I'm Asian and read p. 114 of Critical Terrains: French and British Orientalisms by Lisa Lowe, but I'm still baffled by this quote at ThoughtCo. It feels too broadly generalized (and a shade politically incorrect?!?).

Suspicion in the Oriental is a sort of malignant tumour, a mental malady, that makes him self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly; he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way the Westerner can not comprehend. It is his demon, as the Westerner's is hypocrisy.

— E. M. Forster (1924), A Passage to India, chapter 32.

  1. What's meant by "suspicion"? Like how Eurosceptics are "suspicious" of the EU?

  2. How does "suspicion" make Orientals "self-conscious and unfriendly suddenly"?

  3. "he trusts and mistrusts at the same time in a way" - huh? This looks like a contradiction?

  4. Why can't the "Westerner" "comprehend" this synchronous trust and mistrust?

  5. Why is the Westerner's "demon" "hypocrisy"? Orientals can be hypocritical too.

  • 1
    "a shade politically incorrect?!?" Almost certainly. Political correctness in 1924 wasn't what it is today, or anywhere near.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 28, 2019 at 16:01

1 Answer 1


The problem with the ‘quotation’ approach to literature is that novels work as complete texts, where each passage is read in the context of all the passages that precede it. When taken out of context, an individual passage often becomes hard to appreciate because the details of character and event that it alludes to are missing. If you find yourself struggling to understand a passage, there is no substitute for reading the whole book from which it was taken.

In this case the passage taken out of context is an overbroad and racist generalization. But in the context of A Passage to India, it is a generalization from a particular character and circumstance, that of Dr Aziz, a Muslim doctor in Chandrapore in British-controlled India in the early 20th century. Aziz is the friend of Cyril Fielding, an Englishman, and presumes on the basis of that friendship to organize an expedition to the Marabar Caves for a group of English visitors, but this goes disastrously wrong, and Aziz is falsely accused of the sexual assault of Adela Quested. The case goes to trial, but Adela recants and Aziz is acquitted. Fielding persuades Aziz not to sue Adela for the false accusation, but then Fielding goes back to England with Adela. This is the point at which Aziz becomes suspicious of Fielding:

Aziz sighed. Each for himself. One man needs a coat, another a rich wife; each approaches his goal by a clever detour, Fielding had saved the girl a fine of twenty thousand rupees, and now followed her to England. If he desired to marry her, all was explained; she would bring him a larger dowry. [Chapter XXXI]

In other words, Aziz suspects that Fielding has taken advantage of their friendship in order to persuade him not to sue Adela, from purely selfish reasons, since he intends to marry her.

It is at this point in the narrative that Forster generalizes Aziz’s particular suspicion into a wider claim about “suspicion in the Oriental”. The point is that in the context of the racist power relations between the colonizing English and the subject Indians, it is impossible for the latter to trust the former. Aziz’s experience has shown him that however much they may appear to be his friends, in a crisis the English will support each other, and that their prior protestations of goodwill are hypocritical and worthless. In this situation, it is impossible for Aziz not to be suspicious.

So the passage about “suspicion in the Oriental” can be understood as a commentary on the destructive effects of colonialism: there cannot be trust between the colonized and the colonizers, only suspicion on the part of one and hypocrisy on the part of the other. (The racist and brutal way in which the passage is phrased reminds the reader that Forster is English and so that his insights into the character of someone like Aziz cannot be trusted either.) This message is reinforced at the end of the novel, when Aziz tells Fielding that they cannot properly be friends until India is free:

“Down with the English, anyhow. That’s certain. Clear out, you fellows, double quick, I say. We may hate one another, but we hate you most. If I don’t make you go, Ahmed will, Karim will, if it’s fifty five-hundred year; we shall get ride of you; yes, we shall drive every blasted Englishman into the sea, and then”—he rode against him furiously—“and then,” he concluded, half kissing him, “you and I shall be friends.” [Chapter XXXVII]

To quickly answer the numbered questions in the post:

  1. Suspicion of the motives of Westerners.
  2. Because it is hard to be friendly with someone if you suspect their motives.
  3. It is possible to have contradictory feelings. Rationally someone may tell themselves that trust is justified, but experience makes them feel that this trust will be betrayed.
  4. Because the Westerner lacks the experience of being racially discriminated against.
  5. The colonial situation creates this hypocrisy: on an individual level, social politeness requires Westerners to behave in a friendly way to Indians, but the colonial enterprise as a whole exploits Indians and rewards Westerners.

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