The Echo in Forster's A Passage to India

In A Passage to India, while Miss Quested recovers from her reckless flight from the caves before the trial, she discusses her experience with Mrs Moore:
 "There is this echo that I keep on hearing."
 "Oh, what of the echo?" asked Mrs Moore, paying attention to her for the first time.
 "I can't get rid of it."
 "I don't suppose you ever will."
 Ronny had emphasized to his mother that Adela would arrive in a morbid state, yet she was being positively malicious.
 "Mrs. Moore, what is this echo?"
 "Don't you know?"
 "No---what is it? Oh, do say! I felt you would be able to explain it . . . this will comfort me so . . ."
 "If you don't know, you don't know; I can't tell you."
The echo is a trope in the book and is used with not so subtle artistry in the film. It is one of those things that English majors like myself love to speculate over. Here is my theory:

The echo is the gap between what our primitive selves desire and what the civilized trappings of society supply. To put this in Freudian terms, it is the gap between the id and the superego that the ego struggles over.

In the film, Lean replaces the car accident with Miss Quested
encountering Hindu statues of loving couples--as I
mentioned: not so subtle.
David Lean leans (ha ha) towards the sexual part of this equation and it underlies Forster's far more subtle ("cryptic" says one reviewer) definition. Miss Quested agrees to marry Ronny after their near accident with an animal--one of their passengers claims it was a ghost; either way, it is a force from the dark, primitive side of nature. Miss Quested enters the cave pondering with all the capacity of her frontal lobe if she truly loves Ronny. The novel's penultimate accusation arises from what she experiences, alone, in the cave--the echo arrives with it, only exorcised or mostly exorcised when Miss Quested is wholly honest with herself in court. Irritated by so much posturing over a tepid accusation, Mrs Moore exclaims fitfully, "Love in a church, love in a cave, as if there is the least difference."

All the difference in the world, Forster might have said, even though Mrs Moore is speaking--to a degree--for him.

Marabar Caves, based on the Barabar Caves (inset)
Forster includes more than lust in his primitive equation: he includes imagination as well as the fear of death (Lean alludes to both). The primitive self isn't simply the self that wants and pines for another; it is also the restless self that dreams of irrationalities (can those two things ever be untwined?). Miss Quested comes to India full of expectations and desires about the place and Ronny that come not only from her active imagination--the part that schemes and plans--but from her buried imagination, the part of her human self that yearns towards certain images and outcomes.

Miss Quested is practical, confident, self-analytical, honest, but she lacks the basic understanding--at least at the beginning of the novel--of that crazy poet from New England, Emily Dickinson: "But never met this Fellow/Attended or alone/Without a tighter Breathing/And Zero at the Bone."

"It's like dogs," says a character in Agatha Christie, defending the atavistic reaction of her child-self; "they know death and throw back their heads and howl."

These are responses that bypass reason and go right for the amygdala. Likewise, we can hope and dream for half-acknowledged things that reality can never give us because our primitive self propels us towards them.

The echo begins as early as Aziz and Mrs. Moore's meeting
in the mosque.
In the dissatisfaction between what we whine for and what we actually get lives the echo. And a great deal of fiction.

Which means, of course, civilization. Forster is no rebel--he isn't extolling the dismantling of civilization for the sake of the primitive whine. After all, as Agatha Christie would have acknowledged, children often remember things wrong. Basing day-to-day functioning on dreams and fantasies is hardly productive, especially since these are the types of desires and fantasies that are not wholly worked out in our frontal lobes (evolutionary psychologists spend a great deal of time trying to figure out what these desires and fantasies are). Societies function due to the civilized trappings we create. Do we create them to stave off the dark--the unexplained and uncanny? To control it? To master it?

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Forster seemed to think that the point was not to rip everything down and start over or even to run out and challenge the norms. He seemed to approach the issue with a little bit of fatalism and a little bit of optimism. Achievement occurs when one finds and makes a space for oneself that one can live with.

The letter to Miss Quested
In the movie, Lean gives Fielding the indirect line (Aziz is quoting him), "Stella [his wife] believes the evil of the Marabar has been wiped out." But in the book, the line from Stella stands without the insertion of "evil." Wiping out "the Marabar" doesn't refer to the false accusation. It refers to the characters having moved into spaces where that particular echo no longer haunts them. But that doesn't mean the spaces they have moved into don't have their own faint echoes.


FreeLiveFree said...

To be honest, I can't help but feel that what the echo or sled at the end of Citizen Kane or whatever means is exactly what anyone wants it to mean.

Anonymous said...

Lionel Trilling: the echo is a "web of reverberation"--ideas and characters cycle back around in the novel, sometimes negatively, sometimes positively. Ad idem: not dissimilar to a gap between primitive wants and reality--check out Kierkegaard:

"Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom, which emerges when the spirit wants to posit the synthesis and freedom looks down into possibility, laying hold of finiteness to support itself. Freedom succumbs in this dizziness. Further than this, psychology cannot and will not go. In that very moment everything is changed, and freedom, when it again rises, sees that it is guilty. Between these two moments lies the leap, which no science has explained and which no science will explain."

Forgot to add--favorite quote: "Consciousness presupposes itself, and asking about its origin is an idle and just as sophistical a question as that old one, 'What came first, the fruit-tree or the stone?' Wasn't there a stone out of which came the first fruit-tree? Wasn't there a fruit-tree from which came the first stone?" --E