Locating the Master – A Study of A Passage to India and 1984


This paper requires both an introduction and disclaimer: I will be approaching the subject of colonialism from an angle some may find offensive. My purpose is not to minimize the profound social harms inflicted upon those subject to colonial oppression, nor is my intent to provide any form of justification for said harms. Rather, this paper will examine the subject of colonialism through a strict, narrow focus on the bidirectional discursive affects of fascist and colonial projects through a close reading of George Orwell’s 1984 and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. My intent is to demonstrate how the manifestations of power extant in repressed peoples and individuals complicates a simplistic master/slave binary interpretation of these novels. Rather than contributing to the overwhelmingly large body of works focused on the effects of power on the oppressed, this paper examines the effects of power on the oppressor. Specifically, I will demonstrate how, in the complexities of any given social construct, power relationships are primarily discursive relationships. Moreover, to quote Lacan, the master’s desire to extract knowledge (or labour) from the slave, “isn’t self evident… it wasn’t the master who invented that all on his own. Someone must have imposed it upon him” (Lacan 107; emphasis added). Furthermore, while the master “has deprived the slave of the disposal of his body… he has left him his jouissance” (107). This imposition upon the master to extract the slave’s knowledge, in tandem with the impossibility of removing the slave’s jouissance is found in both 1984 and A Passage to India.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, I will demonstrate the impossibility of a fully realized state of oppression in any extant social construct; and second, I will explore how—through the impossibility of any totalitarian project—the slave is never entirely subject to the master’s desire (or decree.) In fact, in the register of Hegelian dialectics, the master—as an extant individual being—is always-already subject to the master’s discourse. This is not a simple restatement of the Hegelian aphorism “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (Hegel 111). Instead, I will demonstrate the master—in both 1984 and A Passage to India—is only the master insofar as they are always-already subject to preforming their prescribed role within the master’s discourse. Put simply, the master is subject to a role prescribed by their position within a discursive construct they cannot escape, and the slave exerts a profound level of control over the mode, function, and realization of this discourse.

Ignoring Oppression – Winston, Mr. Turton, and Michel Foucault

“If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it?” (Foucault 119).

This quote highlights several problems faced by postcolonial critical analysis. If all power dynamics exist in clearly demarcated master/slave relationships and simple binary oppositions then why was the colonial project so successful? How did the 20th ce fascist phenomenon take hold of huge swaths of Europe? In other words, are the goals of fascism and colonialism entirely founded upon the Other’s complete subjugation and total compliance achieved through force? The fundamental problem faced by all forms of oppression is not centered around oppression itself; it is far too difficult to force people to do something through persistent threats of violence. For one thing, a system where the control of productive forces depends solely on violence is terribly inefficient: per Lacan, “getting people to work is even more tiring, if one really has to do it, than working oneself” (Lacan 174). This problem is clearly demonstrated by the paradoxical existence of the proles in 1984; their existence leads Winston to state, on more than one occasion, that “if there is hope… it lies in the proles” (Orwell 94)[i]. Moreover, the proles do not exist in ideological opposition to Big Brother, “as the party slogan put it: ‘proles and animals are free’” (94). In the eyes of the totalizing, often brutal party, the proles are not seen as a subversive or oppositional force, their existence is not simply ignored, they are integral to the function of society at large; “so long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance” (94). The party’s only concern is the product of prole labour. Ideological differences are easily ignored in the face of expediency. As demonstrated by the existence of the proles, even within a fictional system of total subjugation the aims of the oppressor can never be achieved through violence alone: the omnipotent gaze of Big Brother is often forced to ‘turn a blind eye’ upon elements indicative of its own negation.

We see this same intentional blindness in A Passage to India, though its manifestation is less obvious. After the incident in the Marabar caves, Mr. Turton attempts to “dominate without formality” the British civilians awaiting news of Ms. Quested’s condition (Forster 162). But, “the dread of having to call in the troops was vivid to [Mr. Turton]; soldiers put one thing straight, but leave a dozen things crooked, and they love to humiliate the civilian administration” (162). Here, Turton is more concerned with the appearance of inadequacy than the threat of an uprising; he chooses to ignore the real threat he faces in support of, what Žižek calls, “the struggle of hegemony” (Žižek, Fragile 49). Mr. Turton’s desire to “flog every Indian he saw” is promptly overruled by the need to maintain the population as a compliant, productive body; the ‘struggle of hegemony’ depends on Indian productivity, not strict compliance to Turton’s individual notion of colonial dominance (Forster 162). Turton is more willing to risk harm to his fellow Brits than put at risk the desired outcome of the colonial project at large. Ultimately demonstrating that, in both 1984 and A Passage to India, the illusion of control is more important than any impractical realities with the potential to undermine said illusion. The loss of the illusion is the only ‘real’ problem of serious concern to both O’Brien and Turton; both know that if the truth behind the illusion is revealed “the master subsequently appears only as the instrument, the magnificent Cuckold of history” (Lacan 171). In other words, the problem faced by any given fascist project is never the resistance of those it tries to subjugate, but how to best conceal those it ignores.

The Thomas Theorem, Symbolic Authority, and Master Signifiers

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

(Thomas and Thomas 571–752)

The supremacy of the illusion is integral to O’Brien’s fascism and Mr. Turton’s colonialism. Further, both constitute perfect examples of Lacanian master signifiers—in O’Brian’s case Big Brother, and in Turton’s Imperial Britain (i.e. The Crown,) in any case the distinction is superficial: both constructs “represent the hole from which a master signifier arises… the quilting points” where the void takes on the semblance of meaning (Lacan 189). While, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, it is easy to relegate the foundations of fascism and colonialism to the realm of philosophical constructs, one must never fall into this trap.

The need to secure and maintain an illusion is central to all manifest forms and expressions of power. However, as stated by the Thomas theorem quoted above, one can never let the ‘realities’ (or lack thereof) of a situation overshadow the social consequences of those who experience it—an illusion of power does nothing to diminish the effects of power on those within its sphere of influence. Instead, one must examine power “where it installs itself and produces its real effects” (Foucault 97). Following Foucault’s suggestion and focusing on the ‘real effects’ of power in 1984 and A Passage to India produces interesting—though not altogether unexpected—results. In both novels, power focuses most of its ‘real effects’ on the supposedly dominant group.

This principle is exemplified best in A Passage to India during the power-struggle over the seating arrangements at Aziz’s trial. Initially, after the Major demands “better arrangements” for Adela, it seems as though the Brits are to enjoy a position of authority on the platform overlooking the trial. Immediately upon taking their seats, the Major acknowledges the authority this change of seating represents, calling the change “thoroughly desirable… for several reasons” (Forster 194). However, the vaunted platform which initially “confers authority” to Brits and Indians alike, is attacked moments later as “only one foot high” when Mr. Das requests the British remove themselves from it (196). Here we see the dualism intrinsic to symbolic authority. According to Žižek, “symbolic authority is… grounded in voluntary blindness, it involves a kind of will-not-to-know, the attitude of je n’en veux rein savoir” (Žižek, Incontinence 96). In other words, for the Brits to maintain their sense of authority, they must ignore the obvious reality bearing down upon them. They must ignore the fact that an Indian, Mr. Das, has the authority to force the supposedly dominant party of Brits to descend “from [the platform’s] rash eminence” (Forster 196). Rather than accepting the truth, they must pretend as though the platform itself lacks the element of authority they had, until being asked to remove themselves from it, attributed to it; ignoring the reason they wanted to sit on the platform in the first place.

Consequently, the maintenance of the colonial position of authority entirely prevents the Brits from exercising said authority to any meaningful effect. In a strange twist of reason, their continued authority depends on its denial. As a result, it becomes apparent that colonial authority must be maintained through a social agreement allowing both parties (colonials and colonized) to systematically deny the lack of authority upon which said authority derives its source. In the words of Žižek, “whenever we have a symbolic structure it is structured around a certain void, it implies the foreclosure of a certain key signifier”(Žižek, Sublime 78). As shown above, the key signifier foreclosed upon is revealed during Aziz’s trial: the concept of British superiority itself, upon inspection, is little more than an unpaid lease on property the Brits had never owned.

Intransitive Particularity

Although the underlying truth of colonial oppression is structured around a fundamental lack of authority, I cannot ignore a serious objection arising from this claim: if symbolic authority depends on a social agreement, how did said symbolic authority come to exist in the first place? This is to say, how did the Brits or Party Members come to inhabit a position of authority at all? Here we find a profound connection between Badiou’s ‘event’ and the psychoanalytic concept of the master signifier. In Philosophy of the Present, authored by both Badiou and Žižek, Badiou lays out his eight theses of the event. In his exploration of thesis one[ii] Badiou notes, “by ‘thought,’ I mean the subject is constituted through the totality of established knowledge. Or, as Lacan puts it, the subject insofar as it makes a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). This is important to keep in mind when, in thesis three, Badiou states “every universal originates in an event, and the event is intransitive to the particularity of the situation” (31; emphasis added). It is in these two theses where the void structuring symbolic authority takes on almost sublime dimensions.

I will begin my exploration of Badiou’s ‘intransitive event’ with the scene from 1984 where Winston attempts to remember Big Brother’s rise to power: “the Party claimed, of course, to have liberated the proles from bondage… [but] the thing you invariably came back to was the impossibility of knowing what life before the revolution had really been like” (Orwell 129, 132). Winston is aware of a time before Ingsoc, but when he struggles “to think his way backward to the dim period of his childhood…. [he remembers] huge events which had quite probably not happened” (60; emphasis added). Here, we see the failure intrinsic to Big Brother’s fascist project. The party claims to ‘have liberated the proles,’ and in some ways this is true. The party has clearly failed to fully indoctrinate them into their system, and through this failure a type of ‘liberation’ occurs. However, the existence of the proles and the discourse Big Brother uses to describe them indicates something much more profound. There must have been an event that lead to the rise of Big Brother’s regime, yet no one remembers it— “Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence” (68). This gap (or void) between the present state of power, and the origin of power serves as the primary impetus of Winston’s downfall. It is Winston’s pursuit of Big Brother’s origins that leads him to enter the prole bar and ask the “old man… you must have seen great changes since you were young?” Only to discover the proles have no interest in the topic—the old man only wishing Winston “the very best of ‘ealth” when questioned about “the war” supposed as the initial source of Big Brother’s power (162). Consequently, Big Brother’s rise to power is an intransitive event no longer required in the ongoing maintenance of their fascist system; the event has no connection to the present reality of Party members and proles alike. The proles, as Badiou states above, are subjects “only insofar as [they] make a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). In effect, the proles represent the radical impossibility of Big Brother’s genesis within the ideological construct they maintain. Big Brother’s genesis, entirely forgotten, can have no role in its current state of being.

A Passage to India does not deal directly in the events responsible for the genesis of colonial rule. Nevertheless, there exist several clues of such an events intransitive nature. Near the novel’s end, Mr. Fielding remarks: “we all build upon sand… in the old eighteenth century, when cruelty and injustice raged, an invisible power repaired their ravages. Everything echoes now; there’s no stopping the echo” (Forster 244; emphasis added). Here Fielding tacitly acknowledges the ‘event’ (qua power) which lead to colonial rule, but the ‘echo’ he mentions can be read in a number of ways. On one hand, Fielding could be lamenting the loss of martial authority—like Turton’s longing “for the good old days when an English man could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked later” (162). On the other hand, the phrase “there’s no stopping the echo,” in the context of Fielding’s overall character, indicates the echo originates from an Indian source (244). In other words, Fielding appears to imply the imminent failure of British colonial rule. Turton, in a roundabout way, also acknowledges this failure: lamenting Aziz’s right to a fair trial as “the old weary business of compromise and moderation” (162). As a result, the relationship between the proles of 1984 and the colonial subjects of A Passage to India becomes clear. In both cases, the power of the dominant group—through the very nature of subjugation—loses its dependence on the ‘event’ responsible for the establishment of their power. In other words, the Party’s current position of power has nothing to do with the event of its genesis; just as the colonial’s current rule has nothing to do with the violent conflict upon which it stands. In summary, the brutal and violent events leading to the lived experience of proles and party members are unrelated to the ongoing maintenance of Big Brother’s domain; just as colonial rule can no longer depend on violence if its desired goal is to be achieved.

The Slave’s Role in the Master’s Discourse

“It is odd to observe that a doctrine such as Marx’s whose articulation onto the function of the struggle, the class struggle, which instituted has not prevented it from giving birth to what for the moment is, indeed, the same problem that confronts us all, namely the persistence of a master’s discourse” (Lacan 31; emphasis added).

The persistence of the master’s discourse is something often overlooked when analyzing power relationships. It is easy to ignore the effects of power on those in positions of power in favour of the less controversial ‘power is bad’ form of critique. However, Lacanian psychoanalysis does not shy away from this sort of critical study; as shown in the quote above, Lacan makes two highly important observations on this subject:

  • Power qua the master’s discourse is universal.
  • Power

The universality of the master’s discourse and its effects on those in the position of the slave in 1984 and A Passage to India are abundantly apparent, but—to keep with my stated purpose—this is not where I will direct my focus. Rather, I ask another, somewhat uncomfortable question: what is the slave’s role in the master’s discourse? Following from the universality of the master’s discourse, can we assume there exists individuals not subject to it? In other words, is there a subject not always-already subject to the master’s discourse?

As I have already demonstrated, many of the expressions of power in established forms of subjugation are, in fact, a denial of power. I have shown this in Mr. Turton’s denial of power and Big Brother’s voluntary ignorance qua the proles. However, I have yet to explore the slave’s role in these effects. In A Passage to India, is it not the actions of the subjugated directing the ideology to which they are, supposedly, subject? When Heaslop refuses Aziz bail, is it not because he is powerless to take a more drastic approach? The confrontation between the Brits and Indians is much more complex than a simple master/slave binary. Heaslop attempts to satisfy the master by taking the only action permitted within the colonial master’s discourse. Thus, Heaslop (the magistrate of Chandapore) is somehow limited by the discourse supposed to bestow his status as master. Here, we see the slave’s role in the master’s discourse. To return to Lacan, “the master’s desire is the Other’s desire, since it’s the desire that the slave anticipates” (Lacan 38). In other words, what the master wants is what the Other has, but the master’s desire—in a strange fusion of Hegelian and Lacanian logic—is derived, not from the master’s self, but from ‘the desire that the Other anticipates.’ Simply, what the master wants is for the slave to tell him what he wants.

However, as with many things, the interpretation is not this simple. Heaslop’s conundrum is double edged: he derives his desire from the Other’s anticipation, but he must also contend with another master. Specifically, Heaslop (and every other master) must always-already contend with the master’s discourse. In Heaslop’s case, the master’s discourse is what controls every aspect of his life: from where he eats, to who he associates with, even how he exacts justice. Heaslop, as the magistrate of Chandapore, is not the representative of the master’s discourse, he is its subject. When Mr. Das is appointed judge of Aziz’s trial it is because the master’s discourse (in this case the law) demands it. Heaslop is powerless before a master’s discourse he does not define. The hegemonic goal of the master’s discourse is not violent subjugation, but productivity; and Heaslop is as much a slave to this as the Indian Other. In fact, the Indian Other (the slave) is the only subject with any control at all over the particularities manifest in the master’s discourse. To explore this further, is it not the fear of the loss of Indian productivity that bestows the need for Aziz’s trial? Is it not the fear Indians will stop working that stops Turton from flogging “every native he saw?” (Forster 162). With these questions in mind how can anyone claim the relation between the colonial subject and the colonized Other is a simple omni-directional binary construct? Considering this, the master’s discourse is no longer a means for one group to impose its will over another, but a complex system of interactions both master and slave must ultimately answer to. The dynamics of power do not proceed through subjugation and violence alone. If Heaslop is the master, his mastery is impenetrable bounded by the will of the slave—it is the slave who defines the meaning of the master’s discourse.

In 1984 the reality of the master’s discourse is less obscure. The Party is aware of their ideological mission’s fundamental impossibility—as I’ve already demonstrated qua the proles. The party’s solution to the intrinsic impossibility of their ideological goal is where the bi-directional nature of the master’s discourse becomes undeniable. During Winston’s imprisonment, when O’Brien is expounding upon the party’s long-term goals, he reveals “in our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement… the sex instinct will be eradicated… our neurologists are at work upon it now” (Orwell 487). The Party does not wish to enforce subjugation through violence, they want to remove the slave’s existence from the discourse altogether. This is tantamount to an admission of defeat. The Party knows it cannot defeat the innumerable masses of individual human subjects they desire to subjugate, and their solution is to remove subjectivity itself from the equation. Without subjectivity we are no longer dealing within the confines of the master’s discourse, as without a subjective slave the master’s discourse is no longer possible. Put simply, O’Brien knows his ideology is impossible in a world filled with subjective Others, and the only realistic solution is not to exert greater control over the population, but rather to negate the Other’s discursive subjectivity altogether. Thus, the problem is solved only when subjectivity is removed from the equation.

In Conclusion – Totalitarian Impossible

The problem of power, an already complex subject, is only compounded when examined through a focus on its real effects. A close examination has demonstrated the impossibility of a fully realized system of oppression in most (if not all) forms of systematic oppression. Furthermore, the power of the slave within the master’s discourse is not negligible; the slave exerts an integral element of control over the manifestation and direction of oppressive structures to which he submits. However, this is not an attempt to justify oppressive systems like fascism and colonialism, but an attempt to show the intrinsic failure to which such systems invariably succumb. Fascism, while possible in the short-term fervor inspired by populist notions or the vitriol of a demagogue, cannot persist over an infinite period. As shown in 1984, the only way such a system can have any success in the long term is to remove the subject from the equation altogether. The same problem exists in the colonialism of A Passage to India: a system of economic subjugation must, in many ways, be a system built around a gap—there is no benefit to economic oppression if one must ensure production solely through the use of violence. And, when the productivity of a system depends on compliance, the system of subjugation, in a paradoxical fashion, becomes ruled by those it subjects. In conclusion, power is fundamentally oppressive, this is certain, but the question of who constitutes the oppressor in such systems of oppression is not entirely clear: there is a lot more to these structures than one can explore through the lens of binary oppositions and omnidirectional power structures. One must never avoid looking at such problems, to paraphrase Lacan, from the other side.

Works Cited

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Penguin Random House UK, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Power / Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon, Translated by Colin Gordon et al., Vintage, 1980.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by J.N. Findlay, Translated by A.V. Miller, 5th ed., Oxford UP, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.

Thomas, W. I., and D. S. Thomas. The Child in America: Behaviour Problems and Programs. Knopf, 1928.

Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void. Cambridge UP, 2017.

—. The Fragile Absolute. Verso, 2008.

—. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 2008.

Žižek, Slavoj, and Alain Badiou. Philosophy in the Present. Edited by Peter Engelmann, Translated by Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano, Polity P, 2009.


[i] The page numbering in my Kindle version of the text is different from the paperback page numbers.

[ii] “thought is the proper medium of the universal” (Žižek and Badiou 26).


In the interest of brevity, I avoided a discussion on the implications of new speak as they appear in 1984. This is mostly due to the difficulty of linking the concept into colonialism as portrayed in A Passage to India. The topic of new speak is a paper in its own right from the perspective of this analytical framework. I hope, even with this omission, the paper proved enlightening.30

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