(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

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 small, decrepit food shop owned by the Tulsis. After six years of boredom there, while Shama bears him a daughter, Savi, and a son, Anand, he moves to a squalid barracks in Green Vale while working as a suboverseer on the Tulsi land. Still feeling trapped, he dreams of building his own house.

Determined to realize his ambition...

(The entire section is 738 words.)


(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

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 family. After he left the mud hut, he was to be homeless and alone for thirty-five years, wandering from place to place and changing from occupation to occupation. That odyssey is the story line of the novel.

The first jobs by which Mr. Biswas tries to secure his future are dismal failures. His apprenticeship to a pundit leaves him with a permanent stomach problem, caused by his being forced to eat seven bananas as a punishment for having taken two from the pundit’s bunch. The resulting nervous stomach and constipation prevent his being able to function in the strict religious timetable, and he leaves in disgrace. The second job procured for him by a well-to-do uncle is in a rumshop run by the uncle’s brother. Unfortunately, the manager, who steals regularly from the business, accuses Mr. Biswas of theft and beats him. This time, Mr. Biswas quits, resolving to find his own work. When an enterprising friend employs him as an assistant sign painter, his life is destined to change, for the job takes him to Hanuman House and to the...

(The entire section is 1025 words.)