The narrative point of view in “A Passage to India” is elusive. At points, particularly when describing (supposedly) neutral scenes such as landscape, Forster uses a traditional, omniscient narrative voice. The landscape (or similar) is not however simply described – the description includes subtle (and sometimes not so subtle – see below) judgments and observations. We are being shown India through the eyes of a distinct person or character, albeit one that doesn’t appear in the novel. Would it be safe to assume this point of view is as close to Forster’s as makes no difference?
I’m not sure, because when portraying conversations and interactions between characters, the narrative voice changes. The narrator tells the reader what the characters are thinking and feeling – sometimes even identifying feelings that the character is only dimly aware they are experiencing, such as when the romantic feelings of Ronny and Adela are re-kindled in their ride home and subsequently accident. But again this is not the whole story – the narrator may see all, but reveals the story’s events only as and when they are observed or participated in by the characters. There is no breaking of the fourth wall, no jumping forward in time, and scenes from the past are strictly confined to memories, such as Dr Aziz’s memories of his wife. We observed the complex interactions between the characters with an informed understanding of their nuances, but the narrator is a guide rather than a translator – we are helped to understand what the characters are thinking and feeling, but don’t simply step inside their heads.
The narrator’s partial omniscience takes a further knock during and after the “incident” in the caves. The scene is initially shown from Dr Aziz’s point of view, and then recounted to Fielding. Fielding notes that this initial recount is already beginning to get slightly confused. The puzzling departure by Adela is unexplained – the point of view is limited. This scene is immediately preceded, and foreshadowed, by a scene narrated from Mrs Moore (Adela’s prospective mother in law, and de facto guardian). When the narrative finally portrays the scene from Adela’s perspective, her recollection is clouded and incomplete. In fact the narrative is completely confused through this part of the novel – it is never explained what the charge/allegation against Dr Aziz’s is. The one thing Adela is consistent about is “the man had never actually touched her” (208), but the English community reacts as if she has been ravaged, and indeed the doctor tells them that her life is at risk.
Why does this matter? I think it is always important to ask questions about the point of view. Who is telling me this? Are they telling me the whole truth? Is there something that is being kept from me? Are my thoughts and feelings being manipulated, and if so how.
I am sure Forster intended this story as a positive commentary on the Raj, and specifically the late colonial period when India was ruled, ineffectively, by the British. Forster portrays the effect that colonial power has on well meaning British people who come to India with the best of intentions – to be compassionate, to help the local population, to foster (near-pun intended) good relations between Hindu and Muslim, and so on. These intentions are eroded by the force of circumstances, until they become hard-faced colonial administrators, making decisions based upon what is best for Great Britain, not India, and living largely segregated lives apart from the local population. As the Collector says: “I have had 25 years in this country … and during those 25 years I have never known anything but disaster result when English people and |Indians attempt to be intimate socially.” (161). Newcomers quickly come to understand (or are taught) that mixing with the locals is harmful to both parties. His target is the Raj (and by extension, the Empire) not the people who kept it running.
You could see this all as liberal far-sightedness, Forster predicting the end of the Empire and the resulting inevitable partition between the majority Hindus and the minority Muslims, and commenting on the corrosive effect of Empire on the people administering it. Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” makes similar points. But I am not sure this is the whole story. “A Passage to India” doesn’t simply portray the effects of colonialism. There is a portrait of India and Indians themselves which at points is unsympathetic. Indians are shown to be pompous, unreliable, volatile, and dishonest, not just as individual character traits but consistently. When the narrator claims “Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time, in a way the Westerner cannot comprehend. It is his demon, as the Westerner’s is hypocrisy” (272) it is unclear whether this is the narrator voicing a judgment of one of the characters, or Forster’s personal judgment. This racism is more subtle than that of many of Forster’s characters, but forms a backdrop to the novel. I wanted to illustrate this by looking in more detail at the book’s opening paragraphs, which unusually I am going to repeat here in full to avoid you having to go and look it up.
“Except for the Marabar caves – and they are 20 miles off – the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary. Edged rather than washed by the river Ganges, it trails for a couple of miles along the bank, scarcely distinguishable from the rubbish it deposits so freely. There are no bathing steps on the river front as the Ganges happens not to be holy here; indeed there is no river front, and bazaars shut out the wide and shifting panorama of the stream. The streets are mean, the temples ineffective, and though a few fine houses exist they are hidden away in gardens or down alleys whose filth deters all but the invited guest. Chandrapore was never large or beautiful but 200 years ago it lay on the road between Upper India, then imperial, and the sea, and the fine houses date from that period. The zest for decoration stopped in the 18th century, nor was it ever democratic. There is no painting and scarcely any carving in the bazaars. The very wood seems made of mud, the inhabitants of mud moving. So abased, so monotonous, is everything that meets the eye, that when the Ganges comes down it might be expected to wash the excrescence back into the soil. Houses do fall, people are drowned and left rotting, but the general outline of the town persists, swelling here, shrinking there, like some low but indestructible form of life.