Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. August 2006

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung
Herausgeberin | Editor | Éditeur: Zoltán Zsávolya (Budapest, Győr)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Culture and Transgression in Late Colonial Discourse. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India

Ferenc Zsélyi (University of Kaposvár, Hungary)


1. The terms
1.1. Transgression ← trans + gressus = to go beyond the limit
1.2. Culture: the discourse of the Symbolic Order
1.3. Late Colonial ~ between 1870 and 1945
1.3.1. Late Colonial British Fiction refers to fiction that thematized the end of British colonialism exclusively fictionally
1.4. A Passage refers to a transfer from one discursivity into another, i.e. a transfer from the discursive regime of a culture into a different one.
1.5. other (with a small scale o) refers to the set of entities that are not identical with the entities of a set considered. It might be synonymous with ‘different’ and also with ‘alien,’ ‘strange,’ ‘queer.’


A Passage to India (1924)

This British English narrative’s horizon is in the East, in India, and this way it continues the tradition of novels like Kipling’s Kim, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Britishness and Orientalism are different discourses. This is a narrative where these two symbolically opposing discourses collide in friendships, accident, loves, enmities, that is, in the plot of a novel.

Colonialism implies that the "oriental" characters have already transgressed the limits of their own culture since it had to be part of their political, social, racial - and, sometimes, sexual - surveillance. Consequently, the plot of a late colonial British novel could do any transgression exclusively on behalf of "British characters". They had to become "Indianized" like Cyril Fielding in A Passage to India, or like Kim; or Africanized as in the Heart of Darkness.

In the narratives of white Christian heterosexual males telling a story always focalized on the question of right and wrong. What is right and what is wrong depend on the discourses of a culture. If two cultures are discursive within the same narrative, narrative discourse either becomes racial treatise in which one of the discourses loses; or it comes to clash of moral perspectives where it becomes impossible to decide between right and wrong.

Colonial discourse, like Kipling’s could employ the technique of the double plot(1) where the "popular" register’s status was to be taken by the colonized while the heroic part by the colonizer. This necessarily delivered a somewhat comic view of the nation under surveillance.

The title, A Passage to India, suggests that one of the plot's grammatical elements will be a journey to be taken on various levels of representations between the two discourses: geographically as a travel, culturally as transgression, surveillance, colonization; mythically as a passage from one realm of existence into a possibly more mysterious one; metanarratively a travel from the realm of meaning into the realm of confusion; hermeneutically a journey from political culture into the culture of compassion.

This time the journey does not connect two English country houses with London. The communicating "loci" are two continents with two cultural sets, the West and the East, the Occident and the Orient. The journey may be the channel of communication economically or politically, exemplified by a marriage between a colonial and an English person. From the perspective of narration the journey is a repetitive feature, a syntactic element. But, on the other hand, when the communication of two cultures is carried through on a semantic and a symbolic level virtually in the souls of people representing the two cultures, the journey will not, by all means, be represented in the topics of the sea, the ocean.

The voyage for the spiritual-symbolic journey must be taken between the representatives of two cultures taking the route between the souls of two individuals. The word 'passage' in the title does not only imply a [journey], it may also refer to [the way we have worked through something] or it may suggest [penetration/ initiation].

The characters of the novel act out the process [c.f. passage] in which the European/ British subject has been given the chance to participate in the Indian discourse of life. The character who seems to be the protagonist is Dr Aziz, an Indian physician who does not do anything that would exceed the boundaries of those conventions that are cast on him living in that part of the world.

He himself is a transgression: he has been educated in England, so he is a Europeanized Indian physician. He ought to stick to European "rules", oughtn’t he? Well he does and he doesn’t.

The events - if they are events at all - happen to him. But he does not do much about them. He is more of a narrative screen than a narrative agent. Oriental people do not live with "ambition" in their hearts which implies that they do not want to acquire, invade, colonize, have, possess something which has not been their own already. In the European sense of ambition they lack purpose. So their narratives from the European point of view are not genuine narratives either.

At this conference I have to note that this is generally true for "Eastern" narratives even within Europe, as far as the history of European literature does not include early Romanian or Hungarian native narratives. They would look excessive and "strange" - transgressing European cultural norms whatever they are.

I very much doubt that E. M. Forster’s book's plot would make a story. The other characters who accompany Dr Aziz - Hamidullah and Professor Godbole do not pass on any information or impression to the reader which would provoke a response in the reader. They stay behind Aziz like a couple of the Indian physician's narrative/ narrated incarnations here and now. They repeat in their own way what Aziz says or does. Or Aziz repeats what they say or do.

Those characters of the novel who are labeled "British" are not any more active than the Indian ones. Aziz appears on the narrative horizon when an elderly British lady, Mrs. Moore who has just traveled from England to India, seems - to Aziz - to transgress rules of worship in the mosque.

She comes to India for family reasons, yet she intends to learn India which she does via a couple of experiences that turn her inside out. These experiences reveal to her the emptiness of social relations, the compulsive yet empty ritual of marriage - lacking the imperative of ‘only connect’ -; and she recognizes that there are no good and bad things separately: there is a balance of goodness and badness. This is unacceptable for her son, and the elderly lady must leave the East at once: she has become too much Indianized, she has transgressed rules of reason and propriety and the respectable English lady ought to be hospitalized to avoid other "misunderstandings," further transgressions of the boundary between Britishness and the other which is, this time, India.

She leaves India and the discourse of the novel right at that point where and when she could become an ethically decisive device of the novel if she admitted that she had traveled to India in the "second" sense of the journey. She does not reach up the moral and narrative level of this challenge [quest] and leaves for England. Or, probably, she has understood India so deeply that she leaves her knowing that everything will be all right - though not in a European sense. She dies on the voyage home.

Her death, again, is a kind of transgression: her body which lives in her "new" Indianized soul, knows that she could/ should not live the life she used to live in petty middle class England, drinking tea and talking marriage all the time. This may be considered a symbolic action. But however symbolic it is it comes late since by this time the moral order of the novel's universe has dissolved.

The other major female character is Miss Quested whose name refers to the word passage from the title. The quest is a search - for love, for Jesus Christ, for the Holy Grail. Miss Quested travels to India with Mrs. Moore because later she may get married to Mrs. Moore's son who has been working there, who is the emblem of both cultural and political, and probably narrative colonizing. He is a poitical agent who has got his own unique - this sometimes may imply 'British' - plots for all cases.

Miss Quested's quest or passage is to participate in a social affair (i.e., colonial marriage) and to believe it like a story of British and European discourse while the horizon itself is that of an Indian plot. Miss Quested transgresses the mythic - horizontal - realm of India.(2) This way the marriage proposed is to secure politically one of the two discourses of the novel so that one culture could repress the other one into the other discourse. Narratology may but welcome this absurdity since this generates plots and difference and provides discursive difference against the conventional surface story.

The subverted culture cannot communicate power and politics due to its sub-version. Is it does it is transgressing its own limits. It reflects the statements of the conventions of the superior narrating discourse in the other discourse in the grammatical form of questions. Whatever a British subject does in the novel’s plot in India it is immediately mirrored by an Indian subject right there and then either because the Oriental subject - out of surveillance - loves to ape Europeans or because, for an Indian, European gestures are unintelligible. And the sentences with which the British generate the discourse of their own will turn into questions which challenge the submissive political narrative that the British characters just love for its rationality and simplicity - for its Britishness.

The novel is structured like the dialogue of two interweaving yet two alien voices. It is strange that the narrator's position is not clear. We may think that s/he is British but his irony and his value judgments can also indicate that s/he is Indian and has arrived from the other discourse. Mrs. Moore, her son, Ronny Heaslop and Miss Quested are accompanied by Fielding(3), who, like Mrs. Moore, has been ascribed a narrative function in the plot to transfer from one discourse to the other one, to connect. To transfer, from the British point of view is to transgress. To connect, to establish an emotional bondage is also transgression - "a rather unreasonable one."

While Mrs. Moore is contemplating the activities "happening" around her with the eyes of the "world-trotter ", Fielding sees what is (not) happening. He knows that what seems to be happening is but the narrative ritualization of the recurring politico-cultural conflict between the two discourses, British and Indian. It is a ritual in which one participates to issue his creed on behalf of power. While the other discourse of the Indians, on the one hand, has difficulties in imitating the ritual of power; on the other hand, in the love of their religion they disseminate the strained conflict-orientedness of the British/ European discourse.

It is quite difficult to point at the place where that event happens which provides the novel with a plot. Later this plotting event turns out to be rather fictional within fiction. The crime which may have converted the novel into a semi-detective piece might not have happened - it was Miss Quested's exhausted British/ European body and soul which projected this quest onto the walls of the cave. The poetics of this "crime" that either did happen or did not, is hysteria.

But hysteria in this sense does not exist in Forster’s India: India, the Oriental subject is "hysteric" for a British person. British hysteria is colonization, Indian hysteria is participating in the universal uniqueness of the world, something like breathing.

This "visionary event" - that Miss Quested might have been raped during the visit to the Marabar Caves - was to ascribe some difference to the otherwise insignificant phenomenon of the female protagonist. We also know that the not very attractive British lady has had hallucinatory troubles in connection with sexuality and marriage, since she has actually come to India to get married to a British subject, Ronny Heaslop.

Aziz must pay the price of a British lady’s very British malady. But he receives the reader's pity which is due to the shock created by the immorality of the British reality principle. The reader may not like Aziz but s/he supports him against those who s/he ought to dislike.

This book is a very good bridge between the East and the West because it does not work on behalf of either one. On the contrary: the narrative thematizes the virtues and vices of both parties and reflects the way the two discourses can handle this. Britishness is stuck with the other; while Indian discourse is both fascinated and repelled by the other.

Aziz takes the two British lady-visitors to the Marabar Caves. There something happens the nature of which is at least as obscure as the mythic mystery of the caves. Miss Quested loses her consciousness in one of the caves. (This is already the repetition of Mrs. Moore's feeling unwell in the first cave they visited and shows that this swoon is not a criminal fact but a narrative function.) Miss Quested had been troubled by the thought of her future marriage, she was thoroughly exhausted when entering the caves because of the difficulties she had had in answering [c.f. quest] final questions about marriage and love. She loses her self-control in the cave where both sound and vision are multiplied in their echoes and she is leaving the space desperately. Aziz is charged with having sexually harassed the young British lady in the cave.

The idea of this plot is too simple and quite successful. The political conflict between two nationwide discourses is compressed through the mystery of sexuality. The "genuine" fakeness of the repressive colonial narrativity installs strong affection on the crime. The experience in the cave is understood as a crime and the plot structures it like a detective story. The text tells the same story twice: once when the crime is committed, and the second time when the first story is retold in form of detection, inquiry. Criminal and detective pace the same route. The only thing that may bother the plot is that case when there is nothing to retrace for there has no sin been committed.

The detective makes a fool of himself. His activity (the reconstruction of a criminal story) is missing its object and the most serious activity of his becomes lyrics, the discourse of desire. The detective is a group of characters in A Passage to India: those people who are there in India in body but they are in England when they think and tell stories. When this collective detective is tracing the passage [passage] of the crime which Aziz is supposed to have committed when he sexually harassed Miss Quested these characters with their twofold existence and ambiguous life-stories ought to repeat the passage of sin/ crime but they do not do anything since there is nothing to repeat. The British compulsively repeat a story which they have invented for themselves.

The ritual telling of the same self-inflicted fiction undermines their identities and turns some of the colonial community scizophrenic for a while. The buffoonery serves as one of the carnivalesque scenes of the novel. The mystery of a "real" crime is substituted in the trial by a fake story invented by power, convention and ignorance.

There is no probable crime story where that very story is missing which should be retold through the undoing of its narrative mystery. In retelling the crime the detective becomes an alter ego for both the narrator and the criminal. Here a group of people should become the narrator. But the way they want to cope with the narrative difficulty of repeating a story is not accepted by the narrator and the otherwise heroically plotted inquiry turns out to be a carnival of fools. This "collective detective" does not share the criminal's sublime, s/he remains minute and detestable in his petty ritual of meanness.

The novel's plot is entirely based on the character of Miss Quested. No wonder it is her name that implies the end of the quest. She cannot inquire she ought not to be looked for. She has no significance either in body or in soul that could make her the object of a quest. The way she acts, the way she has "passions" are all strongly allegoric. They are not her activities and they are not her passions - maybe they are not passions at all.

Miss Quested is the hysteric emblem who reflects the whole British community. The carnival scene is taking place in the club where the most insignificant persons gain discursivity in their offering Miss Quested's body to be the object of their totemistic colonial "religion".

They fail when they fail to transpose the unattractive female body’s injuries into fetishes of endangered British nationalism. If they succeeded that would immediately "degenerate" the Indian subject and would make him (Aziz) ready for criminalization.

Now transgression would happen then: transgression is the complex of politically designed narrative tropes, part of which ought to have been, on the one hand, the fetishization of an - accidentally - "injured" British body; and, on the other hand, the criminalization of an Indian body.

The only problem - and the novel reveals this paradox - is that, meanwhile, the causal connection between the injured British body and the awesomely queer Indian body is reversed. It is the injured British body that makes the Indian body transgress, and not the other way around. So if anyone has been criminally injured, it is Dr Aziz’s body injured by the British anxiety of India.

A woman utters signs of fear because she is afraid of Aziz's probable criminal intentions towards her children. She, via this communal hysteria, becomes the metonymy of all those who are present at the club. This British "priestess" creates the worship of Miss Quested's body. This fake heroism may affect the reader's dislike since it does not provide the reader with a choice to say yes or no. The reader cannot reach the book through the surface plot, s/he has to look beyond. The reader is kindly made to transgress the graphic characters.

The cultural superiority of the European subject is presented as a set of mean intentions in the meiosis of Miss Quested's body. A fetish which is simply unlikely to become a totem. When the poor woman escapes the Marabar Caves she unfortunately is stung by cacti. Her body is wounded by thousands of little thorns which, later, the caring female members of the British colony are picking from the quested communal body. The body of anyone gains universal significance(4) via meiosis and parable. But this significance is already a reversed significance when the reader starts communicating it.

Grand is mean and truth is fake. Half of the novel’s discourse is moral transgression. It is Miss Quested's character that provides a horizon to issue the point of view in which love becomes insecurity and does not move the narration for it lacks desire.

The plot consists of two different parts. Mrs. Moore's death is the boundary between them. The first line of episodes contains those episodes which we have been discussing here so far while the second one is the story in which Fielding, who, after the abominable trial and the procession, left India, returns with his wife and a young a man who is the late Mrs. Moore's younger son. Fielding's wife is Mrs. Moore's daughter.

But Aziz does not know and thinks that Fielding has betrayed him marrying Miss Quested, the would-be fetish of the British. The boundary, Mrs. Moore's death is the trascendence of that character who might have completed the narration earlier because it was she who probably knew what had happened in the cave. Mrs. Moore is already dead when the Indian people who are revolting against Aziz's trial start chanting her name. They make the English word, "Moore" quite flexible and it soon becomes the name of a god/dess, "Esmiss Esmoor" (Forster 1924, 250). They may be right since the soul which has become free from the burdens of earthly existence is not hindered by anything in becoming the champion of truth.

Mrs. Moore's two children who live in England are Ralph and Stella. Both names imply a strong metaphysical bondage with hermeneutics. They go to India and when Aziz cures Ralph at one point Mrs. Moore's entrance to the novel - at the mosque - is repeated. Aziz cures the circle of repetition and allows the story to become a myth for himself.

The first part of the plot is a conventional detective story which could, otherwise, have been a passion play. But it is not proper for either of the two genres. Thus it satirizes itself. The second part is romance where, in the background, the birth of the divinity is being celebrated. What satire makes ridiculous is dissolved into love by romance. The sequence of misunderstandings, meiosis, and parables is completed by the fraternal embrace, the icon of philia. What cultures and peoples can live and tell only in stories of aggression and dislike is receiving loving grace in the communion of the two friends, Aziz and Fielding.

Yet the narrative transgresses again: it does not allow a happy ending. The two friends might make it - "But the horses didn’t want it - they swerved apart; the earth didn’t want it, sending up rocks through which riders must pass single file" (Forster 1924, 362).

© Ferenc Zsélyi (University of Kaposvár, Hungary)


(1) The poetics of double plot was first defined by William Empson in 1935: "Double Plots. Heroic and Pastoral in the Main Plot and Sub-Plot". Double Plot originally refers to the medieval romance in which the twofoldness of culture dominated style: on the one hand, there was a register for the saving aristocratic hero who fought for "the many", on the other hand, there was the discourse of his companion, the servant, both as a group of people − the people of his nation whom the hero is to save − and as the servant (whose best example is a rather late one, Papageno). The hero is sublime, the servant lives in reckless carnality. "[The double plot is] to show the labour of the king or the saint in the serious part and in the comic part the people, as ’popular’ as possible, for whom he laboured. This gave a sort of reality to the sentiments about the king and the saint... the relation between the two parts is that of symbol and thing symbolized." William Empson: Some Versions of Pastoral. A Study of the Pastoral Form in Literature (1935). Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1965, 27-74; 30.

(2) "In space things touch, in time things part." E. M. Forster: A Passage to India (1924), San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1952, 214.

(3) Fielding 's name is of importance in two senses. On the one hand it is a metasign referring to the genre of the novel and its Classic author, Henry Fielding. The character Fielding has a reference to the picaresque tradition which reached its classified form in Fielding's work. On the other hand the name contains the word field which implies [playing field], [horizon], [space]. This marks his probable political function in India: he is the educational colonizing device since he is a teacher. But he seems to be opposing his conventional role. He politically betrays the British political-cultural discourse choosing to be a narrative motor of dissidence. He has chosen the first implication of his name. He is primarily an ethical being unlike the rest of the colonial(izing) characters.

(4) "Everything now was transferred to the surface of her body, which began to avenge itself, and feed unhealthily". Forster 1924, 214.

4.3. Die inter- und transdisziplinären Verhältnisse kultureller Vermittlung

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For quotation purposes:
Ferenc Zsélyi (University of Kaposvár, Hungary): Culture and Transgression in Late Colonial Discourse. E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 16/2005. WWW:

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