Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
A House for Mr. Biswas was Naipaul’s fourth novel, following The Mystic Masseur (1957), The Suffrage of Elvira (1958), and Miguel Street (1959). All four are set in Trinidad. A House for Mr. Biswas is usually considered the finest of these novels and one of the masterpieces of comic writing to appear since World War II.
The model for Mr. Biswas was Naipaul’s own father, Seepersad Naipaul, and there are numerous parallels between events in Seepersad’s life and that of the fictional Mr. Biswas. For example, Seepersad worked as a sign painter, became a journalist on a Trinidad newspaper, and died of a heart attack at the age of forty-six (as does Mr. Biswas). Some events in the novel draw on Naipaul’s own experiences as a child.
Apart from its comic verve and its masterful interweaving of plot, character, and imagery to create a unified work of art, the novel is important because of its authentic portrayal of Indian life in colonial Trinidad, a culture that had hardly been portrayed in earlier literature. The novel also creates a picture of the changes this culture underwent over a fifty-year period and shows how these were linked to wider historical events. However, although it is set firmly in a particular place and time, the importance of the novel rests ultimately on the universality of its theme: the struggle of an ordinary man to carve out a place for himself in the face of the absurdity of life, its unwillingness to bend itself to the demands of human will.