Jacob Trosen — Narratorial Slippage in A Passage to India

For me, one of the most interesting features of the novel are the ambiguous slides between text that can clearly be read as a character’s interiority, text that can clearly be read as a narrator’s commentary, and nebulous sentences where possession is muddled. As we’ve encountered in class, muddling appears to almost approach (if it isn’t exactly used as such) a kind of jargon, or invented technical language in this novel. In light of the narrator’s and the characters’ concern with the concept of a certainly muddled India, and perhaps a muddled world-at-large, and this narrative weirdness, I’d like start considering each through the other in a scene between Fielding and Adela after the trial has ended.

In this scene, Fielding and Adela appear to come to a similar position about the strangeness of the preceeding events (what occurred at the caves, why she recanted, what the echoes to begin with, how she’ll deal with her engagement to Ronny), and the narrator takes over and describes their shared interior experience: “She was at the end of her spiritual tether, and so was he. Were there worlds beyond which they could never touch, or did all that is possible enter their consciousness? They could not tell. They only realized that their outlook was more or less similar, and found in this a satisfaction. Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not the apparatus for judging” (293).

If we start by just looking at the range through which these sentences pass, we begin to slowly see how unclear the gap between narrative speech and character interiority becomes, especially if stress is placed on the reading. We begin seemingly clearly, with a description of both Adela and Fielding at the “end of [their] spiritual tether[s],” here we can imagine that this statement works similarly to the previous sentence, wherein Adela chastises herself internally for suggesting that the two of them may remain in contact telepathically. In this case, being at the end of a spiritual tether can be read as a recognition of Adela’s of herself, and a recognition of Fielding’s of his own length down that line. However, it is equally possible to read this as a statement by the narrator, seeing the effect of this conversation on both characters, rather than a description of their own internal realization. While the stakes for this first sentence may be rather low, the ambiguities soon become much more important.

In the next sentence, this same tension suddenly becomes much more powerful. Depending on which reading of the previous sentence, the following sentence can be alternatively read: “Were there worlds beyond which…wondered Fielding and Adela simultaneously? They could not tell.” or as an aside to the reader from our narrator–who is constantly asking similar questions, or making similar statements to the readers elsewhere–ending the aside with the statement that regardless of which (worlds beyond, or not) Fielding and Adela are none the wiser.
The same tension is at play in, “Perhaps life is a mystery…” but by the last two sentences, “Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one. They had not…” we seem to have left Adela and Fielding far behind somehow. By the time we read the hundred Indias sentence the text far more resembles the speech of the narrator, contemplating their experience as the narrator does with Mrs. Moore on page 230: “She had come to that state where the horror of the universe and its smallness are both visible at the same time…If this world is not to our taste, well, at all events there is Heaven, Hell, Annihilation–one or other of those large things, that huge scenic background of stars, fires, blue of black air”. Somehow, as the text seems to shift between the actual thoughts of Fielding and Adela, and a narrative gloss of those thoughts, we find ourselves back into the voice of the narrator himself. This slip-sliding through the barrier between character interiority and narrative aside, blurs the lines of demarcation we might try to establish in order to give a solid reading of the narrator. Especially because this sliding occurs not only between the Anglo-Indians and the narrator, but also between the Indian characters and the narrator’s speech. Unfortunately, for the purposes of this blog post, I’m going to have to leave that for another time. Maybe someone else can take this up in this format.

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Sierra Rose – Imagery and foreshadowing in the caves

In the opening chapter of “Caves” we have the depiction of the Marabar caves that foreshadow and set the scene for the rest of the section. In their depiction and imagery is reflected some of the themes we have been talking about in class, such as India as excess and the concept of nothingness….That’s a lot for one sentence so I’m going to start with India as excess which is represented by the sheer size and grandeur of the Marabar hills: “They rise abruptly, insanely, without proportion that is kept by the wildest hills elsewhere, they bear no relation to anything dreamt or seen…Hinduism has scratched and plastered a few rocks but the shrines are unfrequented, as if pilgrims, who generally seek the extraordinary, had hear found too much of it,” (136). The size and vastness and unknowability of the Marabar hills are directly correlated to how uncomfortable the English women feel in the caves. The British rely on knowledge and naming and being able to measure something but the Marabar caves cannot be rendered that way. The caves themselves are so many and in such excess without measurable distinguishability that they mean nothing; if you can’t measure or relate or distinguish something does it have any meaning at all? “Having seen one such cave, having seen two, having seen three, four…the visitor returns to Chandrapore uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all,”(137). Adela and Mrs. Moore, like the visitors before them, are faced with the excess of the caves and cannot begin to fathom the extent to which all that excess really leads to vast nothingness. Nothingness, in a way, is excess here because there is so very much of it. The idea particularly frightens Mrs. Moore and Adela above everyone else because they are the only English and Christians in the group and represent imperialism (built on order) being faced with the excessive nothingness of India. They are uncomfortable because they cannot impose rules or laws on the caves. They cannot make sense of how the sounds being reverberated back at them have changed into “boum.”

Darkness also plays an important role in the caves where light represents understanding. With light you can impart visual law on the things you see around you. You can have comprehension of that sense but the hills are described as “various shades of dark,”(149) suggesting there will be various levels of misunderstanding. Mrs. Moore and Adela are accosted in the caves and it is because of darkness that misunderstanding ensues. For Mrs. Moore, a baby touches her face, which in itself isn’t scary at all but in the dark without understanding it becomes completely frightening. Marabar, itself, is described as “unspeakable”(136) which foreshadows the confusion that follows both Adela’s and Mrs. Moore’s attacks; between the darkness of the caves shrouding their comprehension and the cave’s unspeakable qualities they cannot relate any truthfulness of what happened and instead lie to impose some kind of order. Adela lies about Aziz because someone had to do it, right? There had to be some kind of explanation, right? It needed order. Mrs. Moore lies about why she is feeling fatigued and actually urges Adela to go on without her which becomes an attributing factor to what happens to her.

In conclusion to all this nothingness, I also wanted to mention professor Godbole. I’m not going to get into the echo thing because I’m saving that for my midterm, but I do think its relevant to mention how at several times in “Caves” his name was brought up (156, 163) in association to understanding. Godbole represents understanding and soothing from nothingness by being a marker for Hinduism. The hills are described as “older than all spirit,”(136) which means they predate religion. The geology of India existed before religion (135) which suggests it had a hand in shaping India’s religions, like Hinduism. This idea that India in its excess has a part in the formation of Hinduism lends support to the claim that Hinduism is the only thing that can combat the excess nothingness by swallowing it with its own vastness. Hinduism as a religion is all encompassing. Godbole, being a Hindu then, acts as the guide through the fear of nothingness to the acceptance of nothingness. Since Hinduism is the only thing that has “scratched” (136) the surface of the hills it stands to reason that it comes closest to navigating and comprehending them as well. Since Godbole missed the train, the rest of the party was subsequently doomed to wander in nothingness without a guide, which is exactly what they did. Furthermore, Hinduism, in relation to India’s creation and a seer stone for nothingness, is also a factor in Mrs. Moore’s crisis of faith (166) and another reason the two English women were so much more affected by the caves than anyone else; Unlike the all-encompassing nature of Hinduism, the restrictive rules of Christianity and imperialism hinder the comprehension of nothingness and thus make it something fearful and uncomfortable.

Blogs due April 24 – Passage to India

This week’s blog prompts have been written by the M.A. students in the class. BE GRATEFUL. (We’re still waiting on a few–we’ll have them by the end of the day on Wednesday.)

Blog Group 1 (A-H): reply to a blog entry from last week. 300-400 words.

Blog Group 2 (I-N): You have the week off; I encourage you to keep up with what others have written.

Blog Group 3 (O-Z): 700-800-word posts due Friday, April 24, by 11:59 p.m. Please tag your post “Blog 4.”

Please remember to sign your name (at least first name and last initial) so that it’s clear who’s posted what. And never miss an opportunity to close-read language.


Prompts: Feel free to bring in excerpts from previous texts, or from the Butler book, to illuminate whatever aspects of Forster’s novel you wish to discuss. And be sure to cite specific examples from the novel. The more you can analyze language, the better off you’ll be.

  1. How does Forster’s style, which seems to gloss the story as it tells it, adhere to, alter or reject one or two notions of modernist aesthetic we’ve encountered in this course so far (mediation, modernist as cultural diagnostician, the abstracting of art, fragmentation, noise, etc.)?
  2. How might or mightn’t we consider Adela a character on whom the imperial ideology in Chandrapore is inscribed?
  3. In Chapter 14 of A Passage to India the narrator remarks, “Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession” (142). Can you point to other moments in the text where the narrator seems to be asserting its opinion? Is our narrator consistent? Reliable? Unbiased? Western? How, would you argue, do the narrator’s interjections shape our experiences of the characters in this novel?
  4. After Mrs. Moore leaves the caves, she thinks about how the echo in caves upset her and that “Prof. Godbole had never mentioned an echo; it never impressed him, perhaps” (147). Mrs. Moore is not the only one who learns of the echoes as they happen. In the detailed description of the caves in chapter 12, there is no mention of the echoes that are central to the characters’ experience in the caves. What do you make of this omission, of letting the reader experience the echoes for the first time alongside the characters? What significance do echoes hold in the first section of novel, and does the meaning change once they reach the caves?
  5. Close-read the significance of the imagery in the opening chapter of the “Caves” section.  How do these images correlate with the subsequent action?
  6. Discuss specific instances that presage Aziz’s arrest.  What does the disconnect between Indian and English cultures reveal about these moments?
  7. “Caves” highlights the binary of “dull” versus “interesting” life experience at least twice (“the visitor returns to Chandrapore uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all” [137];  “most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it” [146]). The traveling party’s encounter with the tree stump/snake (155) shows us that Aziz would rather scare his guests with an interesting untruth (i.e., it’s a snake) rather than calm them with the dull truth (i.e., it’s a stump). Considering Aziz’s obsession with being a perfect host, why is his choice here significant and how does it shed light on the book’s theme of intercultural intelligibility?
  8. Inside the caves, all sound is distilled into a single echoing “boum” (163) that instigates a panic attack for Mrs. Moore.  Once she emerges from the cave, this “terrifying echo” (162) grows more articulate:  “Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, [the echo] had managed to murmur, ‘Pathos, piety, courage – they exist, but are identical…Everything exists, nothing has value’” (165). What enables Mrs. Moore – and no one else – to decipher the echo’s muddled message?