A Passage to India

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The Marabar Caves Symbol Analysis

The Marabar Caves Symbol Icon

The Marabar Caves are a central aspect of the novel—a presence in the distance during the first section, the setting of the second section, and the shadow that looms over the third section. The caves represent an ancient, inhuman void, the more terrifying aspect of the universal oneness embraced by Hinduism. The caves themselves are domelike and pitch-black, with nothing beautiful or romantic about them. Inside, any sound—whether human speech or a fingernail scratching the wall—is reduced to a single echo that sounds like “boum.” This echo captures the essence of the Marabar Caves, as it shows the emptiness behind all human action. This is a kind of “unity” like that found in Hinduism, but it is a unity of chaos instead of one of love, as the caves seem almost alien and malicious, unfriendly to humans. Even the Indians of Chandrapore cannot act as real “guides” to them or explain them.

While in the caves, Adela and Mrs. Moore both experience some frightening aspect of life that they had not considered before. Mrs. Moore sees the smallness and hollowness of her Christian faith, and succumbs to a kind of irritable apathy after seeing the void the caves represent. Adela, meanwhile, is confronted with the reality of her lack of feelings for Ronny and then the horror of her assault. The attack is never fully explained, so it almost becomes an embodiment of the darkness of the caves.

The Marabar Caves Quotes in A Passage to India

The A Passage to India quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Marabar Caves. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Colonialism Theme Icon
). Note: all page and citation info for the quotes below refers to the Harcourt Brace Jovanovich edition of A Passage to India published in 1984.
Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

The echo in a Marabar cave is not like these, it is entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. “Boum” is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or “bou-oum,” or “ou-boum” – utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeal of a boot, all produce “boum.”

Related Symbols: The Marabar Caves
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the most famous passages in the novel is the description of the Marabar Caves. The caves (based on a real place, but mostly invented by Forster), located near Chandrapore, are mysterious and sublime objects that confound all reasonable explanations. When people walk into the caves, their speech echoes until it's been reduced to the same sound, "boum." The caves, then, are a symbol for the meaningless of life--the void of meaning and understanding. If the English are analytical, intellectual people, then their attempts at analysis and intelligence fall short in the caves: they're reminded that some things in life cannot be understood by any means. By the same token, Forster implies that the people of India are somehow more in touch with the "void" of life--and yet even the Indians he portrays cannot explain or define the caves. Only Professor Godbole, with his intimate relationship with the "mystery" of pantheism and unity, comes close.

While Forster will go on to focus more on ideas of universal unity as related to Hinduism, the Marabar Caves offer the darker side of "unity." In Hinduism, unity is connected to divine love and acceptance, but in the Marabar unity is chaos, meaninglessness, and even malevolence. Good and bad, individuality and meaning, all are reduced to "boum." It is this foreboding "muddle" of existence that leads to the central acts of the book, which take place in the caves--Mrs. Moore's loss of faith, and Adela's confusing, unknowable experience of assault.

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Part 2, Chapter 22 Quotes

“Why can’t this be done and that be done in my way and they be done and I at peace? Why has anything to be done, I cannot see. Why all this marriage, marriage?... The human race would have become a single person centuries ago if marriage was any use. And all this rubbish about love, love in a church, love in a cave, as if there is the least difference, and I held up from my business over such trifles!”

Related Characters: Mrs. Moore (speaker)
Related Symbols: The Marabar Caves
Page Number: 224
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Moore has become irritable and disaffected after her experience in the Marabar Caves. She has seemingly lost her Christian faith, but also the belief that there is any real meaning to anything at all--life is a "muddle," not a mystery, and is a hellish sort of muddle at that.

Here Mrs. Moore suggests that love in a church (Ronny and Adela's future marriage) is no different from love in a cave (Adela's assault at the Marabar)--because no thing is really different from any other thing. This is the dark, terrifying side of Forster's theme of "universal unity." Unity can mean love and togetherness, but it can also mean chaos and fear, a state in which "civilized," consensual love is no different from a sexual assault in the darkness. While Mrs. Moore started the novel as an optimistic figure, an example of an Englishwoman who respected Indians and seemed to understand something crucial about India itself, her descent into apathy and disaffection shows just how difficult it is to remain hopeful and connected in the face of the realities of life.

Part 3, Chapter 36 Quotes

“Can you always tell whether a stranger is your friend?”
“Yes.”
“Then you are an Oriental.” He unclasped as he spoke, with a little shudder. Those words – he had said them to Mrs. Moore in the mosque in the beginning of the cycle, from which, after so much suffering, he had got free. Never to be friends with the English! Mosque, caves, mosque, caves.

Related Characters: Dr. Aziz (speaker), Ralph Moore (speaker), Mrs. Moore
Related Symbols: The Marabar Caves
Page Number: 349
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, Aziz encounters with Ralph Moore, the son of Mrs. Moore. Aziz points out that Ralph is an "Oriental" because he has a natural gift for telling which people are going to be his friends. Aziz then realizes that he said these exact words to Mrs. Moore, years ago--setting in motion a series of events that led up to his being accused of assault in the Marabar Caves. Aziz has the idea that he's been locked in an eternal cycle of friendship (with an English person), followed by disillusionment. He has tried to avoid this by staying away from the English altogether, but now his past has returned, and Aziz feels another inexplicable bond to another Moore. Thus the passage is suspenseful; will Aziz give into his natural friendship with Ralph, and again embrace the possibility of connecting with an Englishman, or will he back away, frightened that accepting Ralph (and Fielding) will only lead to another ugly incident?

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The Marabar Caves Symbol Timeline in A Passage to India

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Marabar Caves appears in A Passage to India. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
The narrator describes the city of Chandrapore, India. Other than the Marabar Caves, which are twenty miles away, the city is “nothing extraordinary.” It is a small,... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...to challenge the sky. The only interruptions in the horizon are the “fingers” of the Marabar Hills, which contain the “extraordinary caves.” (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 7
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...coming to Aziz’s house again, but Aziz deflects the subject by inviting her to the Marabar Caves instead. Adela is curious about the caves, which are the most famous landmark of... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
Professor Godbole teases Aziz for never having been to the Marabar Caves, but when he then tries to describe them he is unable to explain what... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 8
Colonialism Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...irritated at him for his rudeness to the Indians. She mentions Aziz’s invitation to the Marabar Caves, and in response Ronny calls attention to Aziz’s unpinned collar, using it as an... (full context)
Friendship Theme Icon
...watch polo or bicker more with Ronny. Ronny forbids the women from going to the Marabar Caves, unless it is with other Englishmen. Mrs. Moore scolds the two for arguing, and... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 11
Colonialism Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
...hear of this, as he assumes it exempts him from his promised trip to the Marabar Caves. Adela will now be a “regular Anglo-Indian” with no need of Indian entertainment. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 12
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...But there are also parts of India older than anything else on earth – the Marabar Hills, which the narrator describes as slowly sinking back into the ground. These hills are... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
The Marabar Caves are within the hills. Each cave has a manmade entrance tunnel, which opens into... (full context)
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Each Marabar cave is pitch-black inside, and if a match is lit inside, its reflection can be... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 13
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
From a great distance the Marabar Hills look romantic, and at the English club Adela remarks to Miss Derek that she... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
The train for the Marabar Caves leaves before dawn, so Aziz, Mohammed Latif, and some servants spend the night at... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 14
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...probably isn’t healthy enough for this trip. She wakes up as the train approaches the Marabar Hills. Adela exaggerates her excitement at seeing them, and looks forward to watching the sunrise.... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
The elephant reaches the Marabar Hills and stops at Kawa Dol. Mrs. Moore and Adela are somewhat disappointed by the... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...their sense of fellowship has been broken, and he leads the women into the first Marabar Cave. They enter through a black tunnel and are swallowed up by darkness. All the... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Mrs. Moore finds her way out of the cave and the rest of the group follows. She realizes that the thing that struck her... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...her other children back in England, but she is tormented by the echo of the Marabar cave. The “boum” sound seems to reduce her entire world to nothing, declaring that “Everything... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 15
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Aziz, Adela, and the guide visit several smaller caves, all of which are disappointing. Aziz is distracted by thoughts of the breakfast for his... (full context)
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...which is both sensitive and offensive to his modern values, and he goes into a cave to recover his composure, thinking to himself “Damn the English even at their best.” Adela... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 16
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
...group boards the train and travels back to Chandrapore, the “nasty little cosmos” of the Marabar Caves retreating into the romantic shapes of the distant Marabar hills. When the train arrives,... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 17
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...he informs him that Adela has been “insulted” (probably sexually assaulted) in one of the Marabar Caves. Turton looks brave and almost godlike as he speaks. Fielding feels that “a mass... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 18
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...him all the details of the case. Adela claimed that Aziz followed her into a cave and “made insulting advances.” She hit him with her field glasses, and he broke the... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 19
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...college, where Professor Godbole approaches him about unrelated college matters. Finally Godbole brings up the Marabar Caves, but doesn’t mention Aziz. Fielding is confused, as Godbole refers to the expedition as... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...are committed by everyone or no one. Godbole admits that something evil happened at the Marabar Caves, but he states that that evil was committed equally by Aziz, the guide, Fielding,... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 20
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...converses with the soldier, gossiping that Aziz bribed Adela’s servant to stay outside of the Marabar Cave, and that Godbole was bribed to make Fielding late to the train. He goes... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...regarding Aziz and the English. Fielding goes out onto the veranda and looks at the Marabar Hills, wondering about the frightening echo in the cave, and whether the guide has been... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 22
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...hysteria and a logical recollection of events. She remembers that she entered one of the Marabar Caves and scratched the wall with her fingernail to start the echo. Then a shadowy... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...but learns that the old lady is ill as well. Without Mrs. Moore’s presence the Marabar Cave’s echo seems to multiply and strengthen in Adela’s mind, and she feels that evil... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...Adela (instead discussing her own return to England) until Adela mentions the echo in the Marabar Caves. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 23
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...and very small,” a malicious, petty force which was manifested in the echo of the Marabar Caves. She again thinks of “love in a church” and “love in a cave” as... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...huge city of confusion and crowds, which seems to mock her for thinking that the Marabar Caves represented all of India, when there are actually a “hundred Indias.” (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 24
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...that she will break down under the cross-examination, and once again she can hear the Marabar Cave’s echo in her ears. (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
...she retreads all her steps of that day, feeling like she is back at the Marabar Caves. She had earlier remembered the excursion as “dull,” but in her memory everything seems... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Adela visualizes the Marabar Caves and her own memories, and she cannot locate Aziz in the picture. She stammers... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 26
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...Fielding suggests that maybe the echo contributed to a hallucination of the incident in the Marabar Cave. (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...meekly accepts this possibility, and Fielding lists the options for what actually happened in the cave: Aziz did assault Adela (what the English think), Adela maliciously made up the charge against... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...matter. Fielding changes the subject by mentioning the fourth possibility of what happened in the cave: that the guide or some other stranger attacked Adela. (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 29
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...Gilbert, the lieutenant-governor of the province, comes to Chandrapore to survey the results of the Marabar Caves trial. He has been removed from personal dealings with Indians for a long time,... (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...of love as it relates to a practical life, and Fielding asks Adela about the Marabar Cave incident one last time. Adela indifferently says that it was probably the guide who... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 31
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
Race and Culture Theme Icon
...Fielding and Adela has already happened, as the natural result of that picnic at the Marabar Caves. (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 36
Colonialism Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
...Aziz sarcastically brings up Adela, their “great friend,” but as he starts to mention the Marabar Caves his words are drowned out by an outburst of guns from the festival, signaling... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 37
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...bravely, and he says that he will appreciate her and try to “wipe out” the Marabar incident forever. (full context)
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
...Aziz should talk to Stella or Ralph, as they have some interesting ideas about the Marabar Caves, and seem drawn to Hinduism since arriving in Mau. Stella and Fielding’s marriage has... (full context)