Monday, July 23, 2012

A Polyphonic Novel - A Passage to India

This takes us back to the issue of A Passage as a "polyphonic" novel, as a novel with multiple points of view or perspectives, and also as a novel split across a number of levels - political/social observation, spiritual/philosophical speculation, and straightforward drama. One's reading of the novel is, therefore, determined by the point of view from which the action is seen. If, for example, we identify Fielding with Forster, as many readers do (and partly correctly), the novel is about friendship and the difficulty of leading a life by liberal principles Fielding, in terms of this reading, is the hero. From Aziz's point of view, however, the novel takes on a different quality: Aziz moves from the naïve good-natured innocent who is eager to please to a more rigidly Indian nationalist perspective. However, the novel also presents us with two more points of view, that of Adela Quested and Mrs Moore. In the case of Adela the novel allegorises her growth in personal honesty and personal truth - she moves from a shallow desire to "see India" towards a more truthful sense of self, of sexual and psychological honesty, than she had previously possessed. But it is the point of view of Mrs Moore, who also confronts something in the Marabar Caves, an emptiness and hollowness which undermines her form of Christian idealism, which makes the novel particularly enigmatic. What is in the caves, if anything, challenges all Mrs Moore's idealistic belief in the intrinsic friendliness of Nature and of the Universe - she realises, possibly, that Nature is, at best, indifferent, and possibly hostile. From this perspective many critics have seen Forster using Mrs Moore's point of view as a means of exploring fundamental issues about Good and Evil, about Truth and Reality. Certainly the novel permits this reading, a reading of the "shadow side" of Christian humanism and of the basic tenets of Western civilisation, and a prophetic anticipation of the spirit which would lead to Auschwitz and the Holocaust.
Yet over-arching all of these perspectives is the design of the novel itself, with its tripartite structure modelling the 3 Indian seasons. It is also a novel structured by the quest for India itself. The novel portrays a ever-shifting and panoramic view of an 'India' which cannot grasped. References to mystery/muddle that is India are frequent throughout the novel, but by the end all we can say for sure is that we have various visions, but India remains. 

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