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V. S. Naipaul: A House for Mr. Biswas

This is Naipaul’s best-known novel, the one that catapulted him to fame. It is based on the life of Naipaul’s father. It is also his longest novel, essentially telling the life story of Mohun Biswas. There is no plot, except a recounting of Biswas’ life and we know what will happen, as we are told in the prologue both about his death and the fate of his house. Even as a child, the narrator refers to him as Mr. Biswas and it is this that typifies him, a sort of detachment, a lack of individuality. His life, the life of an ordinary man, is a series of disappointments. Things always seem to go wrong for him, both as a child and as an adult. He lives in many houses and is always looking to get his own house, as it is that which will give the independence and identity that he is looking for and that is the key theme of this novel.

Mr. Biswas grows up in his father’s home but when his father dies, a death inadvertently caused by Mr. Biswas, his mother sells the house. Though from a high caste, he is poor so marries into the Tulsi family and, in a reversal of the usual Indian tradition, he goes to live with his in-laws in Hanuman House, where he feels definitely out of place. When the Tulsis find him work, first working in a shop and then working as an overseer on one of their sugar estates, he fails dismally. Even when he is able to build his own house, it fails – twice. When he finally does get his own house, at the end, overcharged for a badly built house, constructed on swamp land, he loses his job and then, at the age of forty-six, dies.

This novel is clearly straight from the Dickensian tradition, even if it is set in Trinidad. It tells, in detail, the story of man who does not quite fit in the world. Biswas is a man who suffers minor tragedies and who causes them. If something can go wrong for him, it will. While Naipaul tells us this with humour, this is not a satire, nor a mocking indictment of a failure but, rather, a sad, pitying but comic story of a man whose ambition is greater than he is able to deliver – as a son, a son-in-law, father, husband and employee. He is seemingly not cut out for any role in this life and succeeds at nothing. But Naipaul’s account of his life is clearly a major work of literature and one that has rightly been praised by many.

Publishing history

First published by André Deutsch in 1961