July 2024 – A Passage to India at One Hundred: Rereading the Trial Scene

by Francesca Pierini

(Asian University for Women, Chittagong, Bangladesh)

A Passage to India, E.M. Forster’s best-known novel, portrays the relations between the British colonial elite and the local community in a fictitious Indian town. When a young British woman accuses a local doctor of attempted rape, all latent conflicts precipitate. These are captured in the climactic trial scene that this short essay briefly revisits.

In Culture and Imperialism (1993), Edward Said points out that the historical moment occupied by E. M. Forster is of special importance in the history of Western imperial consciousness: Modernism is the time in which the colonized others cease to be remote and unsubstantial ghosts and gradually acquire a tangible presence that reflects itself in the work of writers of the time. An analogous development can be found in Forster’s own work. From his first published novel (Where Angels Fear to Tread 1905) to his last (A Passage to India 1924), it is possible to detect a movement of growing awareness of the presence of the other. If the encounter with the Italian other—at the centre of his first novel—is still highly mediated by an age-long literary tradition of fantasizing about the south of Europe that had portrayed it as a unique constellation of counter-values to the British ethos, in A Passage to India the presence of the other is more corporeal and revelatory of Forster’s acquired maturity in his ways of dealing with the responsibility of thinking and representing otherness.

India, and the circumstances of the Anglo-Indian encounter, raise, for Forster, a series of politically cogent issues. Thus, in A Passage to India, Forster, customarily drawn to the depiction of personal existential crises, articulates his own interpretation of the power relations inscribed in the colonial encounter. The well-known trial scene, dramatic and detailed, effectively dissects the conflicts at the heart of it. Adela, the young woman who caused a great deal of upheaval by accusing a local man, Dr Aziz, of having gravely misbehaved towards her, finds the courage to take her path back to honesty when she starts distinguishing faces (individualities) among the multitude making up the audience in the courtroom. I will flesh out the significance of this gesture in what follows.

The trial scene stages, in physical as well as figurative opposition, the terms of “Englishness” and “Indianness.” The Anglo-Indian community enters the courtroom “with a condescending air, as it was a booth at a fair” (Forster 192); its members, confident in their imminent victory, joke among themselves intimidating the Indian authorities. The whole segment of the trial is eventful, chaotic and lively with confrontations.

The Indian audience, inside and outside the courtroom, offers a series of contrapuntal reactions to the events of the trial; the spectators constitute a gathering in the background that occasionally expresses itself, coming forth, alternatively, through provocations, hostile noises, jeering, unruly laughter, and uproars. The British superintendent expects “these outbursts of insolence [as] the natural gestures of an inferior race” (Forster 197).

The journey of Adela’s conscience that the scene encompasses goes through different stages: it begins when Adela notices the man who pulls the punkah, a servant of the lower classes that occupies the platform with naturalness, appearing “to control the proceedings” (Forster 192) by virtue of his central position within the courtroom and remarkable physical beauty. The sight of this man makes Adela ask herself “in virtue of what had she collected this roomful of people together? […] By what right did they [the British] claim so much importance in the world, and assumed the title of civilization?” (Forster 193). From the beginning of the sequence, Adela’s acknowledgment of (and attraction to) the other makes her conscience doubt itself, undermining her feelings of superiority and awakening her scruples.

At the remark, proffered by one of the British lawyers, that “the darker races are physically attracted by the fairer, but not vice versa” (Forster 194), one single voice detaches itself from the crowd to ask, daringly: “even when the lady is so uglier than the gentleman?” (Forster 194). This vulgarly expressed truth coming from the crowd of others is an invitation to let go of pretentiousness and self-importance, a lesson for the British protagonist(s) to either assimilate or reject. It is up to Adela’s conscience to make something of it, to keep questioning her self-righteousness. Adela, right at this point, begins to identify individuals out of an indistinct mass of people; to recognize faces among an unidentified gathering:

While the prosecution continued, Miss Quested examined the hall–timidly at first, as though it would scorch her eyes. She observed to left and right of the punkah-man many a half-known face. Beneath her were gathered all the wreckage of her silly attempt to see India–the people she had met at the Bridge Party, the man and his wife who had not sent their carriage, the old man who would lend his car, various servants, villagers, officials, and the prisoner himself. (Forster 195)

In accordance with what Frederick C. Crews terms Forster’s “total ethical ideal” (101) that is to say, “the Apollonian one of proportion, but of vital proportion between body and soul, passion and intellect” (Crews 101), the British protagonists of Forster’s narratives must negotiate with, understanding and partially incorporating, the values coming from an-other. Such ideals, placed at the opposite spectrum of Apollonian ones, are the Dionysian ones, defined by Crews as:

the spirit that feels the oneness of all things, and which consequently shares in all the pain and ecstasy in the universe. This Promethean seizure of forbidden experience quickly becomes unbearable and must be succeeded by the spirit of Apollonianism. The Apollonian is the principium individuationis; it recognizes forms, borders and categories, and imposes the image of infinite humanity upon the disorder of experience. As opposed to the Dionysian involvement in excess, the Apollonian insists on measure and morality; it substitutes the ideal of knowledge for that of participation. (Crews 97)

The crowd depiction in the trial scene could be read in direct and opposed reference to this very definition, as it depicts a gathering that is largely unaware of what is going on, but perfectly understands, and finds gratification in, collective participation. Moreover, one could quite literally apply the definition of principium individuationis to this very moment in the scene and argue that Adela manages “to impose the image of infinite humanity” upon the indistinctiveness of the crowd. She individuates, recognizes, and finally imposes order over chaos, within her, and upon what she sees.

The point, naturally, is that the principium individuationis, the Apollonian condition of rational discerning, is a prerogative of the British individual, who prefers it over disorder and chaos because disorder constitutes a previous state—the Dionysian is succeeded by the Apollonian—that has been found inadequate. In Foster’s narration, the Indians, not having yet discovered this advanced stage of development, still privilege participation over knowledge. This makes them good subjects for crowd depictions against which British individuality is played.

Adela delivers her final statements with much honesty and sincerity: following the fragile thread of her memory “leading her along the paths of truth” (Forster 202), Adela recants all her previous accusations: “Dr Aziz never followed me into the cave” (Forster 203).

 Adela’s recantation provokes the audience’s reaction: “slight noises began in various parts of the room, but no one yet understood what was occurring except Fielding” (Forster 203). The audience expresses its collective feelings even before it understands the events (participation over knowledge); Mr. Fielding, on the contrary, already “the only European who remained in the body of the hall” (Forster 194), the individual in possess of the Apollonian spirit set against the Dionysian crowd, not only understands it all, but signals, through his position within the courtroom, his capacity to choose autonomously between the two opposing terms. At Adela’s final declaration: “I withdraw everything,” (Forster 204) “the flimsy framework of the court broke up, the shouts of derision and rage culminated, people screamed and cursed, kissed one another, wept passionately” (Forster 204).

In A Passage to India, the challenge posed to the protagonists is that of questioning the alleged superiority of the British ethos and the ideal of civilization it produces and attempts at imposing. During the trial scene, Adela’s conscience goes through “a trial within the trial,” as it were, finding its way back to honesty the moment Adela humanizes the crowd, and Dr Aziz within it. Forster’s depiction of British individuality, set against an Indian crowd, is meant to convey a difference between national characters. Forster finds the Indian character exotic and striking, capable of coalescing into a potentially rebellious entity that can only be controlled and made sense of by the Apollonian civilized ethos.

Works Cited

Crews, Frederick C. “E.M. Forster: The Limitations of Mythology.” Comparative Literature12.2 (1960): 97-112.

Forster, E.M. Where Angels Fear to Tread. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2012.

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. Penguin Classics. London: Penguin, 2012.

Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. New York: Knopf, 1993.