“A Passage to Genre: Fictional and Non-fictional Genres in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India and The Hill of Devi” by Kit Yeung

The HP Series showcases excerpts from excellent Honours Projects by students from the Department of English Language and Literature. [Read all entries here.]

E.M. Forster.jpg

Supervisor: Professor Stuart Christie

The following analysis charts specific interactions between fictionality and non-fictionality as they approach the zone where putative fictionality and non-fictionality become coextensive. In this experiment, I will take advantage of specific instances to highlight that even apparently contradictory cross-generic interactions are constitutive as well as corroborative.

The recipe for narrowing the divide between fiction and non-fiction calls for respective works. In The Hill of Devi, Forster writes ‘[The Rajah of Dewas] had already sent me a charming telegram, saying he was expecting me. I also understood [Rajah of Dewas] was sending a carriage for me on the morrow. This however didn’t arrive, and the Luards, very kind and not surprised, got the Maharajah of Indore’s motor’. (13) Intriguingly, there is also a missing carriage in Forster’s A Passage to India:

‘An Indian lady and gentleman were to send their carriage for [Adela and Mrs. Moore] this morning at nine. It has never come. [Adela and Mrs. Moore] waited and waited; [Adela and Mrs. Moore] can’t think what happened.’ ‘Some misunderstanding,’ said Fielding, seeing at once that it was the type of incident that had better not be cleared up. ‘Oh no, it wasn’t that,’ Miss Quested persisted. ‘They even gave up going to Calcutta to entertain us. [Adela and Mrs. Moore] must have made some stupid blunder, [Adela and Mrs. Moore] both feel sure.’ ‘[Fielding] wouldn’t worry about that.’  (57-58)

Not only does the above excerpt spell out the contradiction arising from the gulf between the respective expectations of Indian and British people, it also interestingly offers an antidote to the one that haunts Forster in The Hill of Devi. One is able to infer from A Passage to India that Indians only ‘mean’ that but they are not going to ‘do’ that while British people are under the impression that what one says is tantamount to what one intends to do, as made manifest by both works. The relentlessly discursive differences between the Orient and the Occident account for such a contradiction. Making use of A Passage to India, one is thus able to demystify and decode the Luards’ grotesque reaction towards the missing carriage. The fact that the Luards did not feel surprised and even got the Maharajah of Indore’s motor mirrors the possibility that the Luards may have presumably fathomed that particular Indian code or else there was no reason why the Luards did not feel ‘surprised’. The first level of cross-generic interaction occurs here. It is the missing carriage in A Passage to India that refreshes and re-describes the missing carriage in The Hill of Devi. When one reads The Hill of Devi separately, the problem of a missing carriage in The Hill of Devi may not be detected. But if A Passage to India is read alongside The Hill of Devi, the lapse may be readily discerned. The Hill of Devi, which is putatively non-fiction, can be explained by A Passage to India, which is putatively fictional.

Having illustrated how fiction and non-fiction run parallel to each other, I am going to demonstrate how my project, together with the notion of Popper’s verifiable falsifiability, may be of some use to shed light on Derrida’s ‘The Law of Genre’ and its potential ambiguity.

In ‘The Law of Genre’, Derrida begins with axiomatic questions, purporting that ‘’genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix genres. I repeat: genres are not to be mixed. I will not mix them’. (55) Such utterances, with reference to Derrida, result in ‘a fragmentary discourse whose propositions would be of the descriptive, constative, and neutral genre’ and a discourse striking one ‘as a sharp order and more authoritarian summons to a law of a “do” or “do not”, which as everyone knows, occupies the concept or constitutes the value of genre’. (55-56) Nevertheless, what he attempts to do is set the law of genre up and to show disregard for the alternative of the descriptive, constative and neutral genre. Whereas he concentrates on developing arguments that likely topple down the authoritarian ‘law’ of genres, his personal preference of what the genre should be has been shown already.

Yet, by means of Popper’s notion of falsifiability, Derrida’s plausible blot may be made more manifest. The framework of falsifiability suggests that one should not have any initial prejudice against any hypothesised arguments before they are falsified. Before falsification, every hypothesised argument carries equal weight. What one has to do is to imagine how to put a proposed argument wrong and see whether the result contradicts the hypothesised argument. If the outcome jars with the hypothesised argument, the argument is falsified and becomes a bad one. When two interpretations of what genres should be are rendered, Derrida does not expound on why he throws out the descriptive, constative and neutral genre option but only shifts to substantiate his assertion that genres strike one as a sharp order and authoritarian summons. Most importantly, the fact that he ignores the causal process of transiting from the argument regarding the descriptive and neutral genre to the proclamation of genres being authorised summons leads him to fail the test of falsifiability. Under Popper’s framework, in a bid to authenticate the claim that genres are authoritarian summons, one has to reveal that genres are not authoritarian summons, which means genres may be (any) other things. If genres may not be (any) other things, Derrida’s claim is correct. But, with his axiomatic questions, Derrida proposes one of the possibilities that genres could be descriptive, constative and neutral, which indicates he cannot ignore such a possibility or else there is no reason why he raises it. Thus, this neutral and descriptive interpretation of the genre falsifies his second claim that genres are more ‘authoritarian summons to a law of “do” or “do not”’. (56) The fact that he has not previously attempted to prove that genres can be descriptive, constative and neutral wrong but only moves to establish another possible claim that genres are authoritarian summons makes his argument untenable. If the entire article begins with a falsified premise, the ensuing discussion can also be potentially falsified by the discussion based on his first contention that genres can be descriptive, constative and natural. In other words, his second averment can be falsified by his first argument.

divider.pngWorks Cited

Derrida, Jacques, ‘The Law of Genre’, trans. Avital Ronell, Critical inquiry 7.1 (1980): 55-81. Print.

Forster, E.M. A Passage to India. London: Penguin, 2015. Print.

—-. The Hill of Devi. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1967. Print.

Popper, Karl. The Logic of Scientific Discovery. New York: Harper & Row, 1968. Print.


Kit Yeung.JPGKit Yeung is a graduate of the Department of English Language and Literature (Class of 2018) and an avid reader of E.M. Forster’s works.

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