The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part One)

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous
Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India

E. M. Forster, the product of a culture which sought to rule the world, depicted the hypocrisies and inconsistencies of the imperial mind-set harshly and cogently. His outspokenness in favor of Indian independence at a time when the “Jewel in the Crown” was perhaps the greatest symbol of English pride and prosperity was courageous and sincere. Forster rejected the racist, eurocentric doctrines of the “white man’s burden” despite the fact that they were a central tenet of the liberal humanistic tradition which created him. Forster had the unique ability to view his culture as an outsider, a perspective which is often illuminating. But when Forster tries to explain actions and phenomena of a people whose culture is radically different from his own, he inevitably retreats into a eurocentric perspective which betrays his own inability to depict the non-European as fully human.

By bravely voicing the conviction that India deserved full political independence at a time when Gandhi was still looking for ways to “transform British imperialism into a happier institution,” Forster exceeds even the most enlightened liberal thinking of his time. (Das 3) In A Passage to India he repeatedly points out that imperialism is an ugly, dehumanizing institution which is inherently unjust and morally debasing to both subjects and colonizers. Yet, despite his eloquent renunciations of the imperial enterprise, Forster is ultimately incapable of viewing Indians with the clarity which makes his Anglo-Indians such compelling specimens of depraved denial. In contrast, Forster’s Indians are merely caricatures; ironically, they possess many of the characteristics which British writers attributed to them in order to justify British rule in India: they are irrational, fatuous, lazy and dishonest.

By creating Indian characters who are too petulant and immature to deserve the political independence he champions, Forster is perpetuating an ancient European intellectual tradition which is deeply ingrained in the collective Western consciousness. Much of Europe was the “Orient’s” servant before it was its master. Several centuries before Europe colonized the Levant, the East invaded Europe in the name of Mohammed. The eight-hundred year struggle to reclaim Europe from Muslim infidels engendered a fear and revulsion towards the region. In many ways, our modern conception of a single European culture was born out the somewhat unified effort to repel these heretical invaders. The “Orientalist” school of interpretation represents an effort to examine how the historically static negative European impression of “Oriental” people influences literary and political discourse. A strong case has been made by these scholars that European imperialism has been promoted by literary and academic output which demeans and dehumanizes colonial subjects. Edward Said thus describes the cultural significance of this historical phenomenon:

The Orient is not only adjacent to Europe; it is also the place of Europe’s greatest and richest and oldest colonies, the source of its civilization and languages, its cultural contestant and one of the deepest and most recurring images of the Other. (Said 1)

When Forster, an artist lionized by eminent critics such as Lionel Trilling and Frederick Crews for his “humanism,” creates Indian characters which validate Europe’s “deepest and most recurring images of the Other,” it becomes clear how intricately racism has been woven into the fabric of western thought. The Enlightenment love of liberty and justice extends only to a man’s perceived peers. The inherent inferiority of people of color was rarely questioned by many of the most celebrated champions of democracy “…liberal cultural heroes like John Stuart Mill, Arnold Carlyle, Newman, Macaulay, Ruskin, George Eliot and even Dickens had definite views on race and imperialism.” (Said 14)

Imperialism and liberalism coexisted because the plunder of men like Clive, Yale and Rhodes brought material wealth to Europe which few were willing to question. Eventually, apologists like Kipling would glorify imperialism as a gallant and noble institution which actually benefited its victims. This was done by intimating that “Orientals” were racially devoid of the moral and intellectual faculties which European males possessed in abundance. A series of binary oppositions was utilized to denigrate imperial subjects in comparison to their colonizers. If white males are brave, honorable, and masculine, then orientals are cowardly, immoral and effeminate, all qualities which imply an inferior status. Language, therefore, becomes a major element in the mass subjugation of peoples. No one understood this better than the British who

devised a way of dividing the world which made British rule in India appear a political imperative and a moral duty. The strategy of discrimination and exclusion can be deduced from the series of meanings produced by the word “exotic”: dissimilar, unrelated, extraneous, uncomfortable, untypical, incongruent, eccentric, anomalous, foreign, alien, abnormal, aberrant, deviant, outcast, monstrous, fantastic, barbarous, grotesque, bizarre, strange, mysterious, unimaginable, wondrous, outlandish (Parry, “Politics,” 28).

by Richard W. Bray

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One Response to “The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part One)”

  1. An Effective Title-Writing Strategy for Academic Papers « Laughter hope sock in the eye's Blog Says:

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