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Summary: Chapter XXIII

The lieutenant-governor’s wife offers to let Mrs. Moore travel back to England in her cabin, as all the other cabins are full. Ronny is relieved and excited that his name will be made familiar to the lieutenant-governor.

Though Mrs. Moore does desire to go home, she feels no joy, as she has passed into a state of spiritual apathy. She recognizes that there are eternal forces behind life, but she is indifferent to these forces ever since her experiences at the Marabar Caves. To Mrs. Moore, the echo in the cave seemed to be something very selfish, something that predated the world. Since that time, she has felt selfish herself—she even begrudges Adela all of the attention she has received.

Even so, Mrs. Moore’s journey to Bombay is pleasant. She watches the sights outside her window and regrets she has not seen all that India has to offer. Bombay seems to mock her for thinking that the Marabar Caves were India—for there are a “hundred Indias.”

Analysis: Chapters XX–XXIII

In the aftermath of Aziz’s arrest, the English gather together in fear and solidarity. Using an ironic, satirical tone, Forster presents this abrupt shift of feeling as hypocritical. He shows how many of the English develop sudden compassion for people they previously snubbed, such as Mrs. Blakiston and Adela herself. Forster depicts this compassion as a momentarily genuine but generally self-serving, cathartic emotion. Perhaps the most perfect expression of the hypocrisy of this is the drunken English soldier’s description of his polo partner as a model of the rare honorable Indian. In a twist of dramatic irony, the soldier does not realize what we know—that his polo partner was Aziz. This twist recalls the episode in Chapter VIII when Ronny remarks that Aziz’s unpinned collar is emblematic of the Indians’ general laziness; we know that the unpinned collar is actually a mark of generosity, as Aziz has lent Fielding his last collar stud to replace the Englishman’s broken one. Forster frequently employs such dramatic irony in A Passage to India as an effective means of undermining English stereotypes of the Indians.

Many of the English take the assault on Adela as an assault by all Indians on the British Empire itself. Forster satirizes this overreaction as not only silly, but also dangerously based on sentimentality. Because of the presumed sexual nature of the assault, the English avoid speaking directly of the crime, the victim, or the perpetrator. The sense of mystery and sacredness that consequently surrounds Adela contributes to the Englishmen’s understanding of this isolated incident as an attack on English womanhood itself. The Englishmen see English womanhood, in turn, as symbolizing the Empire and all that it stands for. The Englishmen therefore react frantically and disproportionately to the alleged crime, even going so far as to consider summoning an armed guard to police the whole Indian population.

The Englishmen’s treatment of Fielding reveals the gap between Fielding’s expansive worldview and the narrow-minded fear of difference that most of the English display. First, Fielding upsets the Englishmen’s conception of the crime as unspeakable by mentioning both Adela and Aziz by name. Then Major Callendar and the soldier emerge as malicious and violent troublemakers who target Fielding because of his solidarity with the Indians—they imply that Fielding must choose sides, or else be treated as a spy or traitor. When Ronny enters the room and Fielding fails to stand up with the rest of the men, the others single-mindedly take Fielding’s inaction as a slight to Ronny. Fielding alone sees both sides of the action, and he refuses to tacitly reject Aziz and India by standing. While the other men see the crime through the narrow, exaggerated lens of racism, Fielding implicitly endorses Godbole’s universally-oriented philosophy that no action is isolated, that every action has many reactions.

When we finally hear Adela’s side of the story about what happened in the cave, we learn that she did not make up the accusations out of malice. However, her memory sheds no additional light on the crime, as she is unable to put the experience into definitive language. Adela’s naturally logical and practical mind struggles to convert the experience into narrative, but each effort breaks down, causing Adela herself to break down. Thus, we continue to see that the Marabar Caves seem to exert a primitive, powerful effect that upsets the power of language, meaning, and naming.

Much like Mrs. Moore, Adela is haunted by the constant presence of the echo from the Marabar Caves. Though Adela does not think about the echo in the same terms as Mrs. Moore, she appears similarly to have taken the echo as a malignant force. In the same way that Mrs. Moore feels the nullification of good and evil in the echo, Adela finds that the echo confuses moral distinctions. The echo causes Adela to oscillate between feeling like the victim of a crime and feeling like the perpetrator of an injustice who must beg forgiveness from all of India. Here again, the “boum” of the echo relates back to Godbole’s philosophy—namely, the professor’s conviction that all humans, including Adela herself, are responsible for the evil action for which Aziz has been arrested.

The differences between Mrs. Moore’s response to the echo and Adela’s response to the echo cement the differences between the two women as characters. Adela, who is practical and unspiritual, responds to the strange and confusing force of the echo by feeling more confident and certain of her status as a victim. Mrs. Moore, who is more attuned to eternal and intangible forces, is less resistant to the echo; she understands its force as negation. Yet while Godbole’s Hindu philosophy maintains that absence and presence, nothing and everything, are one and the same, Mrs. Moore can only experience negation as a void. Overwhelmed by this emptiness, Mrs. Moore accepts her subsequent instinct that human actions matter very little. Consequently, unlike the other English, she does not become inflamed with indignance on Adela’s behalf. Rather, Mrs. Moore treats the occasions of Ronny and Adela’s wedding and the assault on Adela as essentially the same: love in a church is equal to love in a cave, she says. Yet while Mrs. Moore does not join everyone else in falsely condemning Aziz, she does not stand up for Aziz either—even though intuitively she knows him to be innocent. The echo, then, somewhat destroys Mrs. Moore’s noble character, making her apathetic to the point of sickness and death.

With Mrs. Moore about to return to England and Adela suffering a breakdown, it seems that the two women’s quest to understand India has been patently unsuccessful. On her voyage to the steamship, Mrs. Moore comes to understand the error she and Adela made. Whereas Mrs. Moore and Adela sought the “real India”—a romanticized essence—they should have understood that India is not so easily knowable, as it exists in hundreds of complex ways.