V. S. Naipaul Naipaul, V. S. (Vol. 105) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

V. S. Naipaul 1932–

Trinidadian-born English novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist, and nonfiction writer.

The following entry presents criticism of Naipaul's work through 1995. For further information on his life and career, see CLC, Volumes 4, 7, 9, 13, 18, and 37.

Often referred to as "the world's writer," Naipaul is both one of the most highly regarded and one of the most controversial of contemporary writers. His ironic accounts of colonial and postcolonial Third World societies have drawn acclaim from North America and Europe, but they generally have not met with the same favor in Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean for their negative portrayal of the peoples of those regions. Much of Naipaul's work deals with individuals who feel estranged from the societies they are supposedly a part of and who are desperately seeking a way "to belong."

Biographical Information

Naipaul was born in Trinidad in 1932 to Seepersad and Dropatie Capildeo Naipaul, the descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India. After attending Queens Royal College, Trinidad's leading secondary school, he was awarded a government scholarship to study abroad, which led him to University College, Oxford, in 1950. After leaving Oxford in 1954, Naipaul worked briefly in the cataloguing department of the National Portrait Gallery in London before taking a position with the British Broadcasting Corporation, writing and editing for the program Caribbean Voices. It was during this period that he began to write stories for what was eventually to become Miguel Street (1959). By 1961, Naipaul's reputation in Britain was already considerable; he was the author of three successful books, two of which had won prizes (the 1958 John Llewellyn Rhys Memorial Prize for The Mystic Masseur [1959] and the 1961 Somerset Maugham Award for Miguel Street). Naipaul spent much of the 1960's traveling abroad, visiting India, a number of African nations, and his native Trinidad. These travels provided Naipaul with a wealth of material and served as the motivation for works such as The Middle Passage (1962) and An Area of Darkness (1964). By 1971, Naipaul had won all of Britain's leading literary awards, including the 1971 Booker Prize for In a Free State (1971). During the 1970s, Naipaul continued to travel for his literary inspiration. His book of essays, The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (1980), is drawn from his visits to Trinidad, Zaire, and Argentina and focuses on the dangers of charismatic political leadership. Among the Believers (1981) is based on Naipaul's journeys in the Middle and Far East, in which he recounts his personal attempt to explain the "Islamic revival." Most of Naipaul's work during the late 1980s and 1990s has consisted of similar material garnered from his travels; A Turn in the South (1989) describes his travels in "the old slave states of the American southeast," and India (1991) explores the character of the people of India. Naipaul's most recent work, A Way in the World (1994), is a collection of partly autobiographical, partly fictional character sketches that are linked in some way to the Caribbean region. Naipaul and his wife, Patricia Hale, live in London, England.

Major Works

Critics generally agree that Naipaul's finest work is A House for Mr. Biswas (1961). Set in Trinidad, the novel is both a minutely circumstantial account of an individual's life and an allegory of the East Indian's situation in Trinidad, or of the colonial predicament more generally. Mr. Biswas, the main character, is Naipaul's Third World "Everyman," in search of his role in the world—more specifically, a home he can call his own. This sense of "rootlessness" is a recurrent theme in Naipaul's work and stems from his unique background: he was born in Trinidad to the descendants of Hindu immigrants from northern India and educated at England's Oxford University. Another convention of Naipaul's work, one for which he has drawn the ire of many Third World nations, including his native Trinidad, is his depiction of the peoples of these nations as culturally inferior. In The Middle Passage, for instance, Naipaul refers to the people of Port of Spain, Trinidad's capital, as "monkeys pleading for evolution, each claiming to be better than the other, Indians and Negroes appeal to the unacknowledged white audience to see how much they despise each other."

Critical Reception

Naipaul is widely considered one of the world's finest authors. His prose exhibits narrative skill and command of language, especially dialect. Many critics consider his early fiction (The Mystic Masseur, Miguel Street, A House for Mr. Biswas) superior to his later work, but it is generally agreed upon that the social awareness displayed early in his career has become more prominent in his more recent books. His negative appraisal of life in the Third World has met with a great deal of controversy, especially in novels such as In a Free State, Guerrillas (1975), and A Bend in the River (1979). Each of these works contain elements of sexual and political violence within an atmosphere of impending chaos, prompting reviewers to conclude that Naipaul finds Third World societies essentially hopeless. Among the Believers intensified the controversy surrounding Naipaul's work; his scathing portrait of civil and social disorder attributed to Islamic fanaticism in Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Indonesia prompted some critics to accuse Naipaul of merely confirming preconceived notions about his subject rather than attempting a deeper analysis of Islam. Naipaul's work continues to draw mixed reviews, due mainly to his subjective approach rather than his prose.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Suffrage of Elvira (novel) 1958
The Mystic Masseur (novel) 1959
Miguel Street (novel) 1959
A House for Mr. Biswas (novel) 1961
The Middle Passage: Impressions of Five Societies—British, French and Dutch—in the West Indies and South America (nonfiction) 1962
An Area of Darkness (nonfiction) 1964
In a Free State (novel) 1971
Guerillas (novel) 1975
A Bend in the River (novel) 1979
The Return of Eva Perón; with The Killings in Trinidad (essays) 1980
Among the Believers: An Islamic Journey (nonfiction) 1981
Finding the Centre (nonfiction) 1984
The Enigma of Arrival (novel) 1987
A Turn in the South (nonfiction) 1989
India: A Million Mutinies (nonfiction) 1990
A Way in the World (novel) 1994

John Mander (review date June 1965)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Anglo-Indian Theme," in Commentary, Vol. 39, No. 6, June, 1965, pp. 94-7.

[In the following review, Mander praises Naipaul's descriptive powers, but notes that An Area of Darkness is similar to other novels that explore British influence in colonial India.]

From their duration, their intimacy, and intensity, an outsider might take Anglo-Indian relations to be one of the richest and most fascinating of historical themes. The British, after all, ruled India for some two centuries—sending out, not the riffraff of their cities, but many of their finest minds and wisest spirits. And India was not always unresponsive. The great Bengali reformers of the 19th century were equally determined to revive India's traditions and to bring India the best in modern European thinking—which tended to mean Bentham and the two Mills (the elder Mill, of course, was one of the greatest of all British servants of India). Yet, by the end of the century, the mood had gone sour. It was in Bengal that the first anti-British terrorist campaign was to break out. In Kipling's Kim there is an affection and respect for India and the ways of its natives—though not for the new, Western-educated "native"—that reflected the experience of many a British District Collector in the 1880's. How much of this was left by the 1920's may be judged from E.M. Forster's A Passage to India—an accurate book in this (though not in every) respect. Again, the powerful impress of British institutions on contemporary India can mislead, as the Englishness of a Nehru misled. Nehru's successor—and his possible successors—are distinctly less English, less Western, distinctly more traditional, more Hindu. The course of Anglo-Indian relations has its bursts of grandeur; but on the whole it is a wretched story. It never was a marriage of true minds; to many it seems in retrospect more like a squalid mésalliance.

That this is a sad, indeed a tragic, outcome for both Britain and India hardly needs to be stressed. And there are wider implications. After all, if India and Britain, with their long historical intimacy, understood one another so little, what of those other, briefer colonial relationships between the West and the Third World? Was each bedeviled by the same mutual misunderstanding? Will the outcome, mutual resentment and repudiation, prove to be the same? Perhaps it is still too early to say. It is perfectly arguable that each colonial relationship should be considered for itself. What Oscar Mannoni, in his Prospero and Caliban, says of French-Malagassy relations may, or may not, be true of French-Guinean relations, or of relations between Australians and aborigines, Dutchmen and Indonesians. India, in other words, may be a special case: the tragedy of the Anglo-Indian encounter may prove nothing. My own inclinations are toward the position taken up by Mannoni: that there are useful generalizations to be made about the colonial relationship. Prospero and Caliban can never be made equal partners by political decree—if only because, in Mannoni's psychological terms, Prospero has willed Caliban into being, and Caliban Prospero. What, even now, can be said with some assurance is that the act of independence does not put an end to the unequal relationship. Even the comparatively innocent American has to live with the psychological burden of colonialism bequeathed to him by his white brother-nations. Even for him, therefore, the question of whether or not India is a special case assumes some importance.

Yet this potentially rich and fascinating field has been surprisingly little explored. In Britain, the generation under forty knows almost nothing of India, and cares less. For those over forty who once lived and labored in India, the Raj is a fading dream: there are still strong sentimental ties, especially among military men, but they will hardly survive their generation. In India itself, Britain might appear to loom large: the image of the Raj is still powerful, perhaps more powerful in the glow of retrospective emulation than in the days of its actual glory. But the Britain the new Hindu Raj emulates is not the Britain of Harold Wilson, Kingsley Amis, and the Beatles. The living link has snapped. The Britain that is admired is an...

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Ronald Bryden (interview date 22 March 1973)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novelist V. S. Naipaul Talks about His Work to Ronald Bryden," in The Listener, Vol. 89, March 22, 1973, pp. 367-70.

[In the following interview, Naipaul discusses various aspects of his work, including the development of his book, The Loss of El Dorado.]

I wrote in one of my early articles that London was for me a good place to work in. I suppose one was always aware of other minds. London was a place where one encountered a generous reaction—from publishers, critics, newspapers—and so one had constant stimulus, minds brushing against minds. But fairly early on I felt that I had to get out and look at the world, otherwise I was just going to shrivel...

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Benjamin DeMott (review date 15 November 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Lost Worlds, Lost Heroes," in Saturday Review, Vol. 3, No. 4, November 15, 1975, pp. 24-5.

[In the following review, DeMott calls Guerillas "continuously interesting," but argues that its protagonist lacks "substance," due more to changes in the socio-political climate of the day than Naipaul's skills as a writer.]

A political novel, Guerillas takes for its hero an Orwellian Englishman named Peter Roche, who endures imprisonment and torture while serving the anti-apartheid cause in South Africa, and then moves on to Trinidad, obsessed now as before by the suffering of black people. For a time his tropical service as an anti-racist seems tame,...

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John Spurling (essay date December 1975)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Novelist as Dictator," in Encounter, Vol. XLV, No. 6, December, 1975, pp. 73-6.

[In the following excerpt, Spurling argues that Naipaul does not permit his readers to form their own impressions of his characters and their surroundings; instead, he imposes his outlook "dictatorially."]

Reviewing a book in The Times [London] early last year, Richard Holmes wrote of "that frontal advance of the biographic form … which now surely promises to make the biography, as a genre, the most fruitful in contemporary English writing." His own special interest in it being so was revealed a few months later when he published a weighty reappraisal of Shelley. All...

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Anthony Boxill (essay date 1976)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Paradox of Freedom: V. S. Naipaul's In a Free State," in Critique: Studies in Modern Fiction, Vol. XVIII, No. 1, pp. 81-91.

[In the following essay, Boxill discusses the paradoxical nature of freedom and the symbolic "prisons" in Naipaul's In a Free State.]

Prison is an important presence in V.S. Naipaul's first-written book, Miguel Street, and it is, if anything, more central in his recent In A Free State. Although the characters in Miguel Street live in the shadow of an actual jail, Naipaul suggests that Miguel Street and Trinidad itself are both so limiting as to deserve to be seen as wider prisons in which the characters...

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Gordon Rohlehr (essay date 1977)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Ironic Approach: The Novels of V. S. Naipaul," in Critical Perspectives on V. S. Naipaul, Heinemann Educational Books, 1977, pp. 178-93.

[In the following essay, Rohlehr discusses Naipaul's ironic approach toward and "sympathetic rejection" of Trinidadian culture.]

About Naipaul's first three novels George Lamming writes in The Pleasures of Exile:

His books can't move beyond a castrated satire; and although satire may be a useful element in fiction, no important work comparable to Selvon's can rest safely on satire alone. When such a writer is a colonial, ashamed of his cultural background and striving like...

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John L. Brown (essay date Spring 1983)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "V. S. Naipaul: A Wager on the Triumph of Darkness," in World Literature Today, Vol. 57, No. 2, Spring, 1983, pp. 223-27.

[In the following essay, Brown praises Naipaul's skill as a novelist, focusing on his "dark" vision of the world.]

V.S. Naipaul has traveled far since his Trinidad beginnings. He was born there in 1932, a third-generation West Indian of Hindu ancestry. His father, a reporter with literary ambitions, encouraged his son to study and write. Even as a very young man Naipaul was determined to get away from the narrow, neocolonial world of his birth. At eighteen he left for England, took an Oxford degree, worked for the BBC, began to write. With...

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James Atlas (interview date March 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "V. S. vs. The Rest," in Vanity Fair, Vol. 50, March, 1987, pp. 64-8.

[In the following interview, Atlas offers insight into Naipaul's methods and motivations]

"Whatever the labor of any piece of writing, whatever its creative challenges and satisfactions, time had always taken me away from it," recalls V.S. Naipaul in The Enigma of Arrival, out this month from Knopf. "And, with time passing, I felt mocked by what I had already done; it seemed to belong to a time of vigor, now past for good. Emptiness, restlessness built up again; and it was necessary once more, out of my internal resources alone, to start on another book, to commit myself to that...

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Patrick Parrinder (essay date 1987)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Novel for Our Time: V. S. Naipaul's Guerrillas," in The Failure of Theory: Essays on Criticism and Contemporary Fiction, The Harvester Press, 1987, pp. 185-206.

[In the following essay, Parrinder addresses a number of themes in Guerrillas, including the notion of the "Noble Robber" and sexual violation.]


I think there's an element of nostalgia in reading Hardy, and even in reading Dickens or George Eliot. There is narrative there, the slow development of character, and people are longing for this vanished, ordered world. Today, every man's experience of dislocation is so private that unless a...

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Ian Buruma (review date 14 February 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Signs of Life," in New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991, pp. 3-5.

[In the following review, Buruma praises Naipaul for his depiction of India and its people as they struggle to achieve what Naipaul calls "universal civilization."]

Near the end of V.S. Naipaul's first book about India, An Area of Darkness, there is an unforgettable piece of writing. It is a description of his visit to the village of the Dubes. It was from there that Naipaul's grandfather left for Trinidad around the turn of the century as an indentured laborer. Naipaul, "content to be a colonial, without a past, without ancestors," visits his ancestral village with a feeling of...

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Richard Eder (review date 22 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Root of Rootlessness," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, pp. 3, 11.

[In the following review, Eder argues that by "refusing to conceal or temper his own crabby vision," Naipaul achieves a "unique authenticity" in his A Way in the World.]

The word Caribbean may conjure up all kinds of vivid colors, but to V. S. Naipaul it suggests gray: a land and seascape bleached out by unmediated sun and a counterfeit history. It is the gray in the face of a professional entertainer the morning after a late night.

The displacing and alienating effects of a colonial past on today's post-colonial peoples has been Naipaul's leading...

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Brent Staples (review date 22 May 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Con Men and Conquerors," in The New York Times Book Review, May 22, 1994, pp. 1, 42-3.

[In the following review, Staples praises A Way in the World, calling it a "probing meditation on the relationships among personal, national and world histories."]

Few writers of V. S. Naipaul's stature have been so consistently and aggressively misread on account of ethnic and racial literary politics. Much of the criticism stems not from what Mr. Naipaul writes but from expectations about what he ought to write given that he is a brown man (of Indian descent) born into the brown and black society that is Trinidad. Alas, after a 40-year voyage as a writer, Mr....

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William H. Pritchard (essay date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Naipaul's Written World," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 587-96.

[In the following essay, Pritchard argues that Naipaul's "decline as a novelist" can be attributed to his "banishment" of irony and humor in his later works.]

V. S. Naipaul's twenty-second book is an occasion for looking over his extraordinary career and considering how much it weighs and what parts of it weigh most. That he hasn't yet won the Nobel Prize is continuing matter for speculation and doubtless has to do with his outspoken airings of prejudices that are insufficiently liberal. Reviewing the new book's predecessor, The Enigma of Arrival (1987), Derek...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Chauhan, P. S. "V. S. Naipaul: History as Cosmic Irony." In Reworlding: The Literature of the Indian Diaspora, edited by Emmanuel S. Nelson, pp. 13-23. New York: Greenwood Press, 1992.

Examines Naipaul's development as a writer, focusing on his ironic perspective.

Derrick, A. C. "Naipaul's Technique as a Novelist." In Critical Perspectives on V. S. Naipaul, edited by Robert D. Hamner, pp. 194-207. London: Heinemann, 1977.

Studies major thematic strands in Naipaul's work.

Miller, Karl. "Elephant Head." London Review of...

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