.
The group enters the first cave, which becomes crowded when the villagers follow them. Mrs. Moore feels crowded and she panics when something strikes her on the face. She is terrified by the cave’s echo, which takes all sounds and reduces them to the sound “boum.” The group exits the caves, and Mrs. Moore realizes that it was only a baby (from the retinue of servants accompanying the expedition) that hit her face. She politely refuses to enter another cave, but she encourages Adela to continue on with Aziz. At Mrs. Moore’s suggestion, Aziz forbids the villagers to accompany them into the next set of caves.
Aziz, Adela, and the guide leave. Mrs. Moore tries to write a letter to her other children, Stella and Ralph, but she is haunted by the sound of the echo in the cave. The echo seems to suggest that nothing has value, and it renders even the words of Mrs. Moore’s Christianity null. Mrs. Moore becomes despairing and completely apathetic.
Just as Part I begins with a chapter-long description of Chandrapore and its environs, Part II begins with a chapter-long description of the Marabar Hills and the caves. These descriptions set the tenor of the section to come; here, the narrative emphasizes the hills’ alien quality of primitiveness and nothingness. The caves and the hills in which they are located predate all things known to humanity, including language and religion. The hills are described as “unspeakable”—an ambiguous term that not only connotes the hills’ location outside time and human history, but also implies that they are a sort of desecration of the landscape. Indeed, the hills are distinctly nonhuman and seem to embody a physical nothingness. Forster uses the phrase “nothing, nothing” twice in the opening chapter, and we see that the word “nothing” recurs numerous times throughout Part II. This focus on absence, or lack, combined with the menacing, primal setting of the Marabar Hills, sets an appropriate tone for Part II, in which the personal relations built up in Part I fall apart. In Part II, individual characters become isolated, confused, and sensitive to an eternal force just outside their comprehension—a force of nothingness and emptiness that is embodied in the Marabar Caves.
Aziz’s organized outing to the caves—the main event of these chapters and arguably of the novel as a whole—is fraught with misunderstandings and cruel ironies from the outset. A misunderstanding engenders the expedition to begin with: neither Aziz nor the women particularly want to go to the caves, but inaccurate currents of gossip convince Aziz that the ladies are eager to make the journey. Though Aziz plans the expedition meticulously, the entire affair is jeopardized, ironically, when Fielding—allegedly a stereotypically prompt Englishman—misses the train. Furthermore, though Adela and Mrs. Moore expect Aziz at least to provide them with an authentic view of India on the trip, they are disappointed to see that he has hired an elephant for them—a trademark of the inauthentic tours of India that the Turtons and other English colonials typically organize. Deepening the irony and misunderstanding, Aziz assumes that the women are delighted with the elephant, as he considers the animal a symbol of authentic India. Further irony comes from the fact that Aziz, who has never been to the Marabar Caves himself, is forced to act as the ladies’ tour guide, because the only person knowledgeable about the caves—Godbole—has been left behind.
To add to the aura of misfortune hanging over the expedition, both Mrs. Moore and Adela are plagued by a spiritual or emotional deadness that they date to the moment when Professor Godbole sings his Hindu song in Chapter VII. Godbole’s song resurfaces several more times in the novel, with the song’s refrain—a supplication to God to “Come! come”—being especially important. In Chapter XII, Adela connects the refrain of the song to the Indian landscape, as she senses that the land appeals to someone, but offers nothing in return. Her concern with the countryside is also linked to her lack of excitement over the prospect of married life with Ronny in India. The refrain of Godbole’s song, which assumes the presence of God but also asserts that God’s presence will never be fulfilled, has awakened a lack of feeling in Mrs. Moore, and particularly in Adela. The women experience this emptiness and lack within themselves and also see it mirrored in the natural landscape surrounding them, which appears colorless and vacant.
Forster uses an interesting image to describe the emotional lack that Adela and Mrs. Moore feel, saying that the women have “lived more or less inside cocoons” since hearing Godbole’s song. The image of the cocoon implies that the women are shut down, hibernating within themselves and cut off from others. Indeed, though Adela and Mrs. Moore maintain the pretense of polite interaction with Aziz, we sense that the two women feel disconnected from each other. Their conversation on the train is somewhat tense and awkward, and at one point Mrs. Moore even dozes off while Adela continues to speak. The image of a cocoon also suggests that the women are in a waiting period before a transformation or metamorphosis of some sort—a foreshadowing of the radical effect that the Marabar Caves soon has on each of them.
Forster also foreshadows the strange effect of the Marabar Caves through his depiction of the landscape leading up to the caves. He emphasizes the inorganic element of the setting: though living things exist within it, there is no color, no movement, and no vitality. Everything seems “cut off at its root,” suggesting that the natural elements of the landscape have been perverted in some way. This perversion leads to a sense of illusion and confusion, as when Adela mistakes a stick for a snake. She corrects herself after looking through her field-glasses, but the villagers refuse to believe that the stick is not a snake after hearing her words. Within such a blank and empty landscape, words hold as much power as objects—and perhaps more. The natural world appears as a vacuum in which life does not exist, in which words fail to connect naturally to objects. Forster’s descriptions of this unnatural, inorganic landscape prepare us for the Marabar Caves themselves, which seem to nullify vitality, incite illusions, and render Mrs. Moore and Adela unable to use language to describe their experience.
The horror Mrs. Moore experiences in the Marabar Caves is the most intense manifestation of the sense of emptiness that is at the core of A Passage to India. The strange nothingness of Mrs. Moore’s experience is heightened by the fact that the episode is narrated not as it transpires, but in a more distant past tense than the immediate past tense that Forster uses in the rest of the novel. The effect is one of narrative absence, as if the narrator—and we as readers—must wait outside the cave, separated from the action until we learn of it through Mrs. Moore’s recall. Initially, it is the darkness and closeness of the cave that alarms Mrs. Moore: it incites illusions, as when she mistakes a baby’s hand for some “vile naked thing.” But the most alarming and disturbing aspect of the cave for Mrs. Moore is its echo, which swallows all words and sounds uttered in the cave and returns them as “boum.”
The echo is, in effect, a black hole in which difference and value are rendered nil and returned as a single repetitive syllable—“everything exists, nothing has value.” The echo completely destroys the power of language and meaning, reducing everything from the smallest utterance to the loftiest ideas and pronouncements of the Bible—“from ‘Let there be Light’ to ‘It is finished’ ”—to the same meaningless syllable. In short, the echo “rob[s] infinity and eternity of their vastness.” This vision, in which good and evil are indistinguishable, is terrifying to Mrs. Moore. Thus far in the novel we have seen that Mrs. Moore embraces a rather mystical, holistic view of humankind as a single, unified whole. Here, however, she sees that unity—in the sense of sameness and indistinctness—can also be a terrifying thing, as destruction of difference in many ways entails destruction of meaning. For Mrs. Moore, this sudden realization renders her entire belief system meaningless, leaving her feeling stunned, flabbergasted, and powerless.
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