The Middle Passage

by V. S. Naipaul

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 402

At the time of Naipaul’s return to Trinidad and the experiences described in The Middle Passage, he had already established himself as a young writer of considerable promise. He was seen to be a part of the West Indian literary renaissance which had begun in the late 1940’s; in the view of some critics, however, his talent was devoted rather narrowly to writing unkind comedies of manners about a minority group on a remote and insignificant island. Among his West Indian audience, there were questions as to where Naipaul saw himself in relation to his subject matter; his sometimes derisive laughter was clearly not as warm and sympathetic as that of his fellow Trinidadian novelist Samuel Selvon.

Naipaul’s trip came at a crucial time. Shortly before returning to Trinidad, he had completed but not yet published A House for Mr. Biswas (1961), a novel which some still regard as his first and preeminent masterpiece. This novel ended his period of apprenticeship and revealed an artistic range and a darkness of vision only hinted at in his earlier books. In writing A House for Mr. Biswas Naipaul was able to come to terms with his own early life, the life of his father, and the hermetic Trinidadian Hindu community, turning what might have been only personal or parochial concerns into a story with tragic and universal dimensions. In a sense, writing this novel liberated him to write The Middle Passage, an exploration of the wider social context in which he was reared. In The Middle Passage Naipaul eschewed the personal evasions possible to the writer of fiction and boldly spoke in his own voice about his vision of the colonial society. Soon after completing this first book of nonfiction, Naipaul took the next step on his journey of self-discovery, a voyage to India, the land of his ancestors, recounted in An Area of Darkness: An Experience of India (1964). Since then Naipaul has traveled widely and written about the spiritually unaccommodated and culturally rootless, especially in those places which receive little attention from the rest of the world. Beginning with The Middle Passage, Naipaul’s nonfiction has also employed a quality of observation and a sheer technical brilliance which elevates most of it far beyond the level of superior journalism; it must be seen as an integral part of the artistic oeuvre of one of the late twentieth century’s most important writers.

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