Symbolism: in the Novel A Passage To India

Also Read

      E.M Forster has made a powerful use of symbolism in A Passage To India. The use of symbolism has given a larger meaning to an otherwise simple story. Forster's novel A Passage to India has been praised by many critics as a brilliant social comedy. It deals with the racial problem in British India.

Mosque as a Symbol

      A Passage to India is divided into three sections-'Mosque', 'Caves' and 'Temple'. Each section is invested with a symbolic meaning. As a matter of fact, 'Mosque', 'Caves' and 'Temple' are three major symbols in the novel. In the first section we find an Indian and an English lady coming face to face in mosque. They become friends. In due course they reach a deep understanding. However, this possibility of two alien people, of two different cultures, coming together and forming a lasting relationship receives a severe set-back at the Bridge Party. The ironical message of the Bridge Party - the two persons of two different races cannot remain friends for long, seems to negate the earlier possibility of personal relationship suggested at the mosque. The symbolism becomes much more complex and double-edged as the story progresses.

      The first section of the novel prepares us for the second section 'Caves'. At Fielding's party the Caves are mentioned again and again. The symbolism of the Caves is very complex and they play a very significant part in the story.

The Symbolic Cave

      We are given in the first chapter of the second part, an account of facts that reveal India of the antiquity. The Marabar Caves are a mystery and so is India. They are extraordinary but why they are so is left unexplained. We are told that the Marabar Caves were pre-historic. They predated Islam, Christianity and even Hinduism, which are the oldest religions in the world. They stand for chaos and darkness. In the words of Forster "nothing, nothing attaches to them". If the mosque was a world of cool weather where the atmosphere was favorable for union and understanding, the Caves formed a world of heat where the blazing sun negated and man's attempt to live in harmony with the earth around him. They represented man living on a hostile earth. The round walls of the Caves were wonderfully polished. If a visitor struck a match, the flame seemed to meet another in its reflection on the polished wall, but the two could never merge. It seemed as if the stones of the wall prevented the flame, the soul, from merging with the universal flame, the Brahma. Virginia Woolf identifies the Caves with the soul of India which is beyond the comprehension of the foreigners.

      The Marabar Caves illustrate the evil that exists. The Westerners were brought face to face with the reality of evil that forms part of the universe. The horrible experiences of Lady Moore and Adela Quested posed a challenge to the comfortable Christianity of the former and the rationalistic liberal claims of the other. Mrs. Moore, who was shocked in the very first cave, was a mystic who had wished to communicate with God looking on this communion as something beautiful. The dark and empty caves revealed the hollowness of life where nothing mattered. The vacuum and littleness of the Caves produced an echo that was frightening. She lost her power of concentration. She became confused and panicky. "Pathos, piety, courage - they exist, but are identical and so is filth" — this is what the echo seemed to convey. "Everything exists, nothing has value". This message of the echo negates all other values. What was gained at the mosque (a place of goodness) was lost at the caves (Satan's abode). All hopes of understanding, union, kindness and pity were shattered. Evil had triumphed. The Devil had overwhelmed the good forces. G.O. Allen finds the caves representing Christianity.

      "Evil is also a part of the universe" is explained by Prof. Godbole. The happenings at the Caves indicate that evil had conquered goodness. But there was cause for despair. Evil and goodness were inter-connected. Evil, according to Godbole, is the absence of good. The song of 'come, come, come,' was an attempt to restore the good. By and by the evil influence over Mrs. Moore receded. On her way back to England she enjoyed the beautiful landscape around her. The constant appearance of the town of Aligarh before her saying "I do not vanish" gives the message of solidity and stability of objects. What she saw at the Caves was not the reality. That was a temporary phase, a passing phase. That was a stage through which one had to pass to have the clear vision of goodness. Darkness heightened the effects of moon-light. The sufferings sharpen our intellect and facilitate our understanding. The darkness reveals the charm and beauty of life.

The Temple

      If the Caves stand for failure and mutual friendship, the temple symbolizes the meeting together of different people, even former enemies for reconciliation. The four crucial scenes of this section are full of meaning:

• The scene of the birth of Lord Krishna.
• Meeting of Ralph Moore and Aziz.
• Colliding of boats in the river.
• The last ride of Fielding and Aziz.

      Firstly, Godbole had a vision of love where everything melted into love; where wasps and human beings were considered parts of the same grand design.

      Secondly, Aziz squeezed the hands of Ralph out of hatred for the Englishman. Ralph's objection to Aziz's rough behaviour reminded him of Ralph being oriental like his mother. On remembering this the hatred left him and friendship resulted.
Thirdly, the colliding of boats represents coming together of Aziz and Fielding. Both of them were purified in the sacred water of the tank at Mau. Both came closer again.

      Fourthly, Aziz told Fielding during his last ride with him that friendship could be lasting only between two equals. As long as the Britishers were the masters, he could not become the friend of an Englishman although he might be Fielding or anyone else.

      In the last section the atmosphere of Reconciliation is created all around. Here, we have escaped in space and time from the Marabar Caves and we are promised intimation of perfect harmony. Universality is the main aim. At the birth of the "Lord" all sorrow was annihilated not only for the Indians but also for the foreigners as well as all became joy, and all laughter; there had never been disease or doubt misunderstanding, cruelty or fear. Ralph, was the harbinger of the spirit of love which engulfed the bitterness of the caves and released the light of love. The dipping of the characters into the tank was a form of spiritual baptism. The washing away of the letters of Ronny Heaslop and Adela Quested which had caused misunderstanding suggests that all causes of misunderstanding had vanished.

      The reconciliation in India, however, cannot be complete because the Very soil exudes the air of separation.

      In addition to these major symbols, there are some minor symbols which also need resounding. The author has also introduced the spiritual or legendary events. The unidentified beast which hit the Nawab Bahadur's car symbolized the ruthless suppression of human feelings by mechanized western civilization. According to G.O. Allen, 'the legend of the Tank of the Dagger' points out the mental state of Adela. She had committed sin against the sincerity of Aziz. It is the echo which shocked her and made her accuse Aziz of imaginary assault. This bitter memory stuck to her mind as the dagger with which the Maharaja killed his sister's son and which remained clamped to his hand.

      Symbolic images are introduced. These recur again and again to keep up the unity of the novel. Trilling calls them web of reverberation. Wasp recurs to signify religious consciousness. The repeated reference to Godbole's song "come, come, come" represents the soul's yearning for communion with God. Aziz's casual encounter with the subaltern means repeated attempts of Aziz to seek parity with the rulers.

      These symbolic devices are very much important because they heighten the effects of the story. R.K. Brown comments: "Rhythm in the novel has traced a number of symbols which are used by Forster in this novel, and which in their significance and material detail blend with the main drift of the story."


Write a note on the symbolism in A Passage to India.
Relate briefly the legend about the Shrine of the Head and the Shrine of the Body at Mau and describe Aziz's accidental meeting with Fielding there.
What is the meaning and relevance of the "Shrine of the Head" and the "Shrine of the Body" at Mau?
Show how Forster has worked out his story in A Passage to India and invested it in many places with a symbolic significance.
Bring out briefly but clearly the symbolism of the "Mosque", "Caves" and "Temple" in A Passage to India.

Previous Post Next Post