Archive for the ‘E.M. Forster’ Category

Take it Decently

March 17, 2012

Nadine Gordimer

The remark that did most harm at the club was a silly aside to the effect that the so-called white races are really pinko-grey. He only said this to be cheery, he did not realize that “white” has no more to do with a colour than “God save the King” with a god, and that it is the height of impropriety to consider what it does connote.

—from A Passage to India by E.M. Forster (62)

I stand astonished at my own moderation.

Robert Clive’s response to a Parliamentary Inquiry on the plunder of India

Take it Decently

The obvious difference in pigmentation between the Europeans and Africans is the original point of reference for countless imaginary polarities: black and white, pure and impure, tame and wild, civilized and barbaric, rational and emotional, good and evil, decent and indecent. And in a culture built upon the systematic, racist murder and subjugation of tens of millions of Africans and Asians, members of the dominant class risk much pain and psychic confusion if they are unable to reconcile this tissue of false dichotomies at the core of imperialism.

The barter between the boy and the elderly native in “The Train from Rhodesia” is a microcosm of the imperial enterprise because it amuses the boy to toy with an old man who is attempting to eke out a meager livelihood. Oblivious to his own depravity, the boy represents all those who reveled in the plunder of Southern Africa.

“He laughed. ‘I was arguing with him for fun.’”

When the girl berates the boy for the callousness of his actions, he is “shocked by the dismay in her face.” Because the boy has internalized the imperialist denial of the old man’s humanity, the native is merely a thing to be trifled with for sport.

Unlike her boorish companion, the girl in “The Train from Rhodesia” has empathy for the old man, but as a member of the ruling race, she too is steeped in the toxic juices of Apartheid. Thus, her blindness to the inherent malevolence of imperialism is exposed by her protest that the boy should have found a way to “take it decently.”

The “shame that mounted through her legs and body and sounded in her ears like the sound of sand pouring” is merely the genesis of an appropriate response to a monstrous crime committed against entire populations for centuries.

The indecent mass murder, rape, and pillage of so much of the planet perpetrated by the Europeans over five centuries was carried out in direct contradiction to their notions of civility. When the Europeans commit such atrocities in the name of civilization who then are the real barbarians?

Richard W. Bray


July 17, 2011

Arnold Bennett wrote for money; he also wrote about money. It might seem incongruous that someone who earned and spent great sums of cash would suggest that the accumulation of wealth for its own sake is a symptom of human depravity, yet this is clearly the case. In Anna of the Five Towns and Riceyman Steps the soulless appetite for wealth leads to isolation, depression, poverty, hunger and death. For Ephraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward, the compulsion to hoard money perverts their sensibilities and hampers their ability to connect with their fellow human beings. Furthermore, Tellwright’s daughter Anna suffers from her misbegotten notions about propriety and class and she is in some respects imprisoned by her wealth. Even Henry Mynors, the sole representative of the clergy in either of these two novels, is far more interested in the accumulation of riches than in the salvation of souls. Titus and Willie Price, moreover, are utterly destroyed by Tellwright’s lust for their property.

Are we to believe, then, that a man who lived as lavishly as Arnold Bennett hypocritically promoted the notion that the love of money was indeed a root cause of human misery and injustice? The answer is yes and no. For although Bennett believed that there was nothing innately wrong with acquiring money, he felt that it was indecent to stockpile it. For Bennett, money was for spending, and its true value lay in the worldly pleasures it might purchase.

The servant Elsie, by far the most sympathetic character in either Anna of the Five Towns or Riceyman Steps, represents a stark contrast to Tellwright and Earlforward in her attitudes about money. However, Bennett is not implying that working people are inherently superior to the wealthy because the rich are automatically corrupted by their money. This would contradict not only Bennett’s chosen lifestyle, but also his artistic instincts. He was no Marxist; there are immoral paupers and decent prosperous folks in both of these novels. But the reader can easily discern a relationship between goodness and one’s attitudes regarding money. Elsie exists on a higher moral plane than Tellwright and Earlforward because she is unafraid to spend what little money she has, which makes her capable of enjoying life in ways that they never will.

Arnold Bennett made no secret of the delight he took in the many blessings that money can provide. As a financially successful writer, he took full advantage of the benefits afforded to the wealthy in his day: He owned a yacht, traveled frequently, and took meals in the finest restaurants. For Bennett, the sin was not in the accumulation of wealth, but in the depraved desire to amass it for its own sake. Tellwright’s inability to express love for his daughters is a function of his miserliness. This is quite a contrast to the Suttons, who are magnanimous towards their children in the allocation of both love and money.

It is in the character of Elsie that Bennett best expresses his beliefs regarding the relationship between wealth and morality. She is loyal, humble, industrious, and almost preternaturally nurturing, and her lack of concern for money is displayed when she risks her livelihood by nursing Joe back to health inside Earlforward’s house. In contrast to Elsie, Anna Tellwright is unwilling to confirm the love she feels for Willie Price when she chooses to marry Mynors. Anna, who is just as tireless and faithful to her obligations as Elsie, is nevertheless handicapped socially and emotionally. It is clearly Anna’s relationship to her wealth which prevents her from acting upon her emotions the way Elsie does.

It was an appetite for riches rather than the love of words which originally motivated Arnold Bennett to write fiction, and during his lifetime, those who viewed Bennett as more mercenary than artist were particularly scornful of his work. One critic summed up his career as “a flagrant case of literary capitalism” (Lucas 9). Bennett, who in his own words, “wanted money in heaps,” began writing, and continued to write, “for an uncomplicated commercial motive” (Simons 16; Barker 41). This is not surprising; much of his childhood was spent in poverty. Yet it is absurd to suggest that this distinction makes his work less important than that of so many of his contemporaries who had the luxury of inherited wealth.

The important issue is not whether Bennett’s enjoyment of lucre somehow invalidates him as an artist, but how his feelings about money contributed to his artistic outlook. Materialism and the accumulation of money constitute one of the most prominent themes in his writing, and perhaps critics can justifiably accuse him of hypocrisy for not allowing certain of his wealthier characters to enjoy the blessings of riches as he did. But this does not negate his social commentary. “Arnold Bennett’s attitude to money and to mere material things is a criticism of life and of the modern materialistic age” (Simons 86).

Bennett’s revulsion for those who would simply hoard their money is elucidated in the form of two emotionally constipated men, Efraim Tellwright and Henry Earlforward. It is impossible to isolate the emotional detachment of these two rich misers from their need to accumulate wealth. Tellwright, who “belonged to the great and powerful class of house-tyrants,” is an overbearing presence who dominates the lives of his two daughters (Anna 112). Perhaps the most affluent man in town, he is nonetheless committed to a life of severe frugality: He does his own household masonry, denies Anna money for decent clothes, and serves his guests, his children and himself meager portions of food. “Mr. Tellwright carved the beef, giving each of them a small piece, and taking only cheese for himself” (Anna 67). Tellwright’s rigid asceticism is a manifestation of his misanthropy. This hard, unforgiving soul erupts when Anna forgets to buy him bacon, the only occasion when her conduct has been less than perfect.

The male creature’s terrible displeasure permeated the whole room like an ether, invisible but carrying vibrations to the heart. Then, when he had eaten one piece of bacon, and cut his envelopes, the miser began to empty himself of some of his anger in stormy tones that might have uprooted trees (Anna 67).

Tellwright’s outburst over this incident, entirely out of proportion to Anna’s oversight, demonstrates his lack of humanity. By referring to Anna as “the miser’s daughter” Bennett is emphasizing the connection between Tellwright’s hostility and his money-grubbing. Unfortunately for Tellwright, he is incapable of deep introspection:

If you had told him that he inflicted purposeless misery not only on others but on himself, he would have grinned again, vaguely aware that he had not tried to be happy, and rather despising happiness as a sort of childish gewgaw. (Anna 113)

The perversity of Tellwright’s lust for money is most evident in his treatment of Titus and Willie Price. He confides in Anna that the demise of their business is inevitable, yet he chooses to milk them for all they are worth in the meanwhile. Anna, who now owns the Price’s property, acquiesces to her father’s greed, but the episode exacts a grave emotional toll on her psyche:

Here were she and her father, rich, powerful, autocratic; and there were Willie Price and his father, commercial hares hunted by hounds of creditors, hares that turned in plaintive appeal to those greedy jaws for mercy (Anna 75).

The few pounds wrestled from the Prices before their imminent downfall is a pittance compared with Anna’s net worth. The mindless accumulation of wealth is Tellwright’s only source of gratification, and it is also, not coincidentally, the part of himself which he chooses to share with daughter.

by Richard W. Bray


July 15, 2011


Ephraim Tellwright is no mere caricature, and despite his monstrous behavior towards the Prices, he is presented as a three-dimensional character:

Tellwright is a fascinating creation….He is a domestic tyrant and a miser, flinty, quickwitted but utterly insensitive….The impressive thing about Bennett’s handling of him, however, is that there is absolutely nothing of aricature in the study of Tellwright. Nor is he sentimentalized. Instead, Bennett sets himself to record the life of a man who is quite without music in his soul (Lucas 44).

This lack of “music in his soul” deprives him form enjoying many of the experiences which make life meaningful, such as fellowship, religion, laughter, romantic love, all of which Tellwright has chosen to shun. The collection of capital is his only form of solace.

Neither Henry Earlforward nor Ephraim Tellwright is a stock character—the heartless skinflint. But unlike Tellwright, Earlforward, though miserly in the extreme, is capable of human affection. He is very fond of Elsie and genuinely in love with his wife Violet. Also in contrast to Tellwright, Earlforward is equipped with “other qualities one rarely associates with greed for riches: kindness, patience, almost indolence, and also, in certain matters, a comparative innocence” (Lafour 192). Yet Earlforward and his beloved Violet are destroyed by his unwillingness to provide them with sufficient food and timely medical attention. Ultimately, his craving for money outweighs any other motivation. He is “a man of some delicacy and tact. But his passion for hoarding money overrules all other considerations in his life” (Lucas 195). Earlforward is “a miser, but he is not a monster”(Douglas 411). Nevertheless, his appetite for lucre is hideously irrational, “a secret passion [which] fought against love” (Steps 121).

Henry Earlforward’s love of money manifests itself in his irrational affection for cash. He keeps his money in a safe at home, forfeiting the interest and security he would receive from a bank because he likes to be near it. Currency has a carnal attraction for him. “He never kept a dirty note for more then a few days….And the cash was so beautiful to behold” (Steps 201). Cash is something that Earlforward “gazed at passionately”, and it is no coincidence that he dies in front of his “sublime safe” (Steps 227;362).

Earlforward has a powerful revulsion for both eating and sexual contact, and the hunger for money clearly serves as his only sensual pleasure. Earlforward “ate little, but he would seldom hurry over a meal” (Steps 161). His repugnance at the consumption of food is further exhibited by his practice of picking his teeth, as though compelled by a need to eliminate all remnants of the act of eating. “He loved to pick his teeth, even after a meal which was no meal” (Steps 161). As there is no evidence in the novel that his marriage is ever consummated, we are led to conclude that Earlforward’s craving for cash has supplanted his ordinary carnal appetites.

But Earlforward pays an enormous price for his inability to express his hunger in a more conventional manner. His love of money leads to ruin: “The story of miserly greed moves on like a Greek Tragedy, and eventually engulfs Earlforward and his wife” (Simons 266). Earlforward pays a far greater price for his tightfistedness than Tellwright. Tellwright forsakes intimate human contact, but he is allowed to live into old age. In Riceyman Steps Bennett is more explicit about the ultimate cost of miserliness which precipitates Earlforward’s annihilation:

Avarice is as a blight on his physical and moral life. It is the cause of ruin and death, not power and prosperity. It is a cancer in his mind as well as in his flesh eating into his very substance (Lafour 193).

In stark contrast to her employer, “Elsie possesses an instinct for savoring whatever experience unexpectedly comes her way” (Wright 153). Her hearty fondness for food and her lusty relationship with Joe demonstrate that she, like her author, knows how to appreciate life. “(S)he has indeed the appetite for life that her employers singularly lack” (Lucas 203). Elsie discovers considerable delight in the paltry accommodations which her position with the Earlforwards affords her. A salary of twenty pounds a year is, to her, “an enormous sum” (Steps 111). And she found even greater pleasure in the bedroom they provided her:

But do not suppose that the bedroom had no grand, exciting quality for Elsie. It had one. It was solely hers. The first bedroom she had ever in all her life had entirely to herself….It was a balm to her grief. It was a retreat into which undisturbed she could enjoy her grief (Steps 110).

Due to her ability to appreciate life’s simple pleasures, Elsie is freer than Anna Tellwright who has difficulty finding fulfillment despite, or more likely in some way because of, her substantial inheritance. If happiness is the art wanting what you have rather having what you want, then Elsie is undeniably wiser than Anna. Anna’s inheritance of 50,000 pounds brings her no real satisfaction:

…we are told that Anna “felt no elation of any kind (over the vastness of her new fortune)….For Anna is a person who experiences little elation, ever. Indeed, the novel is about how she more or less misses out on life. She has no way of realizing the possibilities love and money have to offer her (Lucas 40).

Although Anna and Elsie share a similar devotion to duty, one surmises that Anna is motivated more by the fear of her tyrannical father than by any inborn desire to serve others. She spends her life wondering why her choices are so complicated instead of simply acting upon the freedom which her fortune would allow her. She would have faced societal derision had she chosen Willie Price over Henry Mynors, but the only thing preventing it is her own sense of etiquette. Elsie knew no such inhibitions. When Joe is sick, she sneaks him into her employer’s household in order to nurse him back to health, risking public scorn. Elsie is immune to such social forces because her need to care for others cancels out all other factors. Instead of being bogged down by questions of propriety, Anna simply does what she feels is right. “Elsie never asked the meaning of life, for she was dominated by a tremendous desire to serve” (Steps 29).

Riceyman Steps was greeted with widespread critical acclaim, and Bennett was thrilled that it earned him his first literary award. His creation of Elsie in particular has been lauded over the years as one of his greatest triumphs. For example,

Bennett’s greatest and noblest characters are the simple, self-sacrificing and humble. Such is Elsie, the young war-widow who spends every day of her life in toil….Our author has made Elsie Spricket the noblest character in Riceyman Steps (Simons 260).

It is important, however, that we remain cognizant of the fact that Elsie’s greatness is not a function of her poverty; none of the other working class characters in the novel come close to approaching her heroism. Her boyfriend Joe, for example, is certainly no moral giant. And the household of the “french-polisher’s wife” where she rents a space on the floor next to one of the children is certainly not a representation of virtue. Except Elsie, the adult inhabitants of the house were always unhappy save when drinking alcohol or making love” (Steps 68).

Just as poverty is no guarantee of righteousness in Bennett’s novels, affluence does not necessarily exclude one from achieving worldly fulfillment. The Suttons in Anna of the Five Towns are in no way made to suffer for their wealth. On the contrary, they are a loving, well-adjusted family because, like their creator, they are happy to exploit the benefits of their wealth. As hosts, they offer a conspicuous contrast to the penurious Tellwright.

The board was richly spread with fancy bread and cakes, jams of Mrs. Sutton’s celebrated preserving, diverse sandwiches compiled by Beatrice, and one or two large examples of the famous Bursley pork-pie (Anna 87).

Like Arnold Bennett, the Suttons know that money is for spending.

Today Arnold Bennett and many of his “Edwardian” contemporaries have been relegated to the far reaches of the literary canon. They have been displaced not because their work is without quality, but because, in contrast to the “Modernists” who supplanted them, they seem to be lacking particular qualities. Bennett doesn’t give us Forster’s flair for pithy social observation, Lawrence’s monomaniacal obsession with the phallus, Mansfield’s subtlety, or Wolfe’s poetry. But he was a fine craftsman who knew how to develop character. He remains worthy of critical attention. Perhaps in a hundred years or so his work will again become fashionable.

by Richard W. Bray


Barker, Dudley. Writer by Trade: A Portrait of Arnold Bennett. New York: Atheneum, 1966.

Bennett, Arnold. Anna of the Five Towns, 1902. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

_____. Riceymen Steps. New York: George H. Doran, 1923.

Douglas, James. “The Miser and the Maid,” 1923. Arnold Bennett: The Critical Heritage. Ed. James Hepburn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981.

Lafour, Georges. Arnold Bennett: A Study. New York: Haskell House, 1939.

Lucas, John. Arnold Bennett: A Study of His Fiction. London: Methuen, 1974.

Simons, J. B. Arnold Bennett and His Novels: A Critical Study, 1936. Folcroft, PA: Folcroft Press, 1969.

Wright, Walter F. Arnold Bennett: Romanitic Realist. Lincoln, NB: Nebraska UP, 1971.

The “Oriental Mind”: E. M. Forster’s Fatuous Caricatures of Indians in A Passage to India (Part 2)

September 23, 2009

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

Somehow, E. M. Forster, who detested imperialism, falls into this trap. The Indian characters in A Passage to India are all exotic. They are constitutionally incapable of acting like mature, honest and rational creatures. Dr. Aziz, the most sympathetic and well-developed of Forster’s Indians, is unable to appreciate the value of honesty. On the day of the incident in the Marabar caves he tells “a great many lies.” (175) He does not lie with malicious intent, he simply comes from a culture which puts no premium on honesty. He is, therefore, someone who has “no sense of evidence.” (302) Deeds which would be described as evidence of hypocrisy when performed by an Englishman are written off as the result of a mysterious culture so foreign as to defy any type of human universalism. Without a hint of irony the narrator declares of the Indians: “What they said and what they felt were…seldom the same.” (120) Aziz is not being a snoop when he reads Fielding’s mail because “The sanctity of private correspondence had never been ratified in the East” (344) .

Yet there is no question that Forster personally preferred the company of Indians to Anglo-Indians. In fact, he could hardly contain his contempt for the latter. When accused of being unfair to the Anglo-Indians Forster responded, “how can I ever like them when I happen to like the Indians and they don’t” (Das 14). With the exception of Fielding, none of the British in the novel could be described as sympathetic characters, and Fielding utterly rejects the Anglo-Indian creed. Many of the Anglo-Indians in A Passage to India are well-rounded, but the colonists represent the most wretched traits of the English temperament. As Benita Parry observes, “by temperament and choice the Anglo-Indians are outsiders, hostile to India whether it be mosques, cave or temple, participating in none, understanding none, resenting all” (Parry, Delusions, 279).

In his efforts to portray the Indians as morally superior to their colonists, Forster unwittingly practices Orientalism by creating characters whose thinking and motivation are alien from the Anglo-Indians. By imagining India as a people and a nation which might represent the antithesis of the cold-hearted, hypocritical, rapacious Anglo-Indians Forster inadvertently creates natives who, at best, can only be seen as half human. Ironically, in this attempt to “humanize” the Indians vis-a-vis their conquerors, Forster has truncated their humanity. Forster’s tendency to oversimplify his Indian characters is also a function of the philosophical struggle which permeates all of his fiction–the quest to find transcendence without God (a monumentally frustrating aspiration). Abdul R. JanMohamed observes:

The metaphysical preoccupation of A Passage to India is a culmination of problems that Forster had been examining throughout his work, and his decision to cast his concerns in terms of Indian philosophy is innocent and logical. But the narrative decision to turn India into a metaphysical protagonist inherently antithetical to Western liberal humanism probably stems from larger cultural differences, the machinery of which is similar to that of the manichean allegory (JanMohamed 96).

As Forster, the renowned humanist, attempts to make his Indians more sympathetic than their evil colonizers, he diminishes them into hideous caricatures. There are instances when it would be difficult to discern his depictions of Indians from those of an overtly racist apologist for Imperialism such as Kipling. Forster’s Indians are not merely prone to mysticism, but incapable of rational thought. Even Aziz, a man of science educated in the Western tradition, is unable to judge his friend Fielding rationally. This is because “(S)uspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumor, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way that the Westerner cannot comprehend” (311). Why must suspicion, or, for that matter, any other normal human emotion, manifest itself differently in the person of an Indian than it would in an Englishman? The passage suggests that this difference in processing emotions is somehow racially based.

We would expect a westernized Indian like Aziz to be torn between two cultures. But he is not nearly so complex; he is western only in manner. His secularism is merely an affectation and therefore no match for an ancient instinctual mysticism. When his children exhibit idolatrous behavior we see how superficial his rationalism is: “He didn’t want them to grow up superstitious, so he rebuked them, and they answered yes, father, for they were well brought up, but, like himself, they were impervious to argument” (332).

But Aziz is not simply an irrational mystic–he is a childlike, fatuous creature who would certainly qualify for several of Benita Parry’s synonyms for exotic. By constantly fretting about whether his guests are well cared for he confirms the narrator’s conclusion that “(L)ike most Orientals, Aziz overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it was tainted with the sense of possession.” (157) So, despite substantial westernization, Aziz, as a representative of his race, is constitutionally incapable of understanding something that would be obvious to any mature Westerner. Further evidence of his puerility is demonstrated when, in response to the death of Mrs. Moore “he wept like a child and ordered his three children to weep also.” (290) Aziz is unable to handle his emotions in a manly way, the way Forster’s alter ego Fielding would. When Fielding tries to speak intimately with Aziz about the strain in their relationship, he terminates the conversation with the ludicrous declaration “I say, shall we go pour water on to Mohammed Latif’s face. He is so funny when this is done to him” (279).

Dr. Aziz, whose behavior hovers between immaturity foolishness, is someone an intelligent reader might imagine to exist. Godbole, on the other hand, is a crepuscular creation who personifies a contempt for Hinduism which Forster made no effort to conceal. Forster’s letters regarding the Gokul Ashtami Festival are “extremely condescending” (Crews 153).
I cannot see the point in this, or rather in what it differs from ordinary mundane intoxication. I suppose that if you believe your drunkenness proceeds from God it becomes more enjoyable….I don’t think I can describe it better than this, and it is difficult to make vivid what seems so fatuous. (Hill, 160-61).

If Forster means to present India as a “metaphysical protagonist,” as JanMohamed argues, then Dr. Aziz and Dr. Godbole obviously represent the relative regard Forster had for their respective faiths. In contrast to his disdainful reaction to Hinduism, Forster was “aesthetically gratified by a religion that is not grossly anthropomorphic” (Crews 152). Indeed, his frustration with the confusion and inconsistency of Hinduism heightened his appreciation for the moral absolutism of a monotheistic religion.

…just as I thought nothing could be more beautiful a muezzin with a most glorious voice gave the evening call of prayer from a mosque. “There is no God but God.” I do like Islam, though I have come through hinduism to discover it. After all the mess and profusion and confusion Gokul Ashtami, where nothing ever stopped or need ever have begun, it was like standing on a mountain. (Hill, 193)

As the living embodiment of this “mess and profusion and confusion,” Dr. Godbole at best can only be described as a hideous caricature of a Hindu. He is a rambling mass of riddles and non sequiturs who frustrates Fielding by arguing that all people are equally responsible for whatever took place at the Marabar Caves. In contrast to Aziz who has “no sense of evidence” Godbole has no conception of reality. Nothing Godbole says is of value to the Westerner because he “had never been known to tell anyone anything.” (342) His pointless verbosity which never “stopped or need have ever begun” ridicules the philosophical underpinnings of Hinduism. Forster is not restrained in his mockery of Hinduism, as illustrated by the comment, “Godbole’s conversations frequently culminated in a cow.” (198)

While in India E. M. Forster continued to struggle to make meaning out of his life. This endeavor was complicated by a condition which is the antithesis of invincible ignorance. An inveterate secularist, Forster nonetheless yearned for some type of spiritual union. He was able to find some comfort in his personal relationships with individual Indians, but his personal Passage to India was frustrated by the unfortunate reality that England and India (and therefore, Englishmen and Indians) are not polar opposites.

By some strange alchemy of literature, Forester’s art is not damaged by this confusion. One might even argue that he achieves aesthetic harmony by oversimplifying his Indians. (A similar point can be made regarding his female creations.) However, that which is artistically appealing can be socially disastrous. By degrading a people who had been abused and exploited by his countrymen for centuries, Forster exposes another “peril of humanism.” Art cannot be justified merely for its own sake.

by Richard W. Bray

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick. The Perils of Humanism. Princeton: Princeton
U P, 1962.
Das, G.K. “`A Passage to India’: A Socio-historical Study,”
Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 1-15.
Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. 1924. San Diego: Harcourt,
Brace, 1984.
_____. The Hill of Devi. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.
JanMohamed, Abdul R. “The Economy of Manichean Allegory: The
Function of Racial Difference in Colonial Literature,” Race,
Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Chicago: U of Chicago P. 78-106.
Parry, Benita. Delusions and Discoveries Studies on India in the
British Imagination. Berkeley: U of California P, 1972.
_____. “The Politics of Representation in `A Passage to India'”, A Passage to India: Essays in Interpretation. Ed. John
Beer. Totowa, NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1986. 27-43.
Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

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

September 22, 2009

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