Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 562
Half a Life is another of Naipaul’s stories of alienation. In this case, however, the central character is not merely frustrated in his efforts to attain a particular goal; when the book ends, he has reached middle age without finding a purpose for his life.
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The book begins with a seemingly simple question. Willie Chandran, the protagonist, asks his father why his middle name is “Somerset.” At this point, the author turns the narrative over to Willie’s father. His explanation begins in the 1890’s, when Willie’s great-grandfather, a priest, left his impoverished temple for the court of the maharaja, thus beginning his family’s movement up the social ladder. Willie’s father was meant to attend a professional school and to marry the daughter of his college principal. However, he decided to rebel against his Brahman family by taking up with a black, low-caste girl. Since he did not love or even like the woman he had chosen, his home life was miserable. Realizing that their two mixed-race children, Willie and Sarojini, had no future in India, the elder Chandran tried to obtain a college scholarship for his son by contacting English visitors to India with whom he had become casually acquainted, including the writer W. Somerset Maugham, for whom Willie was named. However, either his pleas were ignored or, as in Maugham’s case, received a perfunctory response.
The author now takes control of the story. Willie’s father has obtained a scholarship for him at a mediocre college in London. There Willie finds he can invent himself, glamorizing his lineage by making his mother a member of an ancient Christian sect and calling his father one of the maharajah’s courtiers. Willie becomes a member of a bohemian immigrant group, writes a radio script for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), and produces twenty-six short stories, which are published in book form. He even gains some badly needed sexual expertise. However, a visit from his sister Sarojini shakes his growing self-confidence. As Sarojini points out, Willie’s scholarship will soon expire, and he still has no plans for the future. An encounter with Ana, a girl from Portuguese East Africa who also has a mixed racial background, seems providential. They fall in love, and Willie decides to go home with her. The narrative now jumps ahead eighteen years. Willie tells Ana that he wants a divorce. He is leaving because, as he says, he can no longer live her life.
The final section of the book is Willie’s account of those eighteen years in Mozambique, told to his sister Sarojini at her home in Berlin, Germany. Willie and Ana had both assumed that he would make himself useful on her estate. However, he spends his time socializing with the local landowners, most of them of mixed racial backgrounds, all of them boastful and pretentious. When violence erupts and it becomes clear that the colonial empire is doomed, they begin to flee, and Willie leaves, too, evidently still searching for his identity and for the purpose of his existence so he can live more than “half a life.”
Sources for Further Study
The Christian Science Monitor, October 25, 2001, p. 17.
Far Eastern Economic Review 164 (October 25, 2001): 81.
The New Republic 225 (November 5, 2001): 31.
The New York Review of Books 48 (November 1, 2001): 8.
The New York Times Books Review 106 (October 28, 2001): 9.
The Wall Street Journal, October 26, 2001, p. W10.