A Passage to India

Summary

Part I, Chapters VII–VIII

Summary Part I, Chapters VII–VIII

Analysis: Chapters VII–VIII

Though Fielding himself disregards racial boundaries, his tea party does not quite develop into a successful version of the Bridge Party. Aziz and Adela both appear overexcited during the tea, while Mrs. Moore and Professor Godbole remain withdrawn from the others’ chatter. The sudden cultural interaction carries Adela away and convinces her, almost subconsciously, that she cannot remain in India and become a wife at the club—prompting the spontaneous admission that upsets Mrs. Moore. The tea sours when Ronny arrives, though his rudeness appears only to bring out tensions that already existed. Aziz becomes grotesquely overfamiliar, Adela blames herself and Ronny, Fielding becomes annoyed, and Mrs. Moore becomes spiritually drained by Godbole’s Hindu song.

The tea party is further disturbed by a disparity between what Forster calls “truth of fact” and “truth of mood.” Thus far in A Passage to India, we have seen that the Indian characters often tend to say one thing when they mean another. Forster presents this tendency as problematic only for the English, among whom words are taken at face value. Indians appear skilled at identifying the undertones—the unspoken elements—of a conversation. Indeed, we see that Aziz recognizes from tone, rather than words, that Godbole is withholding information from his description of the Marabar Caves. Moreover, when Aziz invites Mrs. Moore and Adela to his house, the “mood” of his question—his sincere feeling of goodwill and hospitality to the Englishwomen—is all that Aziz means to convey. Adela, however, takes the invitation literally and asks for Aziz’s address. The misunderstanding makes Aziz uncomfortable, as he is in fact embarrassed about the appearance of his home. Fielding, too, reacts negatively to Adela’s literal-mindedness. This disconnect between cultural uses of language is an important division between the English and Indians in the novel.

Forster explores another divide between the English and Indian cultures through the idea of naming or labeling. If the English in the novel always say exactly what they mean, they also are quick to attach names or labels to objects and people around them. When Adela and Ronny sit together at the club, Adela wonders aloud what kind of bird sits on the tree above them. Ronny does not know, which depresses Adela even more; meanwhile, the narrator notes that nothing is identifiable in India, as things disappear or change before one can name them. The British in India realize that with the ability to name or label things comes power. It is for this reason that Fielding’s remark that “whites” are really “pinko-grey” upsets the men at the club: by deflating labels like “white” and “brown,” Fielding implicitly challenges the assertive naming and labeling power of the English in India. If “white” really only refers to skin tone—rather than also connoting superiority, advanced religion, technology, and morality—then “whites” have no inherent right to rule India.

Adela’s conflicted view of naming or labeling constitutes a major tension within her character. On the one hand, Adela recognizes that the ability to label gives one power—or, as she might say, a purpose or place in the world. India’s resistance to identification, symbolized by the nameless green bird, challenges Adela’s sense of individuality. On the other hand, Adela realizes that being on the receiving end of a label can leave one powerless. It is for this reason that she remains resistant to marrying Ronny, knowing that she will be labeled an Englishwoman in India—a club wife—and that her behavior will be restricted accordingly. When Adela feels her individuality challenged by India’s resistance to identification, she seems more likely to turn to Ronny for marriage; yet, when she recognizes the tyranny of labels like “Englishwoman in India,” she feels reluctant to marry Ronny.

We see in these chapters that the natural environment of India has a direct effect on Ronny and Adela’s engagement. As soon as Adela tells Ronny she does not want to become engaged, their surroundings begin to overwhelm them, making them feel like lonely, sensual beings who share more similarities than differences. In particular, they feel that the night sky swallows them during their ride with the Nawab Bahadur. The sky makes Ronny and Adela feel indistinct as individuals, suddenly part of a larger mass that is somehow fundamentally united. Therefore, when their hands touch accidentally in the car, both Ronny and Adela are attuned to the animalistic thrill of sensuality. Their experience under the engulfing Indian sky draws Ronny and Adela together, forcing them to assert themselves as important, distinct individuals through a commitment to each other.

Furthermore, the social environment of India—the Indians who surround Ronny and Adela—contributes to this shift in perspective in the couple’s relationship, their new feeling that they are more alike than different. Specifically, Ronny and Adela feel a bond through their shared distaste for Miss Derek and the Nawab Bahadur—a bond that leads Adela to suddenly reverse her decision and renew her engagement to Ronny. In this regard, Forster implies that the union of marriage requires a third presence, against which husband and wife can define themselves as similar. Indeed, after announcing their renewed engagement, Adela shows her openness to her future with Ronny through her willingness to make fun of the Nawab Bahadur with him.

While Ronny and Adela feel a sense of unity against the muddle that is India, we see Mrs. Moore grow even more spiritually attuned to the minds of Indians. First Mrs. Moore appears to be most aligned with the religious figure of Professor Godbole. Godbole’s song, in which God is called but does not come, profoundly affects Mrs. Moore, deepening her sense of separation from her Christian God. Then, when Ronny and Adela tell Mrs. Moore of their car accident with Nawab Bahadur, the elder woman strongly feels that a ghost caused the accident. Though Ronny and Adela ignore Mrs. Moore, we learn a short while later that the Nawab Bahadur, too, suspects that a ghost caused the accident—the ghost of the drunken man that he ran over nine years ago near the same spot. While Ronny and Adela begin to segregate themselves from the social and natural landscape that surrounds them, Mrs. Moore surrenders to the overwhelming presence and mysticism she feels in India, attuning herself to a sort of collective psyche of the land she is visiting.