house for Mr. Biswas by V.P Naipal
This famous work of fiction by V.P Naipal deals with the life and experiences of Mr. Mohun Biswas and his search for success and fulfillment in life. The novel takes place in Trinidad after its colonial period. It should be noted that the book is not entirely fictional and many critics note the relationship between the main character and the author’s father: “Naipaul’s father, Seepersad, is the prototype for Mr. Biswas” (Study Guide for a House for Mr. Biswas).
The central theme of the book can be summarized as the search for freedom and independence. It is essentially a story about a man who experiences various forms of oppression and misfortune and who desires his own house. In the novel the house can be seen as a central symbol for freedom from oppression and humiliation and it is representative of the desire for self-fulfillment and self-actualization.
Therefore, on one level the novel can be interpreted as the personal desire or striving of the main character in the face of numerous failures and disappointments. In this sense the novel is about human dignity and the refusal to be oppressed by circumstances and failure in the effort to achieve your dream. On another level the novel deals with the issues and problems facing people in a postcolonial world and the way that they are affected by colonial rule and domination.
The main character continually meets obstacles and failure in his endeavors. His life is difficult and traumatic from the very beginning. A pandit or scholarly teacher predicts that his life will not be successful and that he will cause the death of his father. It seems that fate is against Mohun from the very beginning.
His early life is filled with obstacles and difficulties and after his father drowns, Mohun and his family have to live with wealthy relatives. This again emphasizes the theme of loss of freedom and humiliation. It should also be taken into account that the society and culture in which the novel takes is very class and caste conscious. In other words, the divisions evident in the society and the fact that the main character has to live with his affluent relatives, serves to exacerbate his sense of failure and humility. The subsequent development of his life becomes even more traumatic and difficult. After staying with the alcoholic Bhandat, Mohun leaves to find freedom and success in the world.
However, the pattern of failure and disappointment continues in the novel and this is increased by a growing sense of powerlessness in the face of circumstances. Central to this theme is his marriage into the Tulsi family. The marriage itself is a mistake and comes about as a result of romantic advances that Mr. Biswas makes to the daughter of client which are misinterpreted. Both his new wife, Saham, and her family are extremely domineering and this increases the sense of the main character’s lack of freedom and personal oppression. Mr. Biswas becomes immersed in a struggle with the family for economic and individual independence.
For years Mr. Biswas works in the family business and receives very poor payment for his efforts. His place of residence is also determined by the family. Furthermore, he can never escape the criticism that is leveled at him from the large Tulsi family. He attempts to make himself more independent but all his efforts to acquire a place of his own are thwarted by the family. For example, a small house that he builds on the Tulsi farm has to be abandoned in order to assist the family.
In order to escape the oppression that he experiences, Mr. Biswas becomes a journalist. He is intent on building a house that will be his own domain and which he sees as a release from the humiliation and low self-worth that he experiences in his life. In other words, the house becomes more than a physical manifestation of his dream of freedom and fulfillment but is also a symbol that connects his personal striving with the larger issue of the search for freedom from colonial oppression. In this sense the symbol of the house can be also represent a country or a people who wish to no longer be dominated by others or told what to do and how to behave. Finally he purchases a house in Sikkim street. Although the house is very expensive and not very well built it is, finally, a house for Mr. Biswas. The house is also a symbol of personal power and independence and the dream that the main character has of living by his rules and not the rules of others.
From one perspective this novel is comic with regard to the various and often absurd problems and situations that the main character encounters and in the complex situations that he finds himself in. However, there is also an important level of realism in this novel and it expresses a very serious and even a tragic view of life and reality.
From my point-of-view there are two central and interrelated facets to this novel. The first is the search for independence and freedom that characterizes the life and endeavors of the main character. His early life stresses the sense of humiliation and subservience that is continued in his marriage. The need for personal freedom is manifested in the desire for his own house in which he can make the rules.
However, the second facet or theme of this novel is in my opinion even more important. This refers to the sense of perseverance and the determination that the main character embodies. He never gives up on his desire for freedom and a house; even though he continually fails in his attempts. On one level there is a certain sad humor in his situation but on the other hand one admires the courage and drive that is evident in this character.
As has been referred to, one can also interpret this novel from a larger social and political perspective. The main character’s desire for a house of his own is representative of his search for identity and for a sense of self that is not dominated by others. This can be seen from a less personal perspective in the search of many people for freedom from the grip of colonialism and its legacy in the modern world. In this sense this is a postcolonial novel. Colonialism in Africa and many other parts of the world refers essentially to the domination of others and the forced subjugation of the identity of people and races. The postcolonial world refers to the period after the release from this dominance and to the subsequent attempts to attain some degree of independence and freedom from the rules and norms dictated by others.
In the final analysis this is a novel not only about an individual but is also an exploration of the need for freedom and independence in both the individual and society. In conclusion, I would agree with the following assessment of Mr. Biswas: “Mr. Biswas is ultimately portrayed as a man of quiet dignity, who meets the challenges of his times with grace” (a House for Mr. Biswas).
House for Mr. Biswas. Retrieved January 18, 2009, at http://litsum.com/house-for-mr-biswas/
Study Guide for a House for Mr. Biswas. Retrieved January 18, 2009, at http://www.glencoe.com/sec/literature/litlibrary/pdf/house_for_biswas.pdf
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