Sunday

Character Sympathy in E.M. Forster's A Passage to India

What struck me most in the initial chapters of A Passage to India, besides the admirable landscape description, is the sympathy of the principal characters.  Forster achieved this in part by offsetting them against the British colonial administrators and their wives, who come off as ignorant and boorish.  But even without this implicit comparison, the main players are interesting and well rounded.  With the character of Mrs. Moore in particular, Forster seems to have made extra efforts to generate sympathy. This is interesting because later in the book Mrs. Moore takes on godlike dimensions, and is a major influence on the arc of the main protagonist, Aziz.

On a superficial level, the old woman plays a bit role in the story, and she dies halfway through the book.  But in a deeper sense she is a pivotal character, in two respects. 

One, she is the force behind Aziz’s eventual salvation.  If Aziz didn’t remember her at key points – if she didn’t continue to “speak” to him even after her death – his tendency to lapse into ethnic/religious partisanship would no doubt have prevailed, cutting him off from a major aspect of his own character: his self-nurturing love of humanity.   Mrs. Moore helps Aziz overcome his demons and the book ends on a surprisingly hopeful note, with Aziz reaching a new level of self-understanding.  It is a crucial point of closure.

Two, Mrs. Moore (deified as “Esmiss Esmoor”) shoulders much of the novel’s “prophetic” burden, its preoccupation with death and the terrifying yet potentially beautiful expanse of the afterlife.   Her harrowing experience in the caves—when she hears the ancient “boum” echo—resonates throughout the novel, endowing it with unique power. 

We first meet Mrs. Moore in the mosque, when Aziz assumes she hasn’t taken off her shoes like a normal, self-absorbed Englishwoman. He orders her to do so.  But it turns out she already has taken off her shoes, because it “. . . makes no difference.  God is here.” 

Aziz soon learns that Mrs. Moore is not a typical Englishwoman in India.  She has a dry sense of humor, for one thing. When Aziz exclaims “we’re in the same box with a vengeance” because they both have two sons and a daughter, she wonders if their names are also Frank, Ralph, and Stella. She shares Aziz’s distaste for the English government crowd, including her own son. Mrs. Moore, like the reader, easily sees through the posturing of the City Magistrate and other officials, and feels free to speak her mind.  God has put us on earth to be pleasant to each other, she tells her son, who’s come to feel that his job requires him to do otherwise. “God . . . is . . . Love.” 

Mrs. Moore is an interesting and sympathetic character—a desirable dinner companion.  But she’s not perfect, and spirituality, as we’ll later see, is not as unassailable as it appears.  Forster’s sympathetic portrait of Mrs. Moore stands in stark contrast to most of the other English people in the story, which is undoubtedly part of the point.  Mrs. Moore is different. She possesses a certain kind of universal wisdom unique to the aged, a lack of prejudice and an emotional freedom that transcends such meaningless distractions as religion, culture, position, or status.  Mrs. Moore’s wisdom on these matters is what Aziz responds to when they first meet in the mosque. 

But that Mrs. Moore is too perfect to last the entire book.  When she hears the fatal “boum” in the caves, she is shaken to the core, and the event marks the beginning of her fast slide towards death.   She becomes withdrawn, irritable, and unpleasant.  The reader feels let down and disappointed that a brush with mortality (or with the infinite) would cause such a woman to throw away her humane goodness in favor of morbid self-absorption. 

But then, of course, post mortem, she’s resurrected as “Esmiss Esmoor.” Because the reader remembers the noble spirit she originally personified, the deification contains a kind of deep plausibility.

Mrs. Moore continues to play a role after her death. In the final reconciliation between Aziz and Fielding, she seems to speak to Aziz through the medium of her idiot son Ralph.  What she wishes to communicate to Aziz—or what he wishes to hear—is the same brand of wisdom she displayed at the beginning, when they first met in the mosque: Religion doesn’t matter. Forgive your neighbors. God is love. 

The final glimpse we have of Mrs. Moore is when Godbole, in an ecstatic religious trance, ushers her into the afterlife, along with a wasp.  Having done her job, she is now free to move on to a better world.