Shakespeare wrote Comedy of Errors and Forster could have named his book, Tragedy of Errors. Missteps of words and action that follow one after another keep people from understanding each other through the cloak of gender, social class and cultural differences. Ripe with opportunity for a thousand more misunderstandings, the story is between the uneasy relationship in India of the Indians and British during the British Raj. Mrs. Moore, an old woman, and Adela Quested, a young woman, are visiting newcomers from England, who upset everyone’s comfort with their desire to meet Indians in their own background and learn the truth about India. Nothing like clueless, foolhardy white women to upset social order. The biggest misstep occurs from an accusation of sexual impropriety by, of course, Adela, against the innocent Indian physician, Dr. Aziz.
A Passage to India is a novel of its time that reflects the then current standards of law and social communication that now would not be tolerated in either India or England. Conversation style is dated, as are the rules of etiquette and morality that underlie it, but none of that keeps the novel from being understandable and valuable. Hearts are still hopeful and then broken. Social structure and its rules are still often incomprehensible. Morality is still a troubling, inconsistent and tricky meeting point between two cultures. Religion still sets people apart, poetry still brings them together. History is important to re-visit during any era to better understand why the world is still in such a mess.
In an older style, Forster is happy to tell rather than show a lot more than is encouraged today, but that tactic does give the reader the background and belief system of the writer and saves a lot of guessing. Where I did have to guess were a number of passages that referred to “he” and “she” so often I lost track of which who was meant. I had to back-track and more than once I made a guess, only to discover a paragraph or two later I was wrong.
Forster did throw out a few sentences that will forever remain favorites. For me, they are witty, sad, funny, and full of meaning to ponder. Two of them are: The human race would have become a single person centuries ago if marriage was any use. There are different ways of evil and I prefer mine to yours. Two other sentences might have been lost in a paragraph fifteen lines long, but they brought me back to attention as a half-way mark: What does happen to one’s mother when she dies? Presumably she goes to heaven, anyhow she clears out.
Innocence, guilt, right, wrong, intentional, non-intentional, desire, necessity, all uneasily oppose one another in this period novel that reaches below the surface of two major world cultures.