How does V.S. Naipaul's Half a Life relate to history and race?

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Noelle Thompson | High School Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The novel Half a Life, especially when put through the lens of Naipaul's own life, has a very important connection to both history and race.

The historical issues of Naipaul's novel relate both to the Indian caste system and the British colonization of India.  Scholars argue whether the caste system is "ancient fact" or simply imposed by the British during their colonization.  Regardless, the caste system separates all Indians into their hereditary groups.  We can see the Indian caste system portrayed quite well with Willie's father's part of the story as he relates how Willie's great-grandfather left his poverty to join the court of the maharaja in India in the late nineteenth century.  This is an almost unimaginable move up the ladder of the caste system.  Unimaginable because it almost never happens, and is almost impossible to do.  However, as a result of this move, Willie himself becomes a Hindu of the higher caste in India.  There is also a connection to the British colonization of India in the fact that Willie gets a scholarship to a college in London and is able to go there, an "honor" reserved only for the high caste members.

In my opinion, however, it is race that overtakes history as a theme in Half a Life.  On racial issue involves Willie's father.  In a state of a young man's rebellion, he scoffs at the traditional path (where he was slated to marry the daughter of a prominent man in the community) and chooses the nontraditional path (by intermarrying with a black girl in a lower caste than himself).  Willie's father does not do this out of love or passion, but he does it in order to indicate rebellion against his Brahman roots.  As a result, Willie's father is miserable at home and now has two racially mixed children:  Willie and his sister, Sarojini.  Because of Willie's father's "racial" decisions, the two children are now looked down upon in Indian (and British) society.

Willie tries to overcome his racial handicaps through his wiles and intelligence when he leaves India goes to college in London; however, it doesn't work. 

His ignorance seemed to widen with everything he read.

How does Willie use his wiles?  He paints his own picture of his ancestry by idolizing his mother with rare and ancient Christian lineage and idolizing his father with his connections with the Indian maharajah.  It is a visit from Willie's sister, Sarojini, that shocks Willie back into his racial caste and breaks his bubble indicating that Willie's scholarship is the only reason he is able to be there. 

Furthering the theme of multiracial relations, Willie chooses a similar route to his father when he chooses to marry Ana who has roots from East Africa.  Willie, though, marries out of love instead of rebellion.  Willie, as a result, becomes more and more multiracial.  Because of all of his decisions to mix the races (and also showing a big connection with his father) Willie socially mingles only with mixed-race people, but does almost no work.  He eventually divorces Ana, still looking for his identity racially and, by the end of the novel, is STILL searching for meaning as he lives "half a life."

Life doesn't have a neat beginning and a tidy end; life is always going on. You should begin in the middle and end in the middle, and it should be all there.
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