restricted access E. M. Forster's A Passage to India: What Really Happened in the Caves
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E. M. Forster's A Passage to India:
What Really Happened in the Caves

The core event in E. M. Forster's A Passage to India is the "attack" experienced by Adela Quested in one of the Marabar Caves, where Aziz has taken Miss Quested and Mrs. Moore for a day's excursion.: As Chapter Sixteen, the central chapter of the central section of the novel, begins, Aziz, Miss Quested, and a guide from the local village have climbed up the hills, away from the rest of the expedition party. Aziz has just separated himself from Adela, having lost his emotional balance due to her insensitive questioning. The narrator then follows Aziz, who, to recover his equilibrium, plunges into one of the caves where he waits, lights a cigarette, and thinks what he will say on rejoining Miss Quested. When he emerges from the caves Aziz finds the guide, who is alone and who tells Aziz that he has heard a noise—the whine of a motor car. Aziz and the guide then attempt to get a better look at the oncoming car. Only at that juncture, as Aziz runs back to tell Miss Quested that a car is approaching, does he realize that she has disappeared—into a cave, as the guide informs him. After berating the guide for not keeping track of her, Aziz looks fruitlessly and more and more confusedly for her. In his frustration he strikes out at the guide, who then disappears, resurfacing only hypothetically and not very seriously much later in the novel in discussions regarding the cause of Adela's upset. Immediately thereupon Aziz discovers that Miss Quested had in fact joined her friends at the base of the hill. Almost in the same moment his relief is followed by disquiet as he finds Miss Quested's field glasses, with a broken leather strap, lying at the verge of a cave.

Forster does not tell us what happened to Miss Quested in the cave, but as a consequence of whatever happened, Aziz is accused of sexually assaulting her. The subsequent trial, the ensuing breakdown of relations between Indians and English, Aziz's acquittal, and his resolute rejection of British rule occupy the remainder of the novel—all of which turn on the events in the cave. "The caves are central both structurally and thematically. They provide the name for the centre part of this three-part novel and they provide the space—the poetic space if you will—out of which emanates the novel's meaning. . . . We need to study the caves if we want to understand this novel" (Stone, "The Caves" 16).

Despite the centrality of the caves, it was E. M. Forster's intention in the final published version of A Passage to India that the reader come away from the cave sequence with an impression of muddle and a sense of inexplicable mystery.1 [End Page 596] This failure to let the reader see clearly has struck some critics as unfair (Stevenson 87-102). But when Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson wrote to Forster in 1924, complaining that what happened in the caves was puzzling and that Forster should have been more explicit, Forster replied:

In the cave it is either a man, or the supernatural, or an illusion. And even if I know! My writing mind therefore is a blur here—i.e. I will it to remain a blur, and to be uncertain, as I am of many facts in daily life. This isn't a philosophy of aesthetics. It's a particular trick I felt justified in trying because my theme was India. It sprang from my subject matter. I wouldn't have attempted it in other countries, which though they contain mysteries or muddles, manage to draw rings round them.

Later, in 1934, in a review of a novel by William Plomer, Forster reflected that he had "tried to show that India is an unexplainable muddle by introducing an unexplained muddle—Miss Quested's experience in the cave. When asked what happened there, I don't know" (Furbank 2: 125).2 Because of Forster's unwillingness to tell what Adela...