E. M. Foster's novel follows the adventures of three English people who have come out recently to join the ruling class in India in the early part of the 20th century and of an Indian who becomes involved with them. The prose is effective but not exciting. Characterization is subtle and intimate. Plot is like life; events have consequences, but there is never a sense of the author shaping reality to the needs of drama. Narration is third person, omniscient author, and the author is free to make comments on the characters, events, and life.
The dialogue is crisp, realistic, and on occasion very witty. Speech tags are seriously lacking. I read the book aloud, and frequently had to interpolate the attribution of a bit of dialogue, and sometimes had to stop to figure it out.
The book has three main concerns: The relations between the English rulers and professional class Indians; Friendship; and the experience of an individual relating to the nature of the universe, which is seen here from something like a Hindu perspective.
The first three quarters of the book are set in an area of India that is described as in Bihar, but seems like West Bengal. That is, an area dominated politically and culturally by Muslim landowners, with a shadowy mass of poor Hindus who are mostly agricultural laborers. The last quarter of the novel moves to Hindu native state.
The English characters who have been serving in India for some time are described as rigid and priggish. They treat Indians as nonpersons and retreat into a shell as anyone might do if surrounded by nonpersons. Early in the book an Indian comments something to the effect that any Englishman who comes to India goes bad in a year, and a woman in six months. Treatment of the wives of the administrators is particularly scathing. Perhaps it is because the men at least have to work with Indians, whereas the women are closeted in their homes and the English-only club. The main English characters are our hero, Fielding, who is been in India perhaps only a few months and is a caring, skeptical, person who maintains his ties with anyone he happens to like, and two women: a young woman who has come out to decide whether to marry an administrator, and the frail and sensitive mother of the administrator, who accompanies her.
The novel is pessimistic on this score: the implication is that it will never be possible for the English and the Indians to have consistently human relations.
The main Indian character is a mercurial, poetic, engaging, sentimental Muslim doctor who works for the British. He becomes friendly first with the mother, as she and he have a meeting of the minds when she sympathetically visits a mosque and does not act like an overlord. Through her, he becomes a close friend of Fielding. It is his friendship for the mother, the mother's friendship for the possible fiancé, and most of all the off-and-on friendship between Fielding and the Indian doctor. Off-and-on because of the events that unfold.
The plot turns on something that happens to the fiancée when she visits one of a group of caves. In these dark caves, she confronts the absence of structure. The caves have the property that reflection from the curved, shiny walls transforms any light, say a match stirking, into a sort of writhing squiggle, and, more important, any sound – any sound, a footfall, your name, the rustle of a crowd, – transforms into a single low roar. This phenomenon is the objective correlative of the absence of structure. I'm no expert on Hindu metaphysics, but I understand that for an intellectual Hindu the ultimate reality is something formless that includes nonbeing as well as being. Confronted with this phenomenon, the English girl, fragile because of insecurity about her emotional life and her future, panics terribly, and eventually accuses the Indian doctor, who was in fact absent, of sexual assault.
In a broader and less intense way, from time to time, Forster writes in his own voice about the relation between the individual and the nature of reality.
The English community circles its wagons and puts the doctor on trial. It becomes a political trial and the object of mass demonstrations. In the witness box, the fiancée somehow gets a grip on what happened and retracts the charge -; the doctor is acquitted. Her retraction is an example of Forster's realism, which is rooted in the mysterious quality of life as both random and inevitable, rather than in any kind of theory. It is both surprising and convincing.
The lives of the characters in the setting where they originally appeared are now shattered and they scatter. The last quarter of the book is about when the sane Englishmen, Fielding, and the doctor meet again a few years later in a Hindu native state where the latter has taken a job and Fielding is making an inspection tour. Though they have a deep and convivial feeling for one another, in the end, Fielding has been at least partially sucked into the English attitude, and the trial has forced the doctor to become a militant Indian nationalist, so their friendship cannot endure.
Stereotyping is important in this book, and Forster explores it and its consequences in detail. With the exception of Fielding and the two women, the English overlords stereotype the Indians as nonhuman. Indians stereotype the English as arrogant and capricious. The Muslims show casual contempt for the Hindus. The attitude of the Hindus towards Muslims is never really explored. But Forster also is guilty of stereotyping, seeing the Indians as casual about veracity and commitment, and making some generalizations about "Orientals" as if the Orient contained no Chinese, Japanese, Indonesians etc.
I want to add a note about the movie directed by David Lean. On its own terms, I think it's a good movie, but it departs from the meaning of the book in two important respects. In the movie the reason for the fiancée's panic is sexual anxiety, provoked in part by a bicycle trip through jungley erotic sculptures, which is not in the novel. The absence of form can invoke feelings related to undisciplined sexuality, but the novel is not centered on sex. Second, in the end Fielding and the Indian doctor are separated by circumstances, rather than Forster's vision of the impossibility of rulers being friends with the ruled.