The novel opens with Adela Quested and Mrs. Moore arriving at India. Adela is to marry Ronny Heaslop, Mrs. Moore's son and the city magistrate. While visiting a mosque one night, Mrs. Moore meets Dr. Aziz, an Indian physician. The two become close friends. At a later visit, Dr. Aziz agrees to take Mrs. Moore, Adela, Cyril Fielding (a pro-Indian teacher at a local school) and Narayan Godbole (a Hindu-Brahmin professor) on a visit to the Marabar Caves.
Something happens when Adela enters a cave by herself—the book is never clear on just what it is. She leaves the cave bloody and disheveled, and accuses Dr. Aziz of attempting to rape her. The man is arrested, which leads to the Indian community and Fielding springing to Aziz's defense. Fielding is ostracized from the English community. Mrs. Moore is criticized by Ronny for her belief that Aziz is innocent and her unwillingness to testify at the trial.
A screen adaptation was made in 1984. The last film directed by David Lean, it stars Judy Davis as Adela, Peggy Ashcroft as Mrs. Moore, Victor Banerjee as Aziz, James Fox as Fielding, and Alec Guinness as Godbole. Contrary to what a lot of people might think based on the quality actors, the source material, the setting, and the date of release it is not a Merchant Ivory film.
The novel provides examples of:
- Ambiguous Situation: No one will ever know what really happened in the Marabar caves. Forster refused to say, insisting that it wasn't as important as the chain of events it set in motion.
- Author Avatar: Most, if not all of Fielding's opinions about India are Forster's himself.
- Bad Boss: Major Callendar. He's not only the most outwardly bigoted of the English officials in Chandrapore (to the point of using racial slurs in conversation), he resents Dr. Aziz's medical skills (which are implied to surpass his own) and frequently partakes in petty insults and slights to remind Aziz of his place. Indeed, the plot is set in motion when Callendar summons Aziz to his office at night, then leaves without leaving his assistant a message - and his wife steals Aziz's tonga, leaving him stranded in the British section of town.
- The British Empire: The main setting—and issue.
- Burial at Sea: Mrs. Moore dies on the voyage back to Britain, resulting in this type of burial.
- Cool Old Lady: Mrs Moore, more or less.
- Dirty Foreigner: How the British (except Mrs. Moore, Adela and Fielding) see the native Indians, even though they are in their country!
- Enemy Mine: The tentative and temporary unity between Hindus and Muslims during the trial.
- Inherent in the System: One of the main critiques the book levels against the Raj is that it co-opts even the most well meaning of the English into viewing the Indians as inferior. It is also the reason that Aziz and Fielding can't be friends while the British remain in India.
- Intergenerational Friendship: Elderly Mrs Moore's relationships with the much younger Aziz and Adela.
- Meaningful Name: The name of Aziz's barrister, Amritrao, evokes the then-recent Amritsar Massacre.
- The Philosopher: Narayan Godbole.
- Plain Jane: Adela is not a good-looking woman. She knows it.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: Comes with the territory. Besides the day-to-day bigotry and discrimination, several English characters (particularly Major Callendar) use racial slurs to describe the Indians as tensions heat up (Fielding knows things have gotten bad when he learns that other Englishmen in Chandrapore started calling Indians "niggers"). Several characters express casual antisemitism as well, including Ronny who at one point blames the protests on Jewish agitators. Of course, the Indian characters aren't above expressing their own religious and caste prejudices.
- Positive Discrimination: Subverted. While the native Indian characters are generally presented in a more sympathetic light than the Anglo-Indians, they are not immune to bigotry themselves, particularly on religious grounds. Dr Godbole feels the need to wash his hands after touching a non-Hindu, and several of the Muslim characters express the view that Hindus are barbarians who need to be civilised by their influence - essentially parroting the views of the British. The inferior status of women is also touched upon.
- Punch-Clock Villain: Some of the British officials fit this category:
- McBryde expresses the same racism as his peers, but he generally respects Indians and regrets the furor building up around Aziz's trial. He also remains friendly with Fielding when other British characters turn their back on him.
- Turton, although extremely bigoted in private, takes his job as Collector seriously, makes an effort to be civil towards the locals and works to keep the peace between British and Indians in Chandrapore even after Aziz's arrest.
- Das, Ronny's Indian assistant who presides over Aziz's trial. He's as dispassionate as the heated situation allows him to be, and is openly relieved when Adela withdraws her accusation on the stand.
- Real Men Love Allah: After Babur, Aziz's second favorite of the Six Great Mughal Emperors is the mighty, fiercely religious warrior king Aurangzeb. Aziz himself is described as possessing a wiry strength in himself, and is a deeply devout Muslim, as his scene in the Chandrapore Mosque describes well.
- Scenery Porn: There are a lot of descriptions about the Marabar Caves, the mosque that Aziz and Mrs. Moore visit, etc.
- Time Skip: Two years pass between Parts II and III.
- Wide-Eyed Idealist: Adela is earnest in her desire to see all the wonders of the "real India". Doesn't really last for her, though.
The film provides examples of:
- Adaptational Expansion: Lean's film is based as much on Santha Rama Rau's stage adaptation as Forster's novel, and so it changes and telescopes events significantly from the original book. Most notably with Aziz's trial, which is a single chapter in the book but takes up nearly a third of the film.
- Adaptational Name Change: Fielding's first name is changed from Cyril to Richard.
- Adaptational Villainy: McBryde and Turton. The sympathetic qualities Forster gives them are pretty much excised in the movie, making them straightforward villains.
- British Stuffiness: Mr. and Mrs. Turton, Major Callendar and Ronny Heslop. Completely averted with Mrs. Moore.
- Cool Train: The Trans-India Express journey from Bombay to Chandrapore.
- Curse Is Foiled Again: Prof. Godbole takes this tack on the surprise outcome of the trial of Dr. Aziz.
- Earn Your Happy Ending
- Informed Ability: Amritrao, Aziz's defense attorney, receives a lot of build-up as a formidable lawyer. Then the trial comes and he barely speaks.
- Karmic Jackpot: After his ordeal and unexpected aversion of certain doom by Adela's withdrawal of the charges, things start going very well for Aziz.
- Lighter and Softer: The movie glosses over much of the novel's political and religious content, in particular the tensions between Hindus and Muslims which plays a major role in the build-up to the trial. Lean also makes several British characters (particularly McBryde and Turton) more villainous so the film can have clear-cut bad guys.
- The Mean Brit: Ronny Heslop. He insults Aziz behind his back without ever having spoken with the man, initially flatly forbids Adela from accepting Aziz' invitation to the Caves, then later refuses him bail and sends his mother, an important witness to the events at the caves, arbitrarily back to England to prevent her from testifying on Aziz' behalf. Also applies to Inspector Macbride.
- Oop North: Inspector McBryde.
- Scenery Porn: This comes into play quite literally when Adela sees the erotic carvings.
- Sim Sim Salabim: India is portrayed like this to a T, right down to the attack monkeys.
- Spot of Tea: It's exasperating to Adela how the vast majority British Community in Chandrapore has recreated a microcosm of English life and Culture without making any effort to associate or learn about their Indian subjects. When she's taken to the Club for the first time she's served Tea and cucumber sandwiches.
- Stiff Upper Lip: Except for Adela the entire British Community in Chandrapore is nonplussed by the angry protests surrounding the arrest and trial of Dr. Aziz.