Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
A House for Mr. Biswas chronicles the unsettled life and death of Mohun Biswas, who is born into a poor Indian family in rural Trinidad. It is divided into two parts, framed by a prologue and an epilogue.
The last of three sons, Mr. Biswas, as he is referred to throughout, is born with six fingers on each hand at the astrologically inauspicious hour of midnight. This is considered by a Hindu pundit to be a sign of misfortune, and the prediction is confirmed when Mr. Biswas’s father drowns trying to rescue his son from a river. Mr. Biswas becomes dependent on his Aunt Tara and lives with his penniless mother in a mud hut. Tara has plans for him to become a pundit, but his mentor lacks patience with the unruly boy. Sent to work at a rum shop owned by the family, Mr. Biswas is beaten after being falsely accused of stealing, and he vows never to return. He gets a job as a sign writer for local shopkeepers.
When he goes to Hanuman House to paint signs for the Tulsis, a landowning Hindu family, he meets Shama, a sixteen-year-old girl. The Tulsis arrange a marriage, which Mr. Biswas is powerless to resist. Moving into Hanuman House, he feels trapped and lost in a house that is full of Tulsi daughters, sons-in-law, and children. He receives no dowry and no job, and he acquires a reputation as clown and troublemaker. After a fight with one of the sons-in-law, he moves to The Chase, a settlement of mud huts in the sugar-cane area, and runs a...
(The entire section is 738 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: British and Commonwealth Fiction Series)
When Mohun Biswas died of heart trouble at forty-six, jobless and penniless, leaving a wife, four children still in school, and a three-thousand-dollar mortgage on a poorly constructed house, it might seem that he was a failure in life. In his own eyes, however, Mr. Biswas was triumphant. Not only had he won one of the two great battles of his life (his wife, Shama Biswas, had finally learned to put her husband and her children ahead of the family into which she was born, the enormous Tulsi clan), but also he had bought his own house on his own land, thus providing a place for his family to be a family. In the prologue to the novel, V. S. Naipaul reveals Mr. Biswas’ sense of satisfaction with his achievements, while at the same time realistically describing the house of which he is so proud. The story then moves backward in time to the birth of Mohun Biswas and proceeds chronologically, concluding with his funeral.
Mr. Biswas, as he is called throughout the novel, was born in a mud hut on a sugar estate, born backward, with a sixth finger, and thus obviously ill-fated from birth. His asthmatic father put all the children to work as soon as possible, and he was delighted when this luckless boy got an opportunity to make some money tending a calf. Unfortunately, the boy lost the calf, which drowned, and his father drowned diving for the frightened and missing boy. Thus, early in his life, Mr. Biswas had caused the death of his father and the breakup of...
(The entire section is 1025 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Mr. Biswas has been fired from his job as a reporter for the Trinidad Sentinel at a time when he can ill afford such a misfortune. He has been sick with a protracted illness and is without money. A huge loan that he took out to buy his present home has to be paid back. Two of his children are still in school; two are abroad on scholarship. His wife, Shama, may need to seek help from her family, the Tulsi clan.
The narrative shifts to the birth of Mr. Biswas. Dire predictions follow the inauspicious event. Mr. Biswas—his first name, Mohun, is never used, even in his childhood—is born with six fingers and in the wrong way. The midwife declares that he will devour his parents, meaning utter ruination for the family. In keeping with Hindu tradition, a pundit is invited to compose the baby’s astrological chart: He foretells that the boy will have good teeth but with gaps in between, a sign of lechery, extravagance, and lying.
Bipti, Mr. Biswas’s mother, is warned to keep him away from water in its natural form. Mr. Biswas’s sneezes, the pundit tells her with strange relish, will spell doom. The pundit says that evil surrounds the boy; however, much of it will be assuaged if his father does not see him for twenty-one days. The family observes this injunction; Raghu is turned away when he comes to see the newborn child. Of the ominous possibilities that the pundit and others predict, many are averted. A few, on the other hand, are...
(The entire section is 1164 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
A House for Mr. Biswas, the fourth and last of the early novels, is important to the study of Naipaul for several reasons. Although it resembles its predecessors in that it is set in Trinidad, in this work for the first time the comic tone becomes more nearly tragicomic. While Naipaul still treats many of the characters satirically, his protagonist, Mohun Biswas, is likable, even admirable, in his struggle to gain self-respect and the respect of others and to make enough money to buy his own house. A House for Mr. Biswas is also important because it is Naipaul’s most autobiographical work, reflecting closely his father’s life and his own childhood. For this reason, the author comments in his foreword to the 1984 Vintage Books edition of the work that, of all of his books, this is the one that means the most to him. Naipaul’s critics also place a high value on the novel. Many of them consider it to be his masterpiece.
Naipaul’s initial chapters generally indicate the theme and the major motifs of his novels. The prologue to A House for Mr. Biswas is really the end of the story, describing as it does the disastrous ending of Mr. Biswas’s life, when, at forty-six, the father of four children, penniless, debt-ridden, and ill, he is fired from his job and lies waiting to die in the ill-constructed house that was his life’s goal.
In the first chapter of A House for Mr. Biswas, as in the prologue to...
(The entire section is 667 words.)
The novel begins with the fact that Mr. Mohun Biswas, a journalist who lived on Sikkim Street in the St. James district of Port of Spain (the capital of Trinidad and Tobago), was fired from his position at the Trinidad Sentinel ten weeks before he died. Before his death, he had been ill for quite some time, spending so long at the hospital and recuperating at his home that, eventually, the paper was forced to let him go, giving him three months' notice and a complementary lifetime subscription.
At this point in his life, Mr. Biswas is forty-six years old. He and his wife, Shama, have four children. Mr. Biswas is barely able to afford the interest payment on the mortgage of the house on Sikkim Street where he and his family live. This, along with the expense of sending his children to school, results in Mr. Biswas having almost no money. He is, however, glad for one thing: that, after ten years of marriage, his wife no longer runs to her in-laws (the Tulsis) for money. Instead, she devises a plan to sell potatoes for extra income, though the plan never comes to fruition.
Despite the immense debt he owes, Mr. Biswas takes great pleasure in the fact that he owns his own house. The sense of privacy and individualism it gives him is unlike anything in his previous experiences. The house itself is a strange, two-story design that is mostly comprised of frames from old American Army camps, and is one of many odd houses that a solicitor's clerk built in his spare time some years before. The floors are linked by an incredibly inconvenient staircase, and all of the front rooms are virtually uninhabitable during the day because there is no protection from the sun. As the history of the house is recounted, it becomes clear that Shama did not agree with the decision to buy the house, and, furthermore, that Mr. Biswas was not aware of the house's faults until after he had bought it. By the end of his life, however, he and his family have virtually ceased to notice the house's faults, as it has simply become their house. And when Mr. Biswas returns from the hospital for the final time, he is overcome by the fact that his house and all of his possessions, from the kitchen safe to his Slumberking bed, are all part of a world that he somehow made.
(The entire section is 409 words.)
Part I, Chapter 1 Summary
Not long before Mr. Biswas is born, his mother, Bipti, and his father, Raghu, have one of their frequent arguments. Bipti takes her three children and returns to the village where her mother and father live. Bipti's mother, Bissoondaye, sends for the midwife, who delivers the newborn Mohun Biswas later that night. The midwife is alarmed because he has been born with six fingers, and she claims that he will eat up his parents. The next morning the pundit, a local holy man, comes to prophesize about the child's future. He advises that the child should be kept away from trees and water, and says that he will have an unlucky sneeze.
Although Mr. Biswas' sixth finger simply comes off one night before he is more than two weeks old, many of the family do start to believe that unlucky things will happen after they hear him sneeze. Raghu, who reconciles with Bipti after his son's birth, refuses to go to work on any mornings after hearing his son sneeze, out of fear that something will go wrong. The one day he disregards this rule ends with him returning home after being injured at work.
As Mr. Biswas gets older, he is unable to join his brothers, Prasad and Pratap, at their job herding the buffalo to and from the buffalo pond, as he is forbidden to go near water. Mr. Biswas expects that he will go to work cutting grass and end up working on the local sugarcane estate until he is hired to watch his neighbor's calf and to take it for walks. One day, while taking the calf for a walk, Mr. Biswas discovers the small stream where his mother and sister, Dehuti, do the washing on Sundays. He is fascinated by the flowing water and continues to return to it in the course of his walks with the calf.
One day, while watching the fish in the stream, Mr. Biswas loses track of the calf. After looking everywhere, he decides simply to return home and hide until someone else finds the calf. He hides underneath the bed in his father's room and hears his neighbor, Dhari, ask the family where Mohun and the calf are. Immediately, the family is concerned, although Dhari is more interested in finding the calf. Everyone thinks Mr. Biswas and the calf must be in the buffalo pond. Raghu insists that he be the one to dive to the bottom of the pond. After several long dives, he comes up with the body of the calf. He makes one more dive to look for his son. While he is under water, the others hear a sneeze and see Mr. Biswas standing on the bank....
(The entire section is 568 words.)
Part I, Chapter 2 Summary
After Mohun Biswas moves to Pagotes with his mother and sister, he finds out that he must have a birth certificate to continue taking classes at the Canadian Mission School. His mother and aunt take him to see the solicitor F. Z. Ghany, who completes the necessary paperwork and allows Mr. Biswas to return to school.
As a student, Mr. Biswas learns a number of speeches in English as well as geography, arithmetic, and history. He befriends another boy at school, Alec, from whom he learns the art of sign painting.
Although no one in his family is very well off, Mr. Biswas is treated quite well whenever his aunt, Tara, has a feast for one of the many religious festivals. As a Brahmin, he is waited on by his sister (who works as a servant in Tara's house) and given gifts of money. As soon as he leaves the feast, though, he immediately returns to the small shack he shares with his mother.
At this time, Biswas also begins to read a weekly newspaper column to Tara's husband, Ajodha. Tara sees that he shows promise as a potential pundit, a kind of Hindu wise man, and takes him out of school to apprentice him to Jairam, the local pundit.
As Jairam's assistant, Mr. Biswas helps him with the various duties involved in his office, including assisting in the religious ceremonies, counting the gifts given to Jairam, and doing the puja for Jairam's household.
On one occasion, Jairam is given a large bunch of bananas. Mohun is unable to resist the temptation and one day while Jairam and his wife are out, he eats two of the bananas. When Jairam notices, he teaches Mohun a lesson by making him eat every last one of the bananas, which results in a swelled stomach that troubles him for the rest of his life.
Not long after that, Mr. Biswas completely destroys his relationship with Jairam by improperly using and then disposing of an unclean handkerchief, which results in Jairam chasing him away.
After Mr. Biswas returns to Pagotes in disgrace, Tara finds him a job working in a rumshop owned by Ajodha's brother, Bhandat. Before long, Bhandat accuses Mohun (who is innocent) of stealing from him and strikes his face with his belt. Although Bhandat apologizes, Mr. Biswas refuses to return to work at the rumshop and decides he will set out on his own and look for a job.
At first, he is unable to locate any work and becomes discouraged. One day, however, he runs into his...
(The entire section is 455 words.)
Part I, Chapter 3 Summary
After he gains some experience designing and painting signs, Mr. Biswas takes a job at Hanuman House in the town of Arwacas. Hanuman House is home to both the Tulsi store and the Tulsi family, one of the most prominent families in the region.
The patriarch of the family, Pundit Tulsi, was killed in a car accident some years before, but not before he amassed quite a bit of money. There was, in fact, some speculation about the origin of his fortune as he was not a laborer and still maintained relations with his family in India, which made him different from almost everyone else in the Indian community of Trinidad.
His daughter, Mrs. Tulsi, and her brother-in-law Seth are now the primary managers of the Tulsi family estate and fortune, and they are the ones who hire Mr. Biswas to paint the signs for Hanuman House.
As he works, Mr. Buswas begins to take a special interest in Shama, one of Mrs. Tulsi's daughters who, like the other women in the family, helps around the shop. After exchanging glances with her for several days, Mr. Biswas decides to write her a note, which he leaves on the counter for her to find.
Before she can read it, however, Shama gets caught up in a dispute with one of the customers, who thinks Shama is trying to play a trick on her. Mrs. Tulsi tries to appease the customer, pacifying her by giving her a free pair of stockings, but she ends up seeing the note Mr. Biswas left for Shama.
Before he leaves for the day, Seth tells Mohun that Mrs. Tulsi wants to see him. At first, he is afraid she will chastise and perhaps fire him, but instead she asks about his family and whether he has thought about getting married. The next day, Mrs. Tulsi invites him to eat lunch with her and, by the end of the meal, Mr. Biswas agrees to marry Shama.
Although his mother is very happy, Mr. Biswas begins to have doubts; he realizes that he was only chosen for Shama because he is a Brahmin and that the Tulsis have no intention of providing him with a dowry. Furthermore, he realizes that marriage to Shama means that he will, in effect, become a Tulsi and be expected to work for the family, something that depresses him greatly.
After Mr. Biswas marries Shama, he begins living at Hanuman House. His fears of being unhappy and of being an overlooked member of the Tulsi family come to pass. He argues with Mrs. Tulsi and Seth, he is disrespected by the children in the house,...
(The entire section is 549 words.)
Part I, Chapter 4 Summary
Mr. Biswas and Shama, who is now pregnant, move to The Chase, a rural village in the middle of the sugarcane fields, to run a small food shop. They live at the back of the shop in two small rooms with mud walls and a floor of beaten earth.
Although Seth has heard that a new road eventually will be built through The Chase, bringing the shop new business, this never comes to pass and the store remains mostly unprofitable. After they settle in, Shama makes a meal in the small kitchen in the yard. Although their surroundings and prospects are somewhat depressing, Mr. Biswas takes some satisfaction in eating a meal prepared in a house that is his own.
After they establish the business, Mr. Biswas and Shama have the rest of the Tulsi family out for a house-blessing ceremony. Despite Shama's best efforts, Mr. Biswas ends up quarreling with some of the Tulsi chidren and Mrs. Tulsi, which leads to another fight between Mohun and Shama.
When Shama returns to Hanuman House for her confinement, Mr. Biswas continues to argue with the Tulsis. He refuses to let the baby keep the name Seth decided on, Basso, and changes the birth certificate himself to Lakshmi, although the baby girl is referred to as Savi.
After Mr. Biswas returns to The Chase, he is visited by a man named Moti, who appears to be some kind of clerk. Moti asks Mohun if he knows L. S. Seebaran, who according to Moti is a very strict Hindu and one of the best lawyers around.
Moti asks Mohun if he has many customers who owe him. Mr. Biswas has, in fact, extended credit to many people, which is one of the main reasons he is in debt. One man in particular, Mungroo, owes Mr. Biswas quite a bit of money, but Biswas is afraid to approach him because he is a renowned stick fighter.
Moti tells him that Seebaran easily can fix the situation. He returns a few days later and says Seebaran gladly will take the case as soon as Mr. Biswas gives him an advance. A few days after that, Moti returns to tell him the case is going well except that Mungroo's lawyer has filed a suit against Mr. Biswas for damaging Mungroo's reputation.
At Seebaran's advice, Mr. Biswas settles out of court by paying Mungroo a substantial fee to drop the case. Only later does he realize that the whole thing was a scam set up by Seebaran, Moti and Mungroo's lawyer.
After yet another quarrel, Shama returns to Hanuman House for the birth of their...
(The entire section is 544 words.)