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Book #61: A Passage To India

I expected to like this book more than I did.

I love the idea behind it. In the middle of the British occupation of India during the early 20th century, an Indian doctor is wrongly accused of sexually assaulting a British woman.

All hell breaks loose when the doctor goes on trial and the woman begins doubting her story. It’s a powerful novel that deals with issues of racism, class, and groupthink. Forster is a superb writer.

All of these things made me think I would, more than likely, love A Passage To India by the time I finished with it. But I don’t.

If I rated these novels on a scale of 1 to 10, then I would probably put it somewhere in the 5 to 6 range. At times, it moved me. At other times, I drifted off into wondering if I had set my fantasy football rosters yet.

The problem with A Passage To India, as I see it: It’s painfully slow. The pacing of the novel is brutal.

So, by the time I finished the book, I felt like I had read a 500 page novel that should have been 300 pages but felt like it was about 700 pages.

That’s my main beef with this novel.

Other than that, I can’t put my finger on why A Passage To India did little for me. But maybe that’s all I needed for it to weigh me down.

Maybe Forster was hinting about the novel’s style when, within the pages of A Passage To India, he writes this:

“Adventures do occur, but not punctually.”

That’s a theme with this book. There is adventure, and there is plot, and there is tension, but it’s not going to happen in the speed at which you (or me) might prefer. It reminds me a little of An American Tragedy in that sense. Sometimes I just wanted to say, “Let’s get to the point, Forster!”

I talked a good bit about A Passage To India and Forster over the last couple of weeks. There’s the uncomfortable racism, and the historical context and the film based on the novel. I won’t rehash all of that, but seeing as racism is a major issue in the book, I thought I’d go back over a couple of key quotes.

This first quote is from Mrs. Turton, an aristocratic Englishwoman living in India, as she talks to the younger, more progressive, Adela:

You’re superior to them, anyway. Don’t forget that. You’re superior to everyone in India except one or two of the Ranis, and they’re on an equality.”

How lovely.

And then there’s McBryde, the superintendent of police in India. In an earlier post, I compared him to Tom Buchanan from The Great Gatsby.

In fact, I think Tom said something almost exactly like this:

[McBryde] remarked that the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa – not a matter for bitterness this, not a matter for abuse, but just a fact which any scientific observer would confirm.

The British characters in this novel, excluding Fielding, aren’t very likeable because of the racist attitudes they wear on their sleeves. Sometimes, I read a sentence or two that literally made me cringe.

NPG 4698,Edward Morgan Forster,by Dora Carrington

E.M. Forster (Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of pure style, Forster is one of the better writers I’ve come across while reading the Time list. His writing is clean and crisp. Though the pacing of the novel is slow, he writes with an economy of words. There’s no wasted space in the sentences themselves.

He’s a great writer, and it still amazes me that Forster never wrote another novel after A Passage To India, an issue he discusses in the video I highlight in this post.

I like the way Nish, a commenter on 101 Books, explained the novel after I mentioned it reminded me of To Kill A Mockingbird in my preview of the book:

Now, it may not resonate with too many. I wouldn’t compare it to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is quite a straightforward narrative. A Passage to India is quite different…it kind of tackles everyone’s point of view, and you see how one incident is viewed through so many different lenses, based on prejudice.

That’s a great summary.

And she’s exactly right. A Passage To India didn’t resonate with me as much as I wanted it to.

In the end, this is a middle-of-the-road novel for me. I wanted so much more from it, but that didn’t happen.

Other Stuff

The Opening Line: “Except for the Marabar Caves–and they are twenty miles off–the city of Chandrapore presents nothing extraordinary.”

The Meaning: Worlds collide. The British have occupied India. Racism and cultural bias is rampant. These two groups of people can’t get along. The novel is a powerful look into what it means to be an outsider in your own country.

Highlights: I thought Forster wrote strong characters, especially Aziz, the accused doctor. He gave me a good sense of what it might have been like to live in India in the early 20th Century.

Lowlights: I’ve already mentioned this several times. The pacing of the novel is painfully slow.

Memorable Line: “They all become exactly the same, not worse, not better. I give any Englishman two years, be he Turton or Burton. It is only the difference of a letter. And I give any English woman six months. All are exactly alike.”

Final Thoughts: Ultimately, A Passage To India just didn’t do much for me. As always, this is a matter of personal taste. You might love the novel. I wouldn’t tell you to avoid it. But I doubt I’ll be reading it again.

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17 Comments Post a comment
  1. This makes me wonder why it made it on Time’s book list in the first place?

    Sometimes I think our culture has something to do with our perception of plot and movement in stories as well. IE- we are used to movies with constant action, or instant updates on what is happening. Books compete with movies and facebook now, not each other. In the time of Tolstoy and other great literature they had time to warble a bit. But now I think that’s changed.

    That’s purely opinion, of course 🙂

    Like

    September 11, 2013
    • My rankings are just so subjective and, honestly, pointless. I do them for fun. I can see why it’s on the list, though, even if it’s not in my wheelhouse in terms of what I like to read.

      Like

      September 12, 2013
  2. Good evening, I unfortunately, also think that nowadays we’re not able anymore to bear slowness. I can’t explain it, but, for me, films or books full up of movement are very boring. Less can be more, at least to me. Thanks for your summary and opinion:) Best regards

    Like

    September 11, 2013
  3. The only E.M. Forster novel I have read is Howard’s End. I enjoyed it and found it quite readable. It sounds like A Passage to India needed some editing when Forster wrote it. There is nothing like a slow-paced book to make my interest wane. Having said that, I enjoy classic novels such as the works of Jane Austen and her novels aren’t exactly fast-paced. But the narrative does hold one’s interest. I can’t judge A Passage to India because I haven’t read it but from your discussion, it doesn’t sound like a book I will be picking up to read anytime soon.

    Like

    September 11, 2013
  4. It’s a wonderful book, it’s pace lazy like the oppressive heat, but there is so much happening underneath. The issue of racism is only the surface action. Underneath are big questions about God and spirituality and the void of meaningless. Forster doesn’t pretend to answer these questions but throws them out to echo through the book. (Echoes! “Esmes Esmoor!!”) And just what did happen in that cave? I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it, though I grant you it is not the easiest book to immediately love.
    An aside: I taught this in a Grade 12 English class a few years ago; my enthusiasm was not infectious.

    Like

    September 11, 2013
    • I would have loved to be in that class. I loved this book but I suspect I did not catch all of the issues it was bringing up. And that cave section is superlative. I keep going back to it again and again.

      But the book is not for everyone, I think. It is slow but I personally think it’s one of Forster’s best.

      Like

      September 11, 2013
      • I think discussing Plato’s Dialogue of the Caves is what finally shut those students down… 🙂

        Like

        September 12, 2013
  5. I do agree that the novel isn’t for everyone. But I also think that it is a great novel. I love novels with good opening chapters, and this is one of them. “A Farewell to Arms” and “The Old Capital” are two others that come to mind. I think the reason you and so many other contemporary readers are frustrated with the pacing is that the novel was written for a different time. The audience often expected a slower pace. They weren’t distracted by TV, the internet, texting. All the distractions we have today which make us want things at a faster pace. Our movies now have nothing but a fast pace, our TV shows, our books. We have little time to just sit and read and enjoy the writing. Anyway good review. Keep on keeping on.

    Like

    September 11, 2013
    • Thanks. Fair points. I see where you’re coming from, but I’m not sure if I would fall into the camp of someone who wants every story, film, book to move quickly. I really enjoyed Infinite Jest and An American Tragedy, for instance, and those stories do anything but move quickly. That said, I honestly don’t know why the pacing in this novel seemed more difficult to stay with.

      Like

      September 12, 2013
  6. You are not the first to remark that this novel moves very slowly at times. I felt the same way and I read it in 1985, while on a trip to Europe without the distractions of today’s culture.

    Like

    September 11, 2013
  7. Nish is quite right in warning of looking at A Passage to India through To Kill A Mockingbird eyes and that A Passage offers multiple perspectives and a more complex narrative. But, even more than that is the mistake by comparing them of seeing racism as the major issue when the debate over colonialism is an equal, if not greater, issue in A Passage. Having just finished Paul Scott’s A Jewel in the Crown, I think follows the same trend and surpasses both in terms of complexity, perspectives and delving deep into issues of race, class, religion and colonialism.

    Like

    September 12, 2013
    • Good point. The issue of colonialism is all over this novel. In one sense, they go hand in hand, but I can also see why they are separate issues in the book as well.

      Like

      September 12, 2013
  8. Reblogged this on Adithya Entertainment.

    Like

    September 13, 2013
  9. Reblogged this on dollhouseattic.

    Like

    September 16, 2013
  10. Well you can read some of the latest comedies of Indian authors. Below is my review on one:
    http://sanchitasarkar.wordpress.com/2013/05/19/five-point-someone/

    Like

    September 29, 2013
  11. Todd Turken #

    PTI is just an awesome experience! It’s about the essence of what it is to be human. Which is to say that one does not live their life in a conformist heard mentality, nor assume that others do. Rather live life as an individual, and encounter others as true individuals. This is the book’s core message. It’s a timeless message, not matter how enlightened society becomes.

    Like

    March 30, 2014

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