Fantasy, echo, and the caves of E. M Forster
Joan W Scott’s essay “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity”, links fantasy and echo in the discussion of history and identity, especially of feminist identity. Scott discusses three aspects of fantasy: it is “the setting for desire”, it has a “double structure, which at once reproduces and mask conflicts” and it “operates as a (tightly condensed) narrative”(288- 289). Echo, claims Scott, does not simply repeats or reproduces sound, instead “echoes are delayed returns of sound; they are incomplete reproduction”(291). Scott regards echo as a “reminder of the temporal inexactness of fantasy’s condensation, condensation that nonetheless work to conceal or minimize difference through repetition”(292).
Scott’s view of the relationship between echo and fantasy and the question “ If all we have is the echo, can we ever discern the original?” brings to mind another connection between fantasy and echo in the question of identity, which is the expressed by E.M Forster in the poignant cave scene in the novel A Passage to India (292). In order to explore the identity of colonialism, Forster uses real caves and echoes in scene that is positioned right in the middle of the novel, and constitutes a turning point in term of the characters and the plot. Aziz, a Moslem Indian doctor, goes into great expenses to take his English friends to see the famed “Marabar caves”(157). The caves, a source of great pride for the Indians, prove to be destructive for the British who are not used to such an over load of experiences: “For not only did the crush and stench alarm her; there was also a terrifying echo”(145). The echoes in the caves prove to be unbearable for Mrs. Moore, who describes them as: “ entirely devoid of distinction…Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce ’boum’…And if several people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently”(145). Mrs. Moore who understands rationally that “nothing evil had been in the cave”, still cannot go back to her old life. She realizes that her old traditional humanistic conceptions about the possibility of being able to be an enlightened imperialist in India were mistaken. Her son’s fiancé Adela Quested has an even more traumatic inexplicable experience in the caves. That incident causes her to falsely accuse Aziz of assault, to experience incessant echo sounds that she cannot comprehend, and eventually to reach the brink of a nervous breakdown. Adela’s romantic notions about India were even more inadequate than those of Mrs. Moore, and she could not reconcile them with the incomprehensible enigma of the caves. Aziz’s attempts to impress his friends with his Indian hospitality finally lead him to the sad realization that the British are not his friends, rather they are the oppressors: “I wish no Englishman or Englishwoman to be my friend”, he tells his old friend Fielding (298).
Forster uses the cave scene both literally and metaphorically; it was a real experience that forever changed the lives of the character in the novel. Yet, India is presented metaphorically as a fantasy with the same aspects of desire, conflict, and the condensed narrative that Scott discusses. Here the inability to understand the meaning of both the echo and the original is symptomatic of the problem
“ 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.” (191)
Although Scott, obviously, does not refer to echoes literally, I hope that my use of her terminology in order to examine Forster’s use of the caves, the fantasy, and the echoes in pointing out the illnesses of colonialism, does not seem to be a too great a detour from the topic of the construction of identity.
Scott, Joan W. “Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity.” Critical Inquiry 27.2 (2001): 284-304.
Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Penguin Books, 1971.