(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.)

A House for Mr. Biswas Summary

(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.)

A House for Mr. Biswas Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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 strangely fulfilled in Mr. Biswas’s childhood. Raghu drowns when he dives into a pond because he fears that Mr. Biswas has drowned in it. Mr. Biswas, meanwhile, has been hiding because he has lost a neighbor’s calf entrusted to his care with a little sum of money. He shows up by the pond and sneezes just when Raghu’s lifeless body is being retrieved.

With no means of support, Bipti sells the little hut and land that Raghu left behind and moves her family of three boys and a daughter from South Trinidad to Pagotes, under the protection of her wealthy sister Tara. Years later, when Mr. Biswas visits the area, he sees no trace of his former dwelling. Oil has been discovered on the land that Bipti sold so cheaply, and the area is bustling with drilling activity.

The family splits up in Pagotes. Mr. Biswas’s two older brothers are sent to live with a distant relation and work in sugar estates. Mr. Biswas lives with Bipti and goes to a local school for six years. His sister Dehuti, whom he rarely sees, works as a servant for Tara. Tara decides to make a pundit out of Mr. Biswas and sends him to Jairam to receive the appropriate training, which Mr. Biswas does not enjoy at all. When he eats two bananas without asking permission, Mr. Biswas is punished by Jairam. The pundit tells him to eat all the bananas in the big bunch, but Mr. Biswas manages to eat only seven...

(The entire section is 1164 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas Summary

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical 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 Suffrage of Elvira, Naipaul uses what seem like trivial events to set the pattern of the novel. Mohun’s being born backward and having a sixth finger should...

(The entire section is 667 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas Chapter Summaries

A House for Mr. Biswas Prologue Summary

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...

(The entire section is 409 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas 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...

(The entire section is 568 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas 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...

(The entire section is 455 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas 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...

(The entire section is 549 words.)

A House for Mr. Biswas 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 entire section is 544 words.)