The Souls of Black Folk and A Passage to India
In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois illustrates the very poignant image of a color line that separates the two races in his society. He introduces the term double consciousness to explain how African-Americans view themselves, not as individuals but as a collective group; a perception made through the eyes of the society that they lived in. This perception produces what Du Bois calls a“twoness’ of American Negroes. It is this sense of “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” (Du Bois 3). The notion of double consciousness speaks not only to African Americans but to humanity as a whole. E.M. Forster’s novel, A Passage to India both illustrates and complicates Dubois’ notion of double consciousness. Through the racial misconceptions and cultural pretenses that plague the interactions between the British and Indians, we see an uncertainty that lies in each individual’s sense of identity. Du Bois’ theory of double consciousness is also complicated in this novel because he does not leave room for those individuals who do not fit his strict black and white template. There is no gray area. Every individual can identify himself as part of one group on opposite sides of the veil. Can a human being exist in society as an individual or is one’s identity only defined by the group that they associate themselves with?
Double consciousness refers to the idea that we see ourselves through the eyes of others. Du Bois uses this term to describe the felt confusion that exists between social standards and daily experience for blacks in this country. Throughout the book, it is evident that Du Bois’ idea of double consciousness has two manifestations. The first is the power that white stereotypes have on black thought. He argues that despite having the knowledge of truth, African Americans continue to force themselves into a context of misrepresentation that is used to define their people. By submitting themselves to these paradigms, blacks allow themselves to remain the inferior race. The second demonstration of double consciousness is the racism that excluded African Americans from the mainstream of society. Blacks struggled to identify themselves and for them the internal conflict came from being African and being American simultaneously. The question of authenticity arose in Du Bois essay on “The Conservation of Races,” where he says:
No Negro who has given earnest thought to the situation of his people in America has failed, at some time in life, to find himself at these cross-roads; has failed to ask himself at some time: What, after all, am I? Am I an American or am I a Negro? Can I be both? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and be an American? If I strive as a Negro, am I not perpetuating the very cleft that threatens and separates Black and White America? Is not my only possible practical aim the subduction of all that is Negro in me to the American? (Du Bois 233).Though they were native to America they were not considered to be American because their roots lied in Africa. They were thought to be foreign, and separate from the rest of the population, which is how they soon began to view themselves.
A Passage to India is a realistic documentation of the attitudes that British colonists hold towards native Indians, whom they control. Through the exploration of Anglo-Indian relationships, Forster attempts to illustrate how one is viewed not by his status but by his racial or cultural background. In the novel, Dr. Aziz embodies Forster’s notion of the “muddle” of India. Dr. Aziz struggles to identify with one distinct group of individuals. While his racial and cultural background characterizes him as Indian, he does not believe that he can truly relate to this group because he is an exception. His higher education allows him to want to be more like the British, who refuses to accept him as anything other than Indian.
Throughout the novel, the British continue to look pass Aziz’s title and education and see him solely as “one of Indians,” who they describe as a group of selfish and ignorant individuals. One major example of this perception is when Dr. Aziz is accused of sexually assaulting Miss Quested. Through his vivid description of the accused crime, and the British reaction toward the situation, Forster satirizes the overreaction by the British as not only silly, but also dangerously based on sentiment rather than truth. Many of the English took the assault on Adela Quested as an assault by all Indians on English womanhood. The English viewed the isolated incident as a threat to the British Empire itself. Their account of the assault is devoid of any recognition or sympathetic understanding of Aziz’s honorable character. They simply see the situation as a revelation of the Indians’ criminal tendencies. This idea is described through McBryde theory behind the assault. “All unfortunate natives are criminals at heart, for the simple reason that they live south of the latitude 30. They are not to blame; they have not a dog’s chance—we should be like them if we settled here” (Forster 184). McBryde explains that Indians have criminal tendencies because of the climate, thus their behavior is inherent and justified.
Dr. Aziz suffers from Du Bois’ notion of double consciousness. Aziz knows that he is different but allows himself to be slave to the stereotypes that come with being Indian. He struggles to define himself as an individual in a society that sees him simply as a member of a larger group. Because he knows that he is viewed as a “typical Indian” through the eyes of the British he feels the need to prove himself as being better than his counterparts but finds it hard to do so. Aziz’s numerous acts of generosity are often perceived to be fraudulent. In chapter VIII, Aziz lends Fielding his last collar stud to replace his broken one. Though Forster makes clear that Aziz’s unpinned collar was a display of his act of generosity towards Mr. Fielding, Ronny remarks the unscrupulous look as emblematic of the Indians’ general laziness. “Aziz was exquisitely dressed, from tie-pin to spats, but he had forgotten his back collar stud, and there you have the Indian all over: inattention to detail; the fundamental slackness that reveals the race” (Forster 87) Despite his friendship with Aziz, Fielding is still found making generalizations about the Indians based on one incident.
Though Aziz is a character who illustrates a person’s constant struggle with double consciousness, there are many individuals in the novel that Du Bois’ theory does not account for. Dubois argues that being Black meant being deprived of a “true self-consciousness,” as blacks viewed themselves only through the generalized contempt of white America. This idea can be related to the way in which the Indians perceived themselves through the eyes of their superiors, the British. While this may be true for many individuals of the oppressed group, there are some who are truly able to achieve self-consciousness. In his argument, Du Bois fails to leave room for these self-assured individuals. In A Passage to Mr. Fielding is an example of someone who does not struggle with double consciousness, but intern is able to identify himself not through the eyes of those around him but through his own eyes.
Among the Englishmen in Chandrapore, Mr. Fielding is by far the most successful at developing and sustaining relationships with the natives. Though Mr. Fielding is well aware of his status as an English man and the power that he has over the natives, he strives to be seen as an individual who does not embody the common stereotypes made about his people. In fact, he is the exact opposite and is seen throughout the novel as a model of liberal humanism. He treats the Indians not as an inferior race but as a group of individuals that he can connect with through mutual respect, courtesy, and intelligence. Fielding is not afraid to ally himself with “the enemy.” He honors his friendship with Aziz over any alliance with members of his own race. This disruption of allegiances threatens the solidarity of the English colonial rule over India. Fielding’s alliance and loyalty to the Indians is seen when he takes the side of Aziz in the assault trial. Fielding is ridiculed when he publicly expresses his belief in Aziz’s innocence. He is seen as a traitor and is believed to have betrayed his people and his country. This betrayal is seen in Fielding’s conversation with McBryde where he proclaims his belief in Aziz’s innocence. McBryde tells him that he ought not to get himself involved in the situation despite what his conscious is telling him.
“ I feel that things are rather unsatisfactory as well as most disastrous. We are heading for the most awful smash…”
“ I say he’s innocent—”
“Innocence or guilt, why mix yourself up? What’s the good?…We shall all have to hang together, old man I’m afraid.” (Forster 189)
Whether Aziz is guilty or innocent is not the issue at hand. The true issue lies in proclaiming an Indian’s innocence. By doing so the British is doomed for corruption and upheaval by the Indians in the state.
Throughout the novel, Mr. Fielding identity is not defined by the “group” that he his associated with but through his individuality and his ability to go against what is expected of him. By being able to set himself apart from the group Fielding does not struggle with double consciousness. By staying true to his beliefs and by not questioning his position in society he is able to identify himself solely as an individual and not as a member of a larger group. As Because he allied with the Indians, Fielding was cast out of the group and was finally able to seek refuge as an individual.
W.E.B. Du Bois uses the term double consciousness to describe how one vies themselves through the eyes of another. Though E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India illustrates Du Bois notion of double consciousness through its depiction of Dr. Aziz, it also complicates it by creating a character that is truly self-conscious and aware of his identity. In his concept of double-conscious Du Bois does not leave room or account for this type of individual.
• Du Bois, W.E.B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Bedford Books, 1997. Print.
• Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. New York, Harvest Books, 1965.
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