Inscrutability of the colony

Leonard Woolf’s autobiographical account in Growing reminded me of Orwell’s ‘Shooting an Elephant’, in that they both highlight the white man’s increasing sense of alienation and unease in the colony. Woolf’s recounts his life in Ceylon as a civil servant stating that there “always retained for [him] a tinge of theatrical unreality”. This reminds me of the idea of performativity that we have discussed in Orwell’s narratives where colonial masters are required to act according to the code of the sahib. For Orwell, the expectation to act accordingly resulted in the loss of individual freedom for both the white man and the native. He then saw this as the oppression of the machinations of imperialism that he desired to extricate himself from. However in Growing, the “theatrical unreality” that Woolf describes seems to hint at his own sense of unfamiliarity with Ceylon (which is after all, geographically and culturally far removed from England), and the uncanny feeling that the colony produces in Woolf. In addition, Woolf also states that “the whole of [his] past life in London and Cambridge seemed suddenly to have vanished, to have faded away into unreality”. This alludes to his own displaced identity onto a foreign land, detached from his own history. His new environment was vastly different from what he was familiar with (even the pace of life and ease of accessibility in London and Ceylon are seen in contrast to each other), and this unfamiliarity made him uncomfortable within the colony, despite his privileged ruling position.

Woolf’s description of Jaffna country also reminds me of the inability to understand the essence of the colony due to the inscrutability of India in A Passage to India. The “long distances and difficulties of transport” and the immensity and vastness of Jaffna allude to the difficulty of accessing the place both literally and metaphorically:

Here again is one of those featureless plains the beauty of which is only revealed fully to you after you have lived with it long enough to become absorbed into its melancholy solitude and immensity.

Plainly speaking, the colony was inaccessible to the imperialist because it seems to be limitless (the sands “stretch far away” under the “enormous sky”) and existing outside the scales of comprehension. Thereby creating the sense of “theatrical unreality” that Woolf feels in his participation in the colonial enterprise.

Note-taking (Oct 22, Part 1)

This week in class, we began by looking at a short clip of Michael Kimmel giving a lecture on gender studies and it was interesting that we should start with it because he brought up the notion of how gender had always been presumed as a “woman’s problem” and how men do not think that it is about them and this one-sidedness is very political.  Another issue that he brought up was how race complicates the notion of gender and like gender, race is visible only to those are afflicted by it and thus he suggests that by extension privilege is invisible by those who have it. This is interesting because by conflating race with gender politics, he is drawing our attentions to the fact that these social constructs are merely instruments of upholding patriarchal power. Kimmel also discussed that he being a white middle class male, what right does he have to talk about gender and this brings forth the notion of responsibility and right. I think this can be related to Achebe’s article where he discusses his position in trying to redeem the image of Africa, and to a large extent Africans, that was portrayed in Heart of Darkness.

We then moved on to a more general discussion of gender. These were some of the points brought up:

–          Gender as a social construct vs. biological construct of sex and because of the fact that gender is a social construct, there are certain norms ascribed to it that emphasizes the performative aspect of gender.

–          Gender is tied to culture – different views of gender roles in different cultures.

–          Gender as part of a larger issue of identity politics.

–          Even though gender politics tend to highlight the plight of the oppressed women and men perceive that it does not involve them as Kimmel mentioned, both men and women are tied down by these constructions. E.g. boys are told to behave in a boyish manner: to play with toy cars instead of dolls, girls to sit properly etc.

–          This was discussed as a reflection of a kind of social order as a means of disciplining the masses and thereby highlighting the larger issue of the power structure of patriarchy.

–          However, there is also a tendency to bring gender politics into a text that is not necessarily gender biased or even aware of its gender biasness and it may seem forced at times.

–          In a way, this can be seen as an overcompensation for women: because of the long history of oppression done to women, there is a tendency to overcompensate for this long history by labeling every text that even has a tiniest hint of bias against women as misogynistic and oppressive. Here, it was highlighted that this is one of the pitfalls of abstract theorization.

–          However, even though at times it may be seen as an overcompensation, it is important that we do look at texts and apply these gendered readings to them as it is more dangerous to not allow the opportunity of theorizing.

–          Similarly, as Achebe pointed out in his article ‘An Image of Africa’, it would be more dangerous to simply see Heart of Darkness as a text about the degeneration of a European mind than to accuse Conrad of being a racist.

–          Gender, like all social constructs, is seen as a kind of marker, a means of establishing a form of typicality

–          The issue of stereotypes was raised by our guest speaker, and he established the fact that there is nothing wrong with stereotypes as it is a way of gaining access to something one does not know, however, it starts becoming dangerous when one solely relies one’s view of a gender/race/etc. on it and that enforcement of these stereotypes without clarification is dangerous.

–          Gender is a fluid/changing construct and at times most take it for granted that the social norms of gender are universal, when in fact they are not. An example given: the hijras in India who are considered the third sex and even though as a group, they do not have a place in the so-called universal social construction of gender, they are revered in India.

–          Our guest speaker also clarified the origins of the term ‘patriarchy’ in that it was not originally associated with men, but with power but because of the evolution of the power structure such that men were the dominant group in power for much of history, the term patriarchy eventually became associated with the rule of men.

–          It would be useful to look at Foucault’s theory of productive power as a means of analyzing gender politics.

This week’s presentation concentrated on gender oppression and modernism in Burmese Days. The crisis of gender in modernism was highlighted. The notion that modernism, classified as high art, was considered a male domain was discussed as  problematic and at times, this misogynistic view is seen in texts. It is interesting that in this module itself we are studying modernist works of male authors. Are we too partaking in the idea that modernism as high art is a male domain?

The presentation discussed gender oppression, but it concentrated largely on the oppression of women in the text and it seems that we, as readers, tend to fall into the trap of what Kimmel talked about, thinking that gender oppression is a women’s problem. Peiyi clarified the fact that men too are oppressed in Burmese Days by gender rules/stereotypes, especially Flory, who in the end dies because of the very fact that he was not able to subscribe to the prescribed notions of his gender and of his race. Moreover, even in Shooting an Elephant, we see that men are oppressed by the masculine imperialist ideology to behave in a certain way. The narrator in Shooting an Elephant has to actively participate in the upholding of said ideology by behaving in a manner fit for a colonialist, his actions are dictated by this ideology. It is because of this that he shoots the elephant even though he does not feel the need to but by doing it, he reinforces his role as a male imperialist in the colonial world. Similarly, in Burmese Days, Flory has to follow the rules of the pukka sahib.

The notion of women being active agents of empire was brought up, a point that Stoler’s article mentions. The way by which the European women treat the natives is seen as their own version of upholding the ideology of empire and by extension gender rules. There is distrust on the part of European women towards the natives and some of it stemming out from a belief that natives are highly sexualized figures and thereby posing a real threat to these women. Thus, by treating the natives in the way that they do, they are upholding the ideology of empire. However, Stoler’s article discusses how this perceived threat was a seed planted by imperialism as a means of using women as the basis of upholding the imperialist ideology.

Women are also seen as craving an access to the imperial project by reinforcing the notions of Englishness and otherness, however, this notion is contested on the grounds whether it is a conscious effort or not. This is seen in Burmese Days with Elizabeth constantly commenting on how ugly the Burmese are and by extension implying that they are ugly because of their very difference to the English. This can be related to the notion of the rule of colonial difference discussed by Chatterjee. Even when Adela in A Passage to India is relatively civil to the natives and shows an interest (albeit superficial) in seeing the “real India”, she is interested in the exoticness of India which seems to suggest that she is interested in the very different way that India contrasts to England and thereby simply reinforcing the notion of colonial difference. Moreover, with Elizabeth’s entrance in Burmese Days, she tries to impose Englishness by bringing up notions of morality and manliness, which eventually lead to the Flory’s demise.

In Heart of Darkness, we also see the role of women in the reinforcement of imperialist ideology and upholding the rule of colonial difference. This is seen in one of the few times in the text where the European woman is being mentioned and it is significant when a woman is mentioned in the text, she only serves to enforce the Englishness/European-ness vs otherness. In the text, the European is described as being the refined opposite of the Amazon with descriptions like “she had a mature capacity for fidelity, for belief, for suffering.” Thus, this relates to the point that Peiyi brought up in her presentation that women in the colonial context are seen as either a legalized entity or a disposable commodity. In this case, the European woman is both, because while she is a legalized entity, she is seen as a disposable commodity in the way she is being used to highlight otherness, she can be seen as a mere prop. Similarly, Adela can also be seen in the same light. After the fiasco of the trial, she appears to be discarded like a commodity because her use as an imperial ideological tool had ceased.

European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire

As I was reading Stoler’s article, it seems that whatever she said seems to be applicable to A Passage to India. This is especially so when she says that “Their (European women) presence and safety was repeatedly invoked to clarify racial lines.” (57) Recalling  A Passage to India, the Anglo-Indians used the pretext of a supposed attack on Adela as a means of clarifying the racial lines that Stoler talks about. It was after the supposed attack had happened that they started proclaiming how wrong it was to even think that the natives were any bit civilized as to even host a bridge party for them. Moreover, Stoler also mentions that “European women needed protection from the “primitive” sexual urges aroused by the sight of them.” (58) Again, recalling A Passage to India, even though Aziz himself found Adela to be quite ugly and rather unattrative, the Anglo-Indians already had this mindset of the sexualized native and seized upon the opportunity that presented as a means of upholding the racial distinctions and thereby to punish the native as a way of putting them in their place.

I entitled my post “European women: savior-scapegoats of Empire” because of the fact that even though they are being heralded as the ones to be protected, they are at the same time “frequently blamed for provoking their (the natives) desires.” (60) Again, in A Passage to India, when Adela refused to testify against Aziz, she was similarly blamed which seems to imply a classic case of blaming the victim. Thus, European women in the colonies seem to have it much worse than women back in Europe for they are being used as emblems of colonial laws but at the same time being blamed for being what they are.

Further, in Burmese Days, even the natives tend to have a greater hate for European women such that “englishwomen [were] considered a race apart, possibly not even human.” (115) In a way, the European women are almost worse off than the native women as they are being scapegoated for the harsh laws that the colonial government impose on the natives even though they cannot really do much about it. These women also tend to not have a choice when being sent to the colonies to be married off, as Elizabeth in Burmese Days, having to choose living a life of relative poverty in Europe or being the savior-scapegoat of Empire.

The sexuality of colonial dominance

I once read that the native woman of a colonized state is rendered twice displaced; sexuality itself being a mark of Otherness. Stoler’s article was an interesting insight to the condition and the colonial experience of the European woman, who Stoler claims does not escape imperial control, especially having neglect the perspective of European female “Other” in our study of the texts. Reading the article, I cannot help but be recall the dynamics of sexual and social order posited in Forster’s A Passage to India. I’d therefore like to revisit the text in application to Stoler’s argument.

In A Passage to India, sexuality is embedded into the text in negotiation of social dominance. Stoler suggests that racial anxiety is expressed through sexuality. If so, could it also be suggested that racial anxiety is repressed through repressed sexuality? Adela figures as a kind of asexual female character, lacking the sensuality of a woman, as Aziz is quick to note. Her relationship with Ronny, both of whom are engaged to be married, is awkward, to say the least, and there hardly appears to be any sexual tension between them. Repressed sexuality then culminates to an animalistic thrill merely upon the brushing of hands. “Her hand touched his, owing to a jolt, and one of the trills so frequent in the animal kingdom passed between them and announced that their difficulties were only a lover’s quarrel” (Chapter 8). I’d argue that Ronny does not so much repress his sexuality then displace it onto his social dominance of the natives, accounting then for Adela’s ability to maintain a (veneer of) friendship with Aziz as an epitome of (hypocritical) hospitality and kindness between Indians and the British. It seems that inter racial relations are only successful in the absence of sexuality. In fact, Aziz manages to develop a casual platonic friendship with one of the main female characters, Adela, because he finds her not only sexually unattractive but even plain and ugly. On the other hand, Ronny, who is constantly aware of his need to exert sexual and social superiority over his mother, Adela, as well as the natives, struggles to keep his interaction with them on a level of civility. This displacement of sexuality onto the ruling of the native colony and policing of the European women brought into the colonized state could explain Ronny’s metaphorical sterility in his romantic relationship with Adela.

The colonial politics of exclusion in the literary world of Forster’s novel does indeed impose restrictions of the European women such that they do not participate equally in the prejudices and pleasures of colonial dominance. Stoler posits that “European women often appear in male colonial writings only as a reverse image – fulfilling not sexual but other power fantasies of European men” (44). And indeed upon Adela’s sexual awakening at the episode at the cave, she is effectively silenced by the European men who take on the role of policing sexual control. At the club, the European women parrot the views and condemnations of the natives as voiced by their husbands in their idle gossip and in the courtroom serve superficial function by insisting on sitting on chairs on a platform to give the illusion of power.

Note-taking for Lord Jim (Wk 7): Overall Summary

Topic of Class

Week 7’s class focused mainly on the questioning of a singular perspective (whether of Marlow’s viewpoint in Lord Jim or Alfred Russel Wallace’s views in his scientific travel book The Malay Archipelago), highlighting how the methods employed (written and oral narrative or empirical evidence) resulted in an effect on the reader’s perception of an issue (Jim’s identity or the nature/characteristics of the Dyaks).

The first part of class centered on the uses and effects of narrative in Lord Jim.  The presentation first explored the employment of both the oral and written traditions to question the stability of Marlow’s role as storyteller and author. The presence of various narrators giving rise to multiple perspectives was then investigated, questioning the possibility of ever getting a true representation of Jim’s identity.

The second half of class was then devoted to the discussion of how Wallace’s text relates to Lord Jim and how both texts exemplify the crisis of knowledge and representation. The importance of being aware of Wallace’s employment of the empirical evidence methodology and its ability to shape results was underlined, but more pertinently, the issue of how science is employed to augment power was raised, and how it in turn justifies instances of colonialism seen even in Lord Jim.



The power to construct truth

“My information was fragmentary, but I’ve fitted the pieces together, and there is enough of them to make an intelligible picture.” (Conrad 262).

Just as Marlow has the power to fit pieces of information together and give us his account of Jim, Wallace has the power to designate and scribe his opinions of the characteristics of the Dyaks. Even in Wallace’s collecting of butterfly specimens, it involves a tedious process of selection, which points to the artifice of construction and how methodology can affect results. Here, we see how those in power are privileged to select and show us their version of truth, which thereby points us back to the questioning of the authority and reliability of a singular perspective and constructed “truth”.

The power of empirical evidence to inadvertently justify colonialism

Wallace asserts that the “limited number of [the Dyak woman’s] progeny” (70) is due to the “hard labour of the women, and the heavy weights they constantly carry” (70). He continues to state that with advancing civilization, better systems of agriculture and division of labour, “the women will have more household duties to attend to, and will then cease to labour in the field” (70).

Here, Wallace implies that with improving systems of agriculture and labour division, less physical labour for the Dyak women and increased attending to household duties would result in higher fertility for them, which instead validates (and exalts) the Victorian practice of relegating womenfolk to the domestic sphere and their role as caretakers of children. In making such a statement, he also highlights the sensibility of the “high class European example” (Wallace 71), and justifies colonialism to improve the natives’ way of life.


Connections with Other Topics from Other Weeks

Both the presentation on Lord Jim and the discussion of Wallace’s text led us to question the possibility of a true history when told only from a single person’s perspective. The idea of moving from a singular or fixed viewpoint to embracing a multiplicity of perspectives is one that has resonated throughout our module so far.

If we recall the readings in the second week, Gikandi’s article brought us to an understanding of how Picasso’s art plays with perspectives to complicate the meaning of things, just as Auerbach suggests how the consciousness of a range of characters in Virginia Woolf’s To The Lighthouse also opens us to different readings of the “real” Mrs Ramsay. Similarly, in Forster’s A Passage to India and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, the varying perceptions of India and the various narratives in HOD (whether from the narrator to us, Marlow to the narrator, or from others to Marlow etc) respectively actually contribute to a more all-encompassing view. However, to be able to reach the real India/Truth is still ultimately impossible, just as the true identity of Jim remains “inscrutable” (Conrad 318) and an “insoluble mystery” (Conrad 234).

In looking at renowned biologist Alfred Russel Wallace’s scientific travel book containing his (skewed) opinions of natives that seem to only justify colonialism, we discussed the idea of power: Power, not just to inscribe characteristics onto a native people who could not speak for themselves then, but power to influence the masses, and power to pass on HIS opinions as truth. This power Fanon speaks of too, in the colonist solely and continually fabricating the image of the colonized, passing that image off as truth. We can perhaps better understand Achebe’s anger towards the classification of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as a great work of art, of the power of aesthetics and art to gloss over, play down and disguise racism, such that despite propagating such racist depictions, the novel still remains an influential piece particularly in British literature, widely-read and greatly-loved.

Note taking (week 6 part 1)

Topic of Class

Lord Jim: the romantic “hero” of the adventure novel

The presentation examined the identity of both the text and the titular character in relation to the adventure romance tradition, and Conrad’s re-appropriation of conventions to critique dominant ideologies. The adventure tradition is affirmed in Lord Jim through the formal conventions that Conrad appropriates in his writing. However, it is later subverted because the pro-imperialist ideology that is inherent in adventure fiction is destabilized: the civilization, morality and rationality of the white man is questioned in the text and becomes ambiguous.

The romantic tradition is identified in Jim’s character as the idealistic hero who upholds strict ideals. His self-exile to Patusan and his eventual death does not provide a satisfactory conclusion to his strict adherence to romantic aspirations. The examination of other white characters that may provide satisfactory alternatives to Jim’s failure to embody the ideas of honor and morality reveals the idealistic aspirations inherent in the notion of the English gentleman. These ideals are strictly upheld by the characters however, they are undermined because honor and duty become self-serving and unrealistic. While the white male characters failed to adequately represent English superiority, the native characters serve to reinforce the binary distinctions between the white man and the other. The Patusan natives are either associated with degeneration or that are in deference to Jim.

Ultimately, the identification of the adventure romance tradition in the text and the simultaneous undermining of that tradition ties in to the modernist concerns with the obscurity of truth. Lord Jim and Lord Jim fail to fit adequately into proper categories resulting in ambiguity and ambivalences.


Jim’s romantic imagination of seeing himself “saving people from sinking ships, cutting away masts in a hurricane, swimming through a surf with a line… in a small boat upon the ocean kept up the hearts of despairing men – always an example of devotion to duty, and as unflinching as a hero in a book” is undermined in his abandonment of his ship.

When crisis arises, Jim fails to act on his ideals and abandons the ship in an act of cowardice. This romantic imagination is thus critiqued by Conrad as unrealistic and not substantiated by action.  In addition, although it may be argued that Jim’s eventual death was an honorable and redemptive death because he dies for his values, it begs the question of the futility of values.

While Jim’s movement to Patusan is viewed as an attempt at self-redemption, it also reveals his egotism; Jim desires to uphold his ideas of honor so that he can live out his heroic aspirations (emphasis mine). His morals and values are ambiguous since they are not borne out of his duty, but are seen as self-serving. Likewise, pro-idealist ideology that was prevalent in the adventure tradition is destabilized because the colonization motive of bringing civilization to places outside England is revealed to be an egoistic enterprise that reinforces white superiority.

Topics from Other Weeks

Forster adopts the Manichean view of the white man and the figure of the native in the beginning of A Passage to India: the division of physical location between the English and the natives is apparent. However like Conrad, Forster undermines the pro-imperialist ideology through his critique of organized religion, in the form of Christianity (the religion of the white man).

The English characters do not practice the Christian virtues of love, forgiveness and consideration to others. Adela’s accusation of Aziz is unsubstantiated but believed because the word of the white woman is privileged over that of the native. This results in Aziz being condemned by the English before being allowed to speak; the native’s voice is excluded. Christian virtues are not embodied in the characters instead, the English characters worship the idea of white superiority. The notion of white supremacy is thus undermined and viewed as morally inferior to Indian religion (in particular, Hinduism) that is accommodating. However, the binary views are not re-established by positing Hinduism as a fully satisfactory alternative to Christianity.

Convention is re-appropriated to comment and to critique itself by modernist writers. Conrad and Forster breaks down pro-imperialist ideology to highlight its flaws and to create texts and characters that are hard to define.

The Trial: Trying for Truth

Like A Passage to India, Lord Jim can be read through The Trial as a quest for knowing the Truth. A trial embodies an investigation into a case, not just for the “fundamental why, but the superficial how, of [the] affair” (45).

Jim is fully aware of the trial’s objective, trying “to tell honestly the truth of this experience” (23), and to “go on talking for truth’s sake” (26). He knows the trial seeks facts, but more importantly, he realizes that facts cannot explain everything, that these “questions did not matter though they had a purpose” (45). The sailors are precisely looking for something beyond facts, “the expectation of some essential disclosure as to the strength, the power, the horror, of human emotions” (45), which Jim understands he is unable to ever provide a satisfactory explanation for regardless of his truthfulness.

When Jim recounts “the sound of his own truthful statements confirmed his deliberate opinion that speech was of no use to him any longer” (27), it reflects the realization of the inadequacy of language to accurately express emotional truth. This is similar to how Brierly’s only response is not via copious explanations which would ultimately fail him, but by committing suicide and bringing the secrets with him into the sea. In A Passage to India, Aziz’s trial may have revealed the truth of his innocence, but it can never articulate the truth behind the caves and echo that caused such a profound psychological and emotional impact on Adela, resulting in her accusation of him.

The Trial thus symbolizes how humans seek to find meaning on two levels: the first as that of tangible facts. But facts do not satisfy and humans still seek meaning on a deeper level, i.e. the Truth, the emotions beyond the facts, or the real meaning of the caves and echo. The Trial represents how ultimately, it is difficult to reach this Truth and reflects instead the failure of language in attempting to articulate the Truth.

India As Battlefield

Fanon may have over-generalized in his representation of the colonized world as “a world divided in two”, but it does premise the major themes of violence and warfare in Forster’s A Passage to India – at the heart of which is a clash between two fundamentally different cultures, those of East and West.

Battlelines are clearly defined early in the novel by the Anglo-Indian’s imposed restriction on the entry of Indians into the Chandrapore Club. Mr. Turton’s proposed Bridge Party, which he explained to Adela to be “a party to bridge the gulf between East and West”, as we know did little of that sort if not to further highlight the segregation and divide with the Indian guests standing idly at one side of the tennis lawn and the English at the other. In fact, reflecting on the Bridge Party after reading Fanon’s essay, the event could be seen as a warfare strategy. Fanon writes that “the proximity and frequent, direct intervention by the police and military ensure the colonized are kept under close scrutiny, and contained by rifle butts and napalm” (4). In the absence of the military and fire arms in the novel, superficial social events and its limited interaction functions as well as a means of keeping ‘the other’ or the enemy, if you will, in close proximity and under surveillance. (Keep your friends close but your enemies even closer, as the cliché saying goes).

But of course there are individuals who defy Fanon’s over-generalized characterization of the colonist and colonized by resisting collectivist temptation. A rebel of sorts, Fielding ventures to cross these battlelines to prevent further acts of vicious and unjustified violence from occurring. Fielding plays an integral role in the orchestration of Aziz’s defense,  gathering evidence to dispel suppositions of Aziz’s guilt. He is able to see past the superficial categories of race and nationality and defend Aziz for what he truly is – an innocent, upright, and virtuous human being. But alas, “despite the success of his pacification, in spite of [the colonist’s] appropriation, the colonist always remains a foreigner” (5). Fanon’s binary opposition of the identities of the colonist versus the colonized seem to have resonance in the novel’s affirmation of the impossibility of friendship between Aziz and Fielding at its close.

Fanon and violence

While I disagree on Fanon’s insistence on categorizing the colonial world as Manichaestic, I agree with his claim that decolonization is a programme of complete disorder. Any process that seeks to remove a previous system in its entirety and to start anew with another system, especially in the case of decolonization in Southeast Asia where the system that was introduced is one that is not only new but has not been proven to work, would definitely cause disorder. His claim that decolonization is a programme of complete disorder brought me back to the last section (Temples) of A Passage to India where Forster documents a festival where there is complete disorder, and noticably there are not any Anglo-Indian characters in this section. Perhaps Forster was also already aware of the violence that was to come with decolonization.

Also, I feel that while violence is never a good way towards striving for a resolution, I feel that decolonization was a necessary violent process. After the violence that had been inflicted upon the natives during the process of colonization, I feel the only way to start completely anew is through violence as a ‘cleansing’ process. As such, even though the violence that decolonization brought about was viewed as only another example of native barbarism and as such seemed to only proved that they weren’t ready to be free from the colonialists, I feel that it was a way that the natives could come out of the period of history which was marked with violence.

On Passage, Fielding and modernism

The tendency to read Forster’s novel in political lens, in the legacy of the colonial history that determines our ‘post’ existence today, is an inherent and unavoidable complicity on our part. Yet to read Passage outwardly from the start in the binaristic terms of “East versus West” or “Black versus White” is to miss the subtle nuances, complexities and intricacies of the novel, for while modernism at one level does not outwardly criticize colonialism, Forster’s novel nonetheless put forth a means to understanding the multiple relationships between the colonizer and the colonized, and in turn provides the platform for the questioning of attitudes towards the self-righteous hegemony of Empire.

Fielding’s problematic relationship with his colonized other Dr. Aziz in a sense emblematizes the Forster’s troubling attitude towards Empire, as in throwing his lot with the Indians and in turn becoming an outcast from the white members of the Club, he is able to empathize with his Other. Yet empathy is about as far as Fielding could push his relationship with the Other, since the colonial mentality is so deeply embedded within each party that both Fielding and Dr. Aziz needed to see one another as enemies at the very end in spite of their personal friendship. The role of Fielding in the densely psychological novel may thus be seen as a mirror of Forster’s unconscious – his superior position as the empowered colonist, which does not dismiss the feelings of complicity, guilt and empathy towards the colonized.

The nationalistic outcries by the end serve to show how modernism acts as the gateway to further postcolonial sentiments by providing that necessary rupturing of consciousness and highlighting the now shaky foundations on which Empire is build (“upon sand”), with hints of further violence to come.

The English-Educated Indian and the Cycle of Imperialism

Being colonized by a language has larger implications for one’s consciousness as assuming a language is equated to the assumption of a culture.  Speaking English means that one accepts, or is coerced into accepting, the collective consciousness of the English, which comes with ideology that profiles and disengages the darker ethnicities, such as the Indian “psychology of crime” (Passage 187), or that “darker races are physically attracted to the fairer but not vice versa” (243).

With this in mind, the place of the educated Indian in the novel and within in the sociohistorical context of British India becomes one of interest.  Language has the potential of being an equalizing force or a subversive tool for the educated Indian.  It is what separates the “useful” Indians from the ones that could cause problems for the British Raj, as is noted during the Bridge Party.  However, as seen in the case of Aziz, it appears that the mastery of the colonizer’s language is something that elevates the subaltern in his own eyes to the level of the colonizer.  He makes the figure of the non-English educated Indian the new subaltern figure, relegated to the role of the comic gull who can be mocked (Mahmoud Ali) .

The derision towards the new subaltern supplies the power for the educated Indian, who fails to utilize the subversive potential of language to break the cycle of Imperialism.  Instead, as he fuels the colonial machine further by using the language of the colonizer as a marker for the colonial subject; by allowing the colonial power/colonial subject  divide to exist, albeit (from their point of view) with fewer on the latter side.

Versions of Truth in Passage to India

If we can suggest a thing such as “the Truth”, then in the eyes of the reader, the “Truth” is that Mrs. Moore did nothing to bail Aziz out of his plight; instead it was Adela who woke up from her stupor and rescued Aziz from a lifetime of reprehension. Yet the fact Aziz never forgives Adela and instead looks to the deceased Mrs. Moore as a figure of recuperation, fondness and “love” only complicates our understanding of what “Truth” really is. While we may be (reductively) inclined to say that Aziz is deluded, I think it is actually more complex than that because his version of the “truth” is not any less valid than our sympathetic reading of it either. After all, his is also the result of how he has chosen to comprehend the turn of events. 

 Using Adela’s words “we must all die; all these personal relations we try to live by are temporary. I used to feel death selected people, it is a notion one gets from novels, […] Now ‘death spares no one’ begins to be real” (249), I would like to posit that Aziz is therefore “writing” his own life story by immortalizing Mrs. Moore – because that is the only way he can construct his version of reality and come to terms with the illogical horrors that happened to him. 

Death had selected Mrs. Moore rather randomly, yet Aziz makes a martyr out of Mrs. Moore exactly because she died. To me, I think this is because putting Mrs Moore on the pedestle is a much easier task than forgiving the living Adela for Aziz. Upon death, Mrs. Moore can no longer speak, so Aziz is free to do whatever he wants to her memory. Without contradictions, Aziz is then able to construct a coherent narrative (like that of a “novel” in Adela’s words) that helps him cope with the unexpected and bizarre accusation that he was faced with out of nowhere. In a way, I could not help but wonder if Mrs. Moore had lived and continued to display her apathy towards all that happened (including Aziz), would he still have elevated her to such a status?

 And I think the implication of this is therefore the impulse that is inherent within Modernism itself too– that, in the end it’s not about what reality is (if we can even access it in the first place) but the stories and versions of truth that we tell that is more important to giving our existence meaning and coherence. This is however not to say that our versions of truths are blatant lies in any way; rather it is the way we have chosen to look at life; and it is need not always exist in line with what really happened from a neutral third party’s point of view (a la the reader in this story). 

Political Liberalism in A Passage to India

At the end of last week’s seminar, one of the questions posed was about the ways in which the discourse of political liberalism is played out in A Passage to India.

Amongst other events, the arrest and eventual trial of Aziz is one instance where we encounter the discourse of political liberalism. After the arrest of Aziz, we notice Mr. Turton, the Collector, bemoaning the fact that ‘there seemed nothing for it but the old weary business of compromise and moderation’ and longing for ‘the good old days when an Englishman could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked afterwards’ (172). Contextually, this points to the increase in demand for rights of the citizen-subject and suggests that political liberalism serves as a fundamental challenge to political power being concentrated in the hands of the nobility. This also explains why Mr. Turton felt that Ronny’s decision to refuse Aziz bail was ‘[un]wise of poor young Heaslop’ for ‘the Government of India itself [was watching] – and behind it [was] that caucus of cranks and cravens, the British Parliament’ (172).

Ultimately however, the discourse of political liberalism remains a muted one. The repeated naming of Mr. Turton as ‘The Collector’ reinforces his role as a servant of the British Parliament, pinning his identity in relation to his national duty, and acknowledging his powerful status. In contrast, Aziz, as a citizen-subject, is acutely aware of his disempowered status, knowing from the moment of his arrest ‘that an English-woman’s word would always outweigh his own’ (221). This indeed proves to be the case – it is only when Adela admits that Aziz did not follow her into the cave is Aziz declared to be innocent and set free.

Writing as an act of Colonization

Written from within a liberal ethos, in the style of ironic discourse, A Passage to India seems to acknowledge that what is defined as India by Colonial rule is an amorphous mass of land, people, culture, lumped together on the basis of its foreignness–it’s exoticity, a word in itself that suggests a relationship akin to that of spectator and spectacle, while pointedly demarcating perceived civilization from barbarity.

This creation (India) is acknowledged as “India — a hundred Indias– “, an original network of cultures and identities that reflect a legitimate system of knowledge that allows for an alternative world view. The structure of the novel, triadic in form, reflects the diversity of the assumed homogenous India and effectively undermines the politically constructed concept of India as understood under the British Raj. It is a straight refusal to see India as a “frieze” of glamour and spectacle.


Fig:  The Madras Club– highly popular with the Anglo-Indian population at the time, and also one of the many clubs in Colonial India with the “No Indians, No Dogs” signs outside.

Of Cocoons and Brown Stockings

While at first appearing to adopt a more traditional role of the novelist in representing and commenting upon the social and empirical world, Forster subsequently introduces an essentially modernist narrative style in the use of polyphony, indeterminate attribution of perceptions, as well as the consistent blurring of narrational and character-based points of view. Although possibly not the level of “high modernism” as Woolf’s “stream of consciousness narrative”, Forster’s narrative style is very much similar to Woolf’s.

Leaving Mrs Moore to retire, Aziz and Adela continue their exploration with little to say to each other – “If his mind was with the breakfast, hers was mainly with her marriage” (162). Here Aziz and Adela are knitting their own brown stockings in being careful not to neglect their social duties as host and guest respectively despite being absorbed in their own deeper thoughts. Fragmentation within the self is presented in the divorce of external occurrences divorced from internal events. On the journey to the Marabar caves, “(Adela) could not get excited over Aziz and his arrangements. She was not the least unhappy or depressed, and the various odd objects that surrounded her… they were all new and amusing, and led her to comment appropriately, but they wouldn’t bite into her mind” (146). Instead, Adela occupies herself with plans of the marriage (“She loved plans”), and here Forster suggests that occupation of the internal mind serves to distract from the mundanity of life described in the opening passage of part XIV of The Caves so as to keep from being insincere. There is little linearity or organization in her thought process as she jumps from planning in detail her marriage and the Anglo-Indian life she is to endure to questioning her feelings for Ronny and then the idea of love itself but not for long before her attention was focused on a rock nicked by a double row of footholds which made her recall the patter traced in the dust by the wheels of the Nawab Bahadur’s car and led her to conclude that “She and Ronny – no, they did not love each other” (162). Similarly, Aziz experiences “symptoms of disorganization” (162) as he struggles to keep up with his own inner thoughts. This dislocation of time-space consciousness and the inability to orientate correspond to a crisis of identity/conscious or schizophrenia, a possible consequence of the lost of older structures or going beyond “nation”. Employing the metaphor of the “cocoon of work and social obligation” (145) as a general comment of life and the pressures of society to conform, Forster aptly presents this crisis of identity/ consciousness which often denies the individual “the right to live for oneself” (147).

Some thoughts on Passage

Some thoughts on ‘A Passage to India’:

1. The nature of racism in the book is interesting. In the opening chapters, the English characters often emphasized the difference between an Englishman who has just arrived in India and one who has been in India for some time. It is accepted that after one lives in India for some time, one stops being friendly or polite to Indian and all initial idealism dies. Soon, they would realize that the Indians deserve to be treated in the way they are, as they are indeed untrustworthy etc etc. Characters like Ronny realize their hypocritical attitudes but blame it on situation (and the natives). In fact, he explicitly says that he did not come to India to be unpleasant but somehow all the experiences he had thus far has forced him into his particular attitude. I think this is a very interesting, yet highly subtle and potentially more powerful form of racism. Racism is being explained away, and rationalized. Most importantly, the Englishman need not be held responsible – after all it is the Indians’ own fault that they are being treated meanly.

2. The English characters often use the native tongue to express their own ideas. In some sense, colonialism goes beyond conquering of lands. It actually colonizes language and culture as well. The English takes the native words and pulls them out of their native contexts, to use them in the English context. In using the Indian tongue, the English is not assimilating Indian culture – instead he tyrannically ‘takes over’ the language for he has no real understanding of the language and culture but simply uses the foreign words in the way he thinks them to mean.

The India that escapes imagination

The romanticized India that Mrs. Moore and Miss Quested set forth in good will to “see” escapes capture because of its very refusal to be confined by the narrow boundaries of western knowledge, understanding or perception. It is clear from the outset that Foster employs the politics of negation to challenge and counter traditional perceptions of what India appears to be, against what it actually is not. India, as Foster suggests, ‘has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal’.

The appearance of things becomes the general “unwritten” code of conduct governing the city of Chandrapore (as is the novel); and while Dr. Aziz seems to be represented as the agent through which the true spirit of India may be accessed in Adela’s view, we are instead presented with a man who is caught in a nostalgic romanticization of the old Mughal Empire and one who is disillusioned by the inferiority of his position vis-a-vis British India at present.

The pivotal turning point of the novel arguably resides in the symbolic echo in the Marabar cave, where all noises are reduced to “boum”, at once exposing the limits of language in its reductiveness. Like India, Marabar refused to be contained or romanticized, since “it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind”. That this reductive nothingness could expose the artificiality of language, codifiers, classification and categorization separating human society from one another from his novel is finally Foster’s trick on readers who attempt to find a unifying meaning to the complex tensions that at once seem to surface but also elude us.

Crisis of Knowledge in A Passage to India

Personally, I was struck by the enigmatic quality of A Passage to India, which seems to resonate with the crisis of knowledge characteristic of modernist works. Throughout the novel, we are presented with events that we struggle to comprehend, as well as occurrences that underscore characters’ inability to grasp knowledge. For instance, we read of the failure of naming the “green bird”—calling it “bee-eater” and “parrot” though it is neither of the two (78)—and of identifying the animal that crashed into the car—with characters speculating that it was either a goat, buffalo or hyena (81-82). In fact, it is suggested that “nothing in India is identifiable”, perhaps highlighting a crisis of knowledge that plagues both the characters and the readers of the novel.

This failure to identify emerges again through attempts at describing sound. Firstly, Mrs. Moore describes the sound of the train moving as “pomper, pomper, pomper” (126), yet this train was “half asleep, going nowhere in particular” (127). Secondly, Mrs. Moore describes the echo in the Marabar Caves as “entirely devoid of distinction […] ‘boum’ is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or ‘bou-oum’, or ‘ou-boum’ – utterly dull” (137). Again, we notice the preoccupation with naming, with expressing with certainty and through language. The novel however critiques this, insisting that it is impossible for “the mind [to] take hold of such a country” (127).

Where does this crisis of knowledge leave us then? If we were to look at the relationship between Modernism and Empire, perhaps we could say that the desire to name and to know relates to power relations; it is those who can name and know that have the power. Modernism’s crisis of knowledge thus serves as a critique of Empire, suggesting that we need to re-examine our understanding of Empire, and calling for a re-awakening of what we know or think we know about Empire.

Modernism- looking at racism with rose- tinted glasses

As I was reading the first part of the novel, I could not help wonder if modernism was not just an extension of colonialism given that many of the issues addressed in the former resembled those highly debated in the latter. Racism, gender and class- divides, just to name a few, have been of  our utmost concern for many years now with the only difference being that they are constantly portrayed as new points of contention under a different time period. This can perhaps be related to last week’s class when we were making comparisions of “the mask” painted by three different artists and as such, how it affected our views. To put it simply, “modernism” is, looking at racism for example, with rose- tinted glasses. In addition, while the sypnosis stated, “when Adela and her elderly companion Mrs Moore arrive in the indian town of Chandrapore, they quickly feel trapped by its insular and prejudiced British community,” they served to perpetuate this biasness at times with how they seemed to regard the activities and cultures of the natives as sport.

Philippa Levine’s article “Britain in India”  talked about how the British East India Company underwent many changes, reinventing itself each time as part of the British government’s efforts to consolidate their strong- hold in India. It can then be suggested that modernism is really a term coined to keep the balance of control tilted in the favour of the super- powers. When one learns that an educated Indian is supposedly the product of modernism, one reads in Levine’s article, this same educated Indian actually existed in Colonialism and he was an important source of manpower for the British to sustain their economical gains while exploiting and derogating them in return.

Power relations in A Passage to India

What struck me most when I started reading A Passage to India were the complex power relations that underpinned most of the text. Everyone in the text is in relatively more or less power than everyone else, whether it is between the two broad camps of ‘natives’ and ‘English’, or within the two groups. The relationship between Major Callendar and Aziz, and Aziz and Dr. Panna Lal is just one example of this: Callendar resents Aziz’s superior skills, and expects Aziz to come immediately when “summoned” (p.48), not even considering that he may be otherwise occupied in his free time. In the same way, Aziz thinks about his quarrel with Panna Lal in terms of whether or not Panna Lal is a person of importance, and whether it was “wise to have quarrelled even with him” (p.54). There seems to be at all times an unspoken but constantly-referenced hierarchy that governs all relationships that is present but only in a rather unobtrusive way—it is a default lens through which all interactions are viewed.

All this later changes with Adela’s accusation of Aziz—the underlying power relations burst to the forefront, with the clear—and symbolic—split between the British and the Indians, in which power rests clearly with the British. The fact that Aziz is arrested simply based on Adela’s accusation and later set free based on her admission of her mistake illustrates this quite clearly, as do the closing lines of the novel.

For me, this was all complicated by the issue of which side I as a reader stand on: Forster is clearly sympathetic to the Indians, which for me added a whole new complicated dimension to the issue of power relations in the novel. If the author is so clearly on one side of the issue, is it the British or the Indians who are really disempowered in the novel?

Treatment of the Marabar Caves in Forster

Forster provides us with amazing descriptions of landscape in his novel. India is seen through various representations- the Himalayas, the Ganges, Chandrapore, holy spaces, and the Marabar caves. Yet, there is undeniable ambivalence when it comes to his depiction of the Marabar caves. For example, Forster calls ‘the visitor’ of the caves ‘uncertain whether he has had an interesting experience or a dull one or any experience at all’ (116), and while this might echo his own ambivalence towards India (or more specifically, British imperialist attitudes in India), it suggests that the caves are so overwhelming that it numbs and confuses the senses. Visitors simply will not be able to decide how they feel about the caves (perhaps as a holy space). The Marabar caves as a suggestion of elusiveness and mystery is an important motif in the novel- we are unclear about whether Adela’s experience is an ‘illusion’, reality, or simple misunderstanding. The caves are also a place of uncertainty, as even Aziz admits that he will never find the same place within the caves again; despite the fact that he is their official “guide”, he is also not spared by the ability of the caves to confuse and trick.


Forster links the cave to a ‘holy place’, as does Aziz, thereby accepting the mystery that surrounds it, but Adela and Ronny both express a need to put ideas and events into neat categories. Adela laments that ‘good, happy, small people. They do not exist, they were a dream’ (193), and Ronny expresses his frustration with the fact that the caves are ‘notoriously like one another’. Also, his suggestion that ‘in the future they were to be numbered in sequence with white paint’ (188) suggests that he possesses a strong desire to simplify what he cannot understand/identify, resulting in a loss of meaning.


The source and existence of the echo that Adela hears in the cave is also never resolved for us. Moran suggests that it is a reminder of the evil she has done (both towards violating the cave, and for falsely accusing Aziz). I think that the ambivalent space of the caves, along with the suggestion of violence (and perhaps crime?) wrecked against India by the British, is very effective as a motif in the novel.