Forster, E. M. (Edward Morgan Forster)

Encyclopedia of the Literature of Empire - Mary Ellen Snodgrass 2010

Forster, E. M. (Edward Morgan Forster)

Forster, E. M. (Edward Morgan Forster) (1879-1970) English novelist and nonfiction writer

Edward Morgan Forster, a London-born essayist and fiction writer, dramatized the social currents of British enclaves in India during the Edwardian age (1901-10). After completing his education at King's College, Cambridge University, Forster contributed short fiction to the Albany Review, English Review, Independent Review, Pall Mall Magazine, and Putnam’s. He produced four novels between 1905 and 1910, and in 1921 he published The Hill of Devi, both a TRAVELOGUE and a treatise on Hindu life. While serving the maharajah of Dewas Senior as secretary in west central India, Forster gathered material for his fifth and most insightful novel, A Passage to India (1924), winner of the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Literature and the Prix Femina Vie Heureuse. In Aspects of a Novel (1927), he stated the value of such scholarly research to civilization: “We (writers) are a very large and quite a powerful class, eminent in Church and State, we control the education of the Empire” (Forster 1956, 10). The assertion characterizes the scope and intensity of his Anglo-Indian fiction, with which he intended to stretch the imagination through unanswerable quandaries that demand analysis and debate.

Set in the decline of the British Raj during the independence movement of the 1920s, A Passage to India questions the complacency and arrogance that alienates races, religions, professions, social classes, and genders in the Indian subcontinent. A web of estrangement begins with a boring English stage play at the whites-only club and a tenuous encounter of English officials and Indian guests at an afternoon social that Mr. and Mrs. Turton of Chandrapore host at the club garden. Among whites, the jovial Muslim physician Dr. Aziz Ahmed “overrated hospitality, mistaking it for intimacy, and not seeing that it is tainted with the sense of possession” (Forster, 2002, 157), a gibe at English courtesies that maligns stilted manners as lace coverings for disdain. Group discomfort worsens with the judgments of the Hindu-Brahmin professor Narayan Godbole concerning Christians and Muslims, of Cyril Fielding the educator in the hectoring presence of Turton the tax collector, and of Adela Quested, a new arrival to the colony who has doubts about her upcoming wedding to Ronnie Heaslop and her own sexuality. Her future mother-in-law, Mrs. Moore, a dispenser of wisdom and proponent of inclusion, exclaims, “This to do and that to do and this to do in your way and that to do in her way, and everything sympathy and confusion and bearing one another's burdens” (207), a clue to Forster's disinclination toward Christian philosophy.

The author's disturbing allegorical novel jolted readers with the ironies and ambiguities of character interaction in fictional Chandrapore, which represents a crucible of Anglo-Indian relations in the decades following the death of Queen Victoria. In the courtroom, at a collision of personal prejudices and truth, Adela exhibits a brave honesty by recanting charges of rape against Dr. Aziz. Public atonement rids her of a subconscious echo, a Freudian upheaval of gender and social roles that ricochets from the unconscious to the conscious mind. The wounded sensibilities of British bigots and the jubilance of Indian nationalists erupt in a native celebration of the court judgment that winds through the streets like a pagan procession. Cyril Fielding realizes how quickly feigned decorum goes awry: “Everything echoes now; there's no stopping the echo. The original sound may be harmless, but the echo is always evil” (184). Like the civil servants who create a social pariah in RUTH PRAWER JHABVALA'S Heat and Dust (1975), English bigots force Adela, the “addled quester,” out of India's complex social order and out of the closed world of a British expatriate compound to the safe conservatism in London. In the inconclusive coda, Forster preserves a glimmer of idealism in Fielding, who marries Stella, a character bearing the Latin name for star. The novel was Forster's last to earn critical acclaim. Before his death at age 91, he accepted a Companion of Honour and an Order of Merit.

The Indian journalist SANTHA RAMA RAU wrote the stage play of A Passage to India in 1962; the BBC produced it for television three years later.

In 1984, David Lean directed a stimulating film version, which cast Judy Davis with Victor Banerjee, James Fox, Peggy Ashcroft, and Alec Guinness.


Forster, E. M. Aspects of the Novel. New York: Harvest Books, 1956.

-------- . A Passage to India. London: Macmillan, 2002. Jay, Betty. E. M. Forster. London: Macmillan, 2003.