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.