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108 A NOTE ON THE SNAKE IMAGERY OF A PASSAGE T£ INDIA By George H. Thomson (Mount Allison University) A PASSAGE TO INDIA pivots on the mighty contrast between two settings: the wasteland world of "Caves" and the rainsoaked jungle world of "Temple." The wasteland world, at the center of which is the Marabar Hills and caves, signifies the absence of God and hints at his nonexistence. The jungle world, at the center of which is Mau and its great religious festival, signifies the presence of God. This theme of the presence and absence of God, adumbrated in the novel by GodboIe and reflected in the major symbols, is reinforced by a variety of minor symbols. The significance of snakes and images of snakes in the novel will illustrate Forster's careful deployment of such minor symbols. But in assessing the snake imagery in relation to the presence and absence of God, it is important to remember that the development of this theme is in many respects non-theological. The idea of presence and absence is generalized and finds expression in the quality and nature of the reality-unreality encountered in the Indian universe. Near the close of the novel, Aziz and Fielding go for a ride in the Mau jungle. As they near the end of their ride, we read: "They splashed through butterflies and frogs; great trees with leaves like plates rose among the brushwood. The divisions of daily life were returning, the shrine had almost shut" (p. 321).' For Aziz and Fielding, who have come together in the closing gestures of the Mau festival, the god has extended his temple even to the Mau jungle. This is important in evaluating a detail mentioned earlier in their ride: "Presently the ground opened into full sunlight and they saw a grassy slope bright with butterflies, also a cobra, which crawled across doing nothing in particular, and disappeared among some custard apple trees" (p. 317). This is the first actual snake to appear in the novel. With two trivial exceptions, it i o also the first real snake to be mentioned in a novel well furnished with references to snakes, scorpions, serpents, and dragons, The exceptions are the snake said to have been cut in two by the kitchen boy and the highly poisonous Russell's Viper said to have been found in a classroom at Government College. The first is a casual illustration of the superstitiousness of the uneducated Indian, the second is an illustration of the absence of order and reasonable probability in the world of "Caves." Apart from these, all the snakes, serpents, and monsters are nonexistent. At the beginning of the story Azi z—as an afterthought—mentions to Mrs. Moore the dangers of snakes from the Marabar, The context suggests that Aziz is improvising these snakes to suit his feeling of the moment (p„ 21), As it turns out, however, the Marabar is a rich source of snake images if not of actual snakes. As the expedition to the Marabar Hills gets under way, the country is "invisible except as a dark movement in the darkness," and in the sky "the stars of the sprawling Scorpion had begun to pale" (p. 132). Later, perched on the elephant, Adela sees a snake; a black corbra, explains Aziz. But Ronny's binoculars, the symbol of the inquiring intellect,2 reveal to Adela the twisted stump of a toddypalm (p. 141). Inside the cave "the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling. . . . the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently" (pp. 147-148). Whatever is said in the cave, the comment is always the same, "ou-boum," and the serpent descends and returns to the ceiling (pp. 149-150). After Aziz has lost himself among the caves, he finds the place full of grooves that lead "this way and that like snake-tracks" (p. 154), and the expedition leaving the Marabar unwinds out of the corridor (p. 159). 109 "What," asks the narrator as Mrs. Moore leaves India, "What dwelt in the first of the caves?" And the answer, "the undying worm itself," "the serpent of eternity made of maggots...


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pp. 108-110
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