Two weeks have passed since Godbole sang his strange Hindu song, and Adela and Mrs. Moore feel like they’re living “inside cocoons,” unable to feel any strong emotion whatsoever. Mrs. Moore accepts her apathy, but Adela resents hers and blames herself for being unenthusiastic. She feels like she should be excited because she is in India and also engaged to be married. But now she has lost her longing to see the “real India,” and she can’t make herself excited about Aziz’s trip.
Godbole’s song foreshadows the echo of the Marabar Caves, and begins the spiral of spiritual horror for Adela and Mrs. Moore. The song, which calls for a God who does not come, awakens a sense of emptiness and dissatisfaction in the women. The image of them living in “cocoons” shows how they are growing more isolated from each other and from the world.
As the train ride continues, Adela talks with Mrs. Moore about her future plans, and considers firing her rude servant, Antony. Adela discusses the hot season, which is approaching, and assures herself that she won’t abandon Ronny and go to the mountains with the other women. She chatters on about her marriage and future plans, but Mrs. Moore grows impatient. She feels that marriage has been given too much value by society, and that despite it “man is no nearer to understanding man.” On this particular day she feels especially repulsed by the idea of marriage.
In the “Mosque” section of the novel personal relationships were established, but in the “Caves” section they now begin to break down. Mrs. Moore and Adela are disconnected from each other even as they speak, and Mrs. Moore starts to feel the futility of all human connection—even after centuries of the institution of marriage, which is supposedly the height of intimacy, she realizes that humans are no better at understanding each other.
The train hurries on, and the narrator muses on the vastness of India, wondering “how can the mind take hold of such a country?” The spirit of India is always beckoning “come,” but never saying come to what. The narrator says “she is not a promise, only an appeal.”
Adela keeps discussing her plans until she notices that Mrs. Moore has fallen asleep. Mrs. Moore has not been feeling well, and 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. She and Mrs. Moore wait for the “miracle” of dawn, but the sun rises without fanfare or beauty, behind dull clouds. The women agree that England has better sunrises than India, and they remember the landscape of England, which is smaller but easier to comprehend, seemingly “from a kindlier planet” than India.
Mrs. Moore falls asleep while Adela is still talking, showing just how disconnected from each other and the world the women feel right now. The landscape seems especially muddled and alien near the Marabar, and almost unfriendly to humans. In comparison, Forster later describes England’s landscape as “park-like”—sometimes wild or beautiful, but always small and familiar enough to be easily grasped by the human mind.
Aziz calls down the train to the ladies, advising them to cover their heads against the sun. The train seems to go past the hills, but then it stops next to an elephant. Adela and Mrs. Moore pretend to be enthusiastic about this surprise, and Aziz is proud and greatly relieved, for he went through a lot of trouble procuring the elephant for his picnic. Aziz announces his plan for the brief outing, and then they all climb up onto the elephant.
Ironically, Aziz has gone to great lengths to procure an elephant to impress the Englishwomen, but they consider an elephant ride to represent an “inauthentic” India—the very thing they disparaged about the Turtons’ tours. Once again a misunderstanding causes both parties to expend effort over something they don’t actually care about.
A group of villagers gathers around the elephant as it starts to walk. The pale sunlight makes everything seem colorless, and there is a strange “spiritual” silence. Adela mistakes a tree branch for a snake, and Aziz and the villagers agree that it is a black cobra. Adela then sees that she was mistaken, but the villagers contradict her – they are now sure it was a snake. The narrator says “nothing was explained, but there was no romance.”
The mood of strangeness and illusion thickens with this scene, where more misunderstandings (the snake that is really a stick) lead to more confusion and dissatisfaction. Everything seems muddled and inauthentic as the party approaches the caves.
The elephant reaches the Marabar Hills and stops at Kawa Dol. Mrs. Moore and Adela are somewhat disappointed by the area, and Aziz doesn’t know the area or understand “this particular aspect of India” enough to explain it. He, like the English women, is lost without Professor Godbole’s guidance. The servants immediately prepare tea for the women, as Aziz has been warned that English people must be constantly fed.
The irony deepens with the fact that the only person who actually knows the area—Professor Godbole—isn’t even present, so Aziz is actually just as much a “tourist” here as the Englishwomen. Once again any attempt to reach the “real” India falls hopelessly flat, because there is no single, simple “real” India.
Aziz thinks to himself that the outing is a success so far, and he grows emotional with thoughts of hospitality. He considers Mrs. Moore (and the absent Fielding) his closest friends, and is proud to have earned their friendship. He starts to speak with Mrs. Moore about her other children until Adela interrupts. In his feelings of magnanimous hospitality Aziz compares himself to the Mughal Emperor Babur, who always showed hospitality even at his poorest, and never betrayed a friend.
Aziz and Mrs. Moore start to have a conversation and return to their former intimacy, but they are interrupted by Adela. Every incident on the outing feels isolating, a misunderstanding between disconnected individuals. Aziz remains his usual effusive and generous self even in the strange environment.
The women enjoy themselves more when Aziz talks like this about subjects he likes, and they ask him about another Mughal emperor: Akbar. Aziz says that Hamidullah believes Akbar was the greatest emperor of all, but Aziz himself scorns him. Akbar tried to use a new religion to unite all of India, which Aziz says cannot be done, as “nothing embraces the whole of India, nothing.” Adela says that she hopes there is something universal in India – not necessarily religion, but something like the “universal brotherhood” Aziz rhapsodizes about.
There are some brief moments of connection here when Aziz returns to subjects he is familiar with. Akbar tried to unite his empire by creating a religion called “Din-i-Ilahi,” a mixture of Islam and Hinduism with Christian, Zoroastrian, and Jain elements. He failed, adding an ancient example to the novel’s theme of failed attempts to unify India. Adela’s wish for “universal brotherhood” is a hope for the success of humanism.
Adela reminds Aziz that she is marrying Ronny, and that this will make her an “Anglo-Indian.” She says that she hopes to avoid the Anglo-Indian mentality of the other expatriate women, but she knows that the only way to keep herself from becoming snobby and prejudiced will be something universal in India, like a common religion. Aziz assures her that she will never become like the others, but Adela reminds him that “we all get rude after a year,” which wounds Aziz because it is true.
Adela recognizes that she will be a colonial wife now, and she wants to avoid succumbing to the typical Anglo-Indian mentality. Aziz does not mean what he says, as is often the case, and he also has no answer for how Adela can avoid becoming “rude.” He knows that it is nearly impossible to escape the pressure of the colonial system.
Aziz ends the conversation, feeling that 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 servants and the villagers who have followed along enter as well, and the cave becomes crowded and airless. Mrs. Moore feels faint, and when something strikes her face she starts to panic. She is also terrified by the cave’s echo, which takes all distinct sounds or words and reduces them to the noise “boum.”
Mrs. Moore’s immediate impression of the cave is not the spiritual horror she feels later, but rather a claustrophobia and fear of being smothered. The “boum” echo of the caves encapsulates all that they represent: any sound, whether poetry, music, or an animal’s cry, is reduced to the same echo of “boum.” The darkness of the Marabar Caves is the void where everything is swallowed up.
Mrs. Moore finds her way out of the cave and the rest of the group follows. She realizes that the thing that struck her face was just a baby being carried by one of the villagers, and that there was “nothing evil” in the cave, but she still disliked the experience and doesn’t want to repeat it. She declines the invitation to visit another cave, but encourages Adela to go on with Aziz to avoid disappointing him. Mrs. Moore suggests to Aziz that he not let all the villagers enter the next cave, and he takes her advice, forbidding anyone but himself, Adela, and one guide to go. The three leave to find the next cave.
Outside of the cave things become distinct once more, and Mrs. Moore sees that it was only a baby who touched her. The cave’s darkness, like the oppressive sun of India’s hot season, robs everything and everyone of individuality unless they can take refuge somewhere else. The spiritually-sensitive Mrs. Moore is deeply disturbed by the sense of indistinctness and meaninglessness in the cave.
Mrs. Moore rests and tries to write a letter to Stella and Ralph, 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 exists, nothing has value.” Curses and poetry, misery and joy – all just end up as “boum.” Mrs. Moore thinks of Christianity, and even the sacred words of the Bible seem to fade away into “boum.” She becomes paralyzed with horror and apathy, and no longer desires to communicate with anyone or anything.
The darkness and echo of the cave is like the void where everything becomes unified and undifferentiated. This is the terrifying side to the idea of universal oneness, which is the peak of holiness and love in some parts of Hinduism. If everything is the same, good and evil, Christianity and Hinduism, then everything is also robbed of any meaning or distinctness. There is no point in communicating with other humans if they too are nothing but a “boum.” This is the ultimate “muddle” of existence.