English Literature Study: The quest for identity in V.S Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas

A House for Mr. Biswas traces the story of a man’s struggle to make something valuable out of a circumscribed and mediocre existence. It is a struggle symbolized by the hero’s efforts to own his ‘own’ house, which in a way, is to own his own his own life. Out of this simple plot of a lone man’s struggle to free himself from oppressive force of his in-laws and failing health, Naipaul creates an epic novel, powerfully tragic which the story argues can be the fate of everyman in a rootless society.

Introduction to the novel

The theme of rootlessness of an exile and psychological effects of colonialism finds its fuller treatment in A House for Mr. Biswas. The novel begins with Mohun Biswas, a sacked journalist dying at the age of 46 in his irretrievably mortgaged house in Sikkim Street, St. James, Port of Spain. He is penniless. He has had months of illness and despair, has a wife and four children. And yet he is struck again and again "by the wonder of being his own house, the audacity of it; to walk into his own front gate, to bar entry to whoever he wishes, to close his doors and windows every night, to hear no noises except those of his family." The substance of the novel has to do with the transformation of Mr. Biswas from a slave into a free man, the sign and emancipation of that emancipation being his house:
"How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it… Worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth."
Biswas' heroic struggle to attain dignity and fulfill his aspirations as reflected in his desire to own his own house becomes an allegory of the attempt to emancipate oneself from determinist dependence. Though he is dimly aware of the implications of his odyssey within the small society, he intuitively apprehends the futility of his situation in his fascination for a memorable image of ignorance and placeless glimpsed from a passing bus. Gordon Rohlehr, in this connection comments:
"The description of Hindu life in Trinidad exactly parallels all the descriptions of Hanuman House. The Chase, the Barracks, Green Valum and finally the house in Port of Spain around which the Tulsis build a wall. The whole story has shown the difficulty of escape and the uselessness of rebellion."
Even as a child in his parents' home, Biswas is regarded as an ill-fated child. He has had an inauspicious birth and his sixth finger of malnutrition has marked him out for misfortune. Everything he touches has unfortunate consequences and his many 'crimes' culminate in his indirectly causing his father's death. Though he is for the most passive, he is unable to escape his assigned role as generator of tragedy. It is a fitting beginning to a life history of dependence and of dignity denied.

The circumstances behind Mr. Biswas' quest

Certain universal implications can be detected in Biswas' personal struggle: "Biswas is everyman, wavering between identity and nonentity, and claiming his acquaintance with the rest of them…" As an adult he is trapped into marriage with Shama, daughter of the wealthy Tulsi family and his subsequent life alternates between periods of dependence on the Tulsis and attempt to escape their clutches in order to regain his identity. The Tulsis who are keen on absorbing him and are ready to encourage him to surrender his identity in a way challenged Biswas to make something of himself so that he can oppose them. In fact, his first real sense of himself arises from the need to oppose the Tulsis. Mr. Biswas uses the word, 'tough' to insult the Tulsis especially, Seth and makes a virtue out of hairless hands as a sign of intellectual superiority.

So very early in the book, the reader is given a hint as to the rebellious nature of Biswas. His eagerness to assert his individuality is quite firm. The means he adopts often seem absurd and comic. This probably may be to the inner awareness of Biswas as to his own limitations and the truth that a revolt of a weak man like him could but be a comic one. But the will to affirm one's identity and selfhood is unmistakably found in Biswas. Finally, he is duped into paying too heavy a price for an ill-made house at St. James. The ending of the novel, like that of no longer than, at ease is ambiguous in that though he has been cheated and the expense and worry eventually kills him. However, he has succeeded in his desire to "lay claim one's portion of the earth".

Outcome of the quest

Mr. Biswas' life is a story of the battle against his hostile environment and his wandering from place to place does not solve his problem of identity. By the time he gets to Sikkim Street where he constructs his house, his fear grows deeper and heavier and in his search for independence and selfhood, his energies, both physical and mental are almost exhausted. Soon after his entry into his house, he falls seriously ill and was put on half-pay by The Sentinel and after sometime, sacks him. Mr. Biswas though dies unemployed and unable to pay off the mortgage can be said to have found happiness in his last days since he has achieved a certain degree of freedom from human complicity by evolving an identity and continuity in the world for himself.

Mr. Biswas as everyman

Biswas' struggle to assert himself in this mediocre world is not without touches of heroism. Indeed, he is at times, petty, cowardly and contemptible, and part of the triumph of A House for Mr. Biswas is that Naipaul has been able to present a hero "in all his littleness, and still preserves a sense of the man's inner dignity". It is in this sense he comes very close to represent the fate of an average man with mediocre abilities but a strong will to preserve his identity, however comic or absurd it may be. He, thus, becomes an everyman describing the modern man's fate in a rootless society.

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