A Passage to India

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“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Colonialism Theme Icon
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon
Friendship Theme Icon
Division vs. Unity Theme Icon
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LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Passage to India, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
“Muddles” and Mysteries Theme Icon

Throughout the novel Forster uses the words “muddle” and “mystery” as distinctive terms to describe India. A “muddle” implies chaos and meaningless mess, while a “mystery” suggests something confusing but with an underlying purpose or mystical plan. On the English side, Fielding sees India as a muddle, though a sympathetic one, while Mrs. Moore and Adela approach the country with a sense of mystery. Forster himself often uses “orientalizing” terms to describe India, portraying it as a muddle that is unable to be understood or properly described by Westerners. For example, he describes India’s architecture and natural landscape as formless and primitive, while he sees European architecture and landscape as aesthetically pleasing and comforting. In this way Forster and his British characters, as outsiders, cannot help but view India as a muddle they can never comprehend, and one that—despite Forster’s critiques of colonialism—might benefit from Western “civilization” and reasoning.

But Forster also shows that even the Indians themselves are unable to describe India’s essence, and they too are divided in their ideas of muddles and mysteries. The Muslim Aziz regards Hindu India as a primitive muddle of chaos, while he is comforted by the elegant mysteries of his own religion. Professor Godbole, on the other hand, is a Hindu, and the main figure standing for the view of India as mystery. Hinduism is portrayed as a muddle of many gods and strange ceremonies, but there is also a mystery and plan behind it all—the meaning is in the chaos of life itself, and the unity of all things.

These muddles and mysteries ultimately become externalized and symbolized in the scene at the Marabar Caves. Forster never clearly explains what happened to Adela, and so the whole incident is a kind of horrible muddle. Also in the caves, Adela and Mrs. Moore’s “mysterious” India is reduced to terrifying chaos in the echoing “boum” of the caves. A similar effect, though a more positive one, is achieved in the final scene, where Aziz and Fielding’s boats crash into each other near the Hindu festival. Ultimately Forster finds both muddles and mysteries necessary to properly encompass and comprehend India, as well as the universe itself.

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“Muddles” and Mysteries Quotes in A Passage to India

Below you will find the important quotes in A Passage to India related to the theme of “Muddles” and Mysteries.
Part 1, Chapter 7 Quotes

“I do so hate mysteries,” Adela announced.
“We English do.”
“I dislike them not because I’m English, but from my own personal point of view,” she corrected.
“I like mysteries but I rather dislike muddles,” said Mrs. Moore.
“A mystery is a muddle.”
“Oh, do you think so, Mr. Fielding?”
“A mystery is only a high-sounding term for a muddle. No advantage in stirring it up, in either case. Aziz and I know well that India’s a muddle.”

Related Characters: Cyril Fielding (speaker), Adela Quested (speaker), Mrs. Moore (speaker)
Page Number: 73
Explanation and Analysis:

In this famous passage, the characters discuss the differences between mysteries and muddles as it applies to the Indian world. Mrs. Moore seems to think of India as a mystery--that is to say, a problem with a potential solution, or something chaotic and confusing but with an underlying meaning to it. Fielding and Aziz (and often Forster himself) see India as more of a "muddle"--something chaotic and confusing but without an underlying meaning. This idea of the nature of the unknown as either mystery or muddle is crucial to the book, both in its "ethnographic" aspect (how to define and describe a place as vast and diverse as India) and in its dealings with spirituality, psychology, and the human experience.


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Part 2, Chapter 14 Quotes

How can the mind take hold of such a country? Generations of invaders have tried, but they remain in exile. The important towns they build are only retreats, their quarrels a malaise of men who cannot find their way home. India knows of their trouble. She knows of the whole world’s trouble, to its uttermost depth. She calls “Come” through her hundred mouths, through objects ridiculous and august. But come to what? She has never defined. She is not a promise, only an appeal.

Page Number: 150
Explanation and Analysis:

In this important passage, Forster characterizes the country of India as the home of the "sublime." Forster argues that it's impossible for any one person to "take in" India as a whole--it's just too vast and mysterious for that. The mind can try to understand India, but such attempts at understanding will always come short of the real thing. The concept of the sublime, a staple of philosophy and theology, hinges on the idea that there are certain objects and phenomena that are too vast to be comprehended--India, it would seem, is one of these phenomena. This also connects again to the idea of muddles and mysteries--India is vast and confusing, but is there a meaning behind this vastness, or is it all just a "muddle"? The fact that India offers only "an appeal" rather than a clear answer suggests that Forster doesn't have an answer either. It's exactly this kind of mystery that he presents throughout the book, both in his descriptions of India and colonialism and in his portraits of individual experience.

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.

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 2, Chapter 24 Quotes

“This is no way to defend your case,” counselled the Magistrate.
“I am not defending a case, nor are you trying one. We are both of us slaves.”
“Mr. Mahmoud Ali, I have already warned you, and unless you sit down I shall exercise my authority.”
“Do so; this trial is a farce, I am going.” And he handed his papers to Amritrao and left, calling from the door histrionically yet with intense passion: “Aziz, Aziz – farewell for ever.” The tumult increased, the invocation of Mrs. Moore continued, and people who did not know what the syllables meant repeated them like a charm. They became Indianized into Esmiss Esmoor, they were taken up in the street outside.

Related Characters: Mahmoud Ali (speaker), Das (speaker)
Page Number: 249-250
Explanation and Analysis:

In the trial scene, the lawyer Mahmoud Ali dramatically defends Aziz from charges of sexual assault. Ali is Aziz's friend, and is supposed to be acting as his lawyer (along with the famous lawyer Amritrao), but here he seems more interested in making a spectacle of prosecuting English justice itself. He claims (pretty reasonably) that the English court system in India is so stacked against the Indians that any Indian put on trial is presumed guilty until proven innocent, instead of vice versa. Even though the judge of the case, Mr. Das, is an Indian, Ali says that Das too is a "slave," and neither of them really have any freedom within the colonial system. Ali is portrayed as over-dramatic and "histrionic," and he's possibly hurting Aziz's case with this (probably pre-planned) exit, but he also has a point. Impartial justice, like interpersonal connection across cultures, is almost impossible to achieve within the corrupt colonial system.

The other important part of this passage is the way that Mrs. Moore's name becomes a kind of charm or invocation for the crowds outside the courthouse. She has by now been sent away from India by Ronnie, and after the Marabar Caves visit she had grown apathetic and irritable, not bothering to defend Aziz or even visit him, but she is still elevated in Aziz's mind as his "greatest friend," and Mahmoud Ali's invocation of her name makes her become something larger than herself. She is not present, and probably wouldn't have even attended the trial if she was still in India, but her name and the idea of her--an Englishwoman sympathetic to and understanding of India--makes her into an almost religious figure in the heat of the moment. Her name is "Indianized" and chanted by crowds of people who have no idea who she is--they just know that this name is somehow sacred and friendly to them. Thus Mrs. Moore is again associated with Hinduism and spirituality, despite the depressing reality of her personal fate.

Part 2, Chapter 29 Quotes

Perhaps life is a mystery, not a muddle; they could not tell. Perhaps the hundred Indias which fuss and squabble so tiresomely are one, and the universe they mirror is one.

Related Characters: Cyril Fielding, Adela Quested
Page Number: 293
Explanation and Analysis:

In this critical passage, Adela and Cyril discuss the mysteries of India and the universe, reiterating a conversation they had earlier. Both characters are atheists, and yet they want to believe that there is some kind of higher purpose in life--they can't be satisfied with the belief that all of life is random and chaotic (a muddle, rather than a mystery).

If life is just a muddle, then it has no higher purpose. If, however, it is a mystery, then it has a solution and therefore a meaning. Adela has been deeply disturbed by the events of the trial--they've reminded her how deep the divisions in English and Indian society go. Adela wants to believe that Indians and Englishmen have something in common; by the same token, she wants to believe that all people (and perhaps all living things) are united together beneath the muddle of their lives.

Part 2, Chapter 32 Quotes

He had forgotten the beauty of form among idol temples and lumpy hills; indeed, without form, how can there be beauty? Form stammered here and there in a mosque, became rigid through nervousness even; but oh these Italian churches! …something more precious than mosaics and marbles was offered to him now: the harmony between the works of man and the earth that upholds them, the civilization that has escaped muddle, the spirit in a reasonable form, with flesh and blood subsisting.

Related Characters: Cyril Fielding
Page Number: 313-314
Explanation and Analysis:

In this chapter, Fielding travels back to Europe, where he marvels at the beauty of Venetian churches and other buildings. Fielding has been out of Europe for a long time, but when he returns he's immediately struck by the order and control of European society--an order that Indian society might lack. In Fielding's view, India lacks structure and "form" altogether.

What does Forster mean by form, exactly? Fielding is looking at architecture, but Forster is talking about the land itself as well, and about the vague structure of society. Part of Forster's description of India as "muddle" or "mystery" includes the assumption that India is inherently confusing, chaotic, and formless. The buildings lack symmetry and design, and even the land itself is somehow inhuman and "muddled" (one thinks of the elaborate descriptions of the meaningless, somehow horrifying Marabar Hills). In Europe, however, the geography is easier for the human mind to comprehend, and the architecture reflects that--it has meaning and design, and is comforting or inspiring to behold.

Forster here betrays a Eurocentric prejudice, something he usually tries to avoid. He isn't saying that Europeans are superior to Indians, but he does suggest that an entire aspect of geography, architecture, and society is more beautiful and "human" in Europe than in India. Structure is better than formlessness--harmony is better than discord. And Forster sees structure and harmony as more present in Europe than in India, whatever the sins or virtues of the people themselves.

Part 3, Chapter 33 Quotes

Thus Godbole, though she was not important to him, remembered an old woman he had met in Chandrapore days. Chance brought her into his mind while it was in this heated state, he did not select her, she happened to occur among the throng of soliciting images, a tiny splinter, and he impelled her by his spiritual force to that place where completeness can be found. Completeness, not reconstruction. His sense grew thinner, he remembered a wasp seen he forgot where, perhaps on a stone. He loved the wasp equally, he impelled it likewise, he was imitating God. And the stone where the wasp clung – could he… no, he could not, he had been wrong to attempt the stone…

Related Characters: Mrs. Moore, Professor Godbole
Related Symbols: Wasps
Page Number: 321
Explanation and Analysis:

In this passage, years after Aziz's trial, we see Professor Godbole as he contemplates the order of the universe in his Hindu theology. Godbole thinks of religion as a promise of unity and Heaven for all beings, from Mrs. Moore to the tiniest wasp. Godbole's vision of the universe could be considered utopian or universalist--every being, no matter what, has the opportunity to achieve glory, because every being has some intrinsic beauty and wonder. His sudden memory of Mrs. Moore at this moment also reinforces her as a kind spiritual being associated with Hinduism and universal unity--Godbole, the other character most associated with these ideas, shares a subconscious connection to Mrs. Moore, even though they barely met.

And yet there's a limit even to Godbole's vision of the world--he can't quite bring himself to embrace everything in his utopia. He is willing to accept a wasp--which appears again as a symbol for the "lowest" of the animal world--but not the stone that the wasp clings to. This is subtly compared to the earlier description of the openminded Christian Mr. Sorley, who was willing to accept monkeys into Heaven, but not wasps. (And the connection of the wasp to Mrs. Moore also recalls her introduction to the novel, in which she watched a wasp and tried to love it.)

One could thus argue that all systems of thought, in order to remain coherent, must exclude something, whether it's certain species, certain objects, certain ideologies, certain races, certain genders, etc. There is no total unity, even for a Hindi: an idea that will be important as we come to the novel's partially, but not totally, happy ending.

Part 3, Chapter 36 Quotes

“Can you always tell whether a stranger is your friend?”
“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?