Books: Frog Heaven and Other Stories / Big Issues in Ethics / Fifteen Women Philosophers / Paranormal Brighton and Hove / Paranormal Eastbourne / LGBT Brighton and Hove / Haunted Kent / Dover, Murder & Crime / Canterbury Streets / Medway, Murder & Crime / Brighton & Hove, Murders and Misdemeanours / Pubs Walks in Kent / Kiddiwalks in Kent / The Competitive Woman / Surrogate Lover. Google me on my Amazon page.
Saturday, 11 February 2017
British Racism and its Dislike of Change - E.M. Forster in A Passage to India
E.M. Forster, Public Domain
It's shattering to acknowledge that racism, in all its many forms, is still as rife today as it was before World Wars I and II; it is as though we have learned nothing. I have noticed that there are many intelligent people whose knowledge of the history of our world is scant, if not almost non-existent. To expect them to take on board the lessons of the past is no easy task.
E.M. Forster, in his 1924 novel, A Passage to India, cites "fear of change" as one of the sources of British racism.
In A Passage to India, Forster exposes
British racism and its dislike of change, most apparent in characters like
Ronny, the British city magistrate of Chandrapore, who ends his engagement to
central female protagonist, Adela, after she retracts her accusation against
Aziz of raping her.
repeats the opinions of his superiors, for example:
"We're not pleasant in
India and we don't intend to be pleasant. We've something more important to
The privileged status of the white, educated male over that of
his female counterpart seems accepted and reinforced by the even tougher Indian
attitude towards their own women, who are nothing without a husband.
is to become of our daughters if men refused to marry," and "She
might die... without the joys God has intended her to receive - wedlock,
motherhood, power in the house, for what else is she born...?"
describes but does not seem to criticise or judge these attitudes.
discrimination occurs in the Indian ambivalence towards Englishwomen, and this
is balanced by the obvious racism of most of the women.
"Oh, these Purdah
women. I never thought they would come!" and "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."
The patronising tone of
Miss Derek is apparent in the following statement: "If one couldn't see
the laughable side of these people, one'd be done for." and "How a decent girl like Miss Derek can take service under
natives...." All this is obvious and could arouse the reader's
indignation - in fact, it should rouse the reader's
Sexism - A Part of the Imperialist Ideology
There is a sinister aspect of gender discrimination in
the way Aziz describes his children.
"The first is called Ahmed, the
second is called Karim, the third, she is the eldest - Jamila."
Thus, Jamila, although the eldest, is rated as the third child, in other words,
by implication, the least in importance. Although Aziz's love for his wife is
clearly shown in the novel, as well as his appreciation of her loyalty and
intelligence, yet there remains the old assumption that a decent woman is, by
nature, submissive and graceful, in short, deferential to her husband.
was won by her love for him, by a loyalty that implied something more than
submission... She was intelligent, yet had old-fashioned grace."
A particularly double-edged reference is the phrase:
"For you, I shall arrange a lady with breasts like mangoes..." This
confirms male sexism about the ideal female body, and allied with the
euphemism: "lady" it becomes patronising and dishonest. Since the
flat-breasted Miss Quested has already been described as a "prig" and
"a pathetic product of Western education", it seems almost as though
an educated woman, "...trying hard to understand India and life" has
to be both socially unpleasant and sexually unappealing.
There is also a specific bias towards educated Indian
males, which gives some weight to accusations of superficiality made by
Virginia Woolf and other critics towards the novel. Forster's main Indian
characters are Anglicised, and possibly only an educated Indian would be
suitably exposed to British influences and therefore be capable of becoming
Patronising Attitudes and Social Climbing
The acceptance of the need for servants, both by English
and educated Indians, seems to be taken for granted. In both cases, attitudes
are patronising. "Windows were barred lest the servants should see their
memsahibs acting." Aziz's servant, Hassan, is presented as rather
stupid, needing to be spoken to like a child: "...but why have I called
you?" "To drive them - the flies - elsewhere," said Hassan
after painful thought.
Forster pinpoints intolerance between classes and
"They all become exactly the same - not worse, not better... I
give any Englishman two years... And I give any Englishwoman six months. All
are exactly alike."
The fact that all the roads are named after victorious
generals openly indicates the level of British dominance which the Indians
naturally resent. Sometimes, the feelings of the Indians are depicted as
eccentric and Forster uses irony, patronising them.
"Unless a sentence
paid a few compliments to Justice and Morality in passing, its grammar wounded
their ears and paralysed their minds. What they said and what they felt were...
seldom the same. They had numerous mental conventions and when these were
flouted, they found it difficult to function."
Class Bias within a Culture
Hindus appear to come off worse in the novel. Panna Lal
is apparently of a lower class than Aziz and also a Hindu. Panna Lal, being an
honest and straightforward person, is confused when an arrangement is casually
dropped by Aziz. "But Dr. Lal, being of low extraction, was not sure
whether an insult had not been intended."
I felt that Forster's
sympathies may have been with Aziz. "Aziz detested ill-breeding".
Did Forster, too, look down on bad-breeding, even if it meant no more than lack
of knowledge of a culture? At a later stage: "Come here!" he
called gently, and when the guide was in reach, he struck him in the face for a
punishment." It seems that Aziz, mostly portrayed as refined, gentle and
kind, behaves as it suits him to behave at the time. He is also a social
In making superhuman efforts to please the English, Aziz
demonstrates his subservience. He goes out of his way to impress two English
ladies on a day out. "Like most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality,
mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of
possession." Although this may seem, superficially at least, fair comment,
I wonder if it is, and that in Indian culture, hospitality does, in fact, imply
intimacy. His realisation - that it is more blessed to receive than to give -
may simply imply that Aziz is beginning to understand Western culture himself.
Without doubt, this tendency exposes Aziz's insecurity. Throughout the novel,
Aziz teeters on the borderline between the cultures.
A Harsh Judgement
As far as the emotional differences between English and
Indians are concerned, the Indian's disgust with Miss Quested because she did
not "beat her breast" in court, thereby seeming insincere, is
described by Forster as her "cold justice and honesty". Forster say
that her sacrifice was rightly rejected because "...although it came from
the heart, it did not include her heart." This is a harsh judgement.
Sympathy with what may be false in Indian culture has, at least in this
instance, indicated a sexual bias. Adela has tried to do the right thing, but
she is not, of course, attractive.
Forster leaves us in the air about whether or not Aziz
committed the rape. Could it be that Aziz's antipathy towards Miss Quested's
lack of sexual attraction make the central action of the rape implausible?
"What a handsome little Oriental he was," and "She regretted
neither she or Ronny has physical charm."
Perhaps, leaving the reader in the dark was Forster's way
of avoiding accusations of implausibility.
E.M. A Passage to India, First published 1924.
Sara, "The Geography of A Passage to India", Literature
in the Modern World, Ed. Dennis Walder, Oxford University Press,