A House for Mr Biswas


V. S. Naipaul

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A House for Mr Biswas Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on V. S. Naipaul's A House for Mr Biswas. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of V. S. Naipaul

V.S. Naipaul was born in rural Trinidad, the grandson of indentured servants from South Asia who came to work on Trinidad sugarcane plantations. His father was the journalist Seepersad Naipaul, on whom the character of Mr Biswas is based, and his mother came from the prominent Capildeo family, the model for the Tulsi family in A House for Mr Biswas. He moved from the countryside to Port of Spain at age six, attended Trinidad’s best-regarded secondary school, and then won a scholarship to Oxford, where he felt out-of-place and suffered a self-described “nervous breakdown.” Nevertheless, after graduating in 1953, the same year of his father’s death, Naipaul lived the rest of his life in England. He married his Oxford classmate Patricia Hale in 1955, while living in London and writing his first novel (The Mystic Masseur) and book of short stories (Miguel Street). However, he found literary fame only after the 1961 publication of A House for Mr Biswas and began writing nonfiction soon thereafter, publishing travelogues of the Caribbean (The Middle Passage) and India (An Area of Darkness) before returning to London, famous but penniless. He would later take extended trips to East Africa, Argentina (where he began a decades-long affair with Margaret Gooding), and Indonesia, Iran, and Pakistan (where, in 1996, as his first wife Patricia Hale lay dying of cancer in a London hospital, he resolved to leave his mistress Gooding and marry a journalist he had just met, Nadira Alvi). He lived out his later life in a cottage in the English countryside and ultimately published more than a dozen novels and as many books of nonfiction. He was knighted in 1990, and the Swedish Academy awarded him the 2001 Nobel Prize in Literature “for having united perceptive narrative and incorruptible scrutiny in works that compel us to see the presence of suppressed histories.” Despite his international acclaim, Naipaul often faced scathing criticism for his pessimism, treatment of women, and especially his nonfiction’s critical view of non-European peoples and countries (including Trinidad).
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Historical Context of A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas is set in the final half-century of British rule over Trinidad, which was populated mostly by indigenous Arawak and Carib people before Spanish conquest in the fifteenth century (it also underwent periods of Dutch and French rule). When the British secured control of Trinidad in 1797, the majority of its population were slaves of African descent working on sugarcane plantations. After the British Empire abolished slavery in 1833, the island increasingly shifted toward cocoa production, and more than 100,000 workers from India came to the island as indentured servants who theoretically agreed to work for a term before returning to India but, in practice, were generally forced to stay. Since the early twentieth century, oil extraction has been Trinidad’s primary economic activity and transformed the island into the Caribbean’s wealthiest, although inequality remains high, and intergroup divisions remain rampant, particularly between the two largest communities of Indian and African descent. These divisions, and the island’s increasing turn toward oil production, are unmistakable in A House for Mr Biswas, which begins around 1900 and ends about a decade before Trinidad achieved independence from British rule in 1962, just a year after the book’s publication. Naipaul moved to London near the beginning of the Windrush Generation, the mass influx of Afro-Caribbean people into England after the 1948 British Nationality Act gave citizenship to everyone living in British colonies. This wave of migration resulted in immense racist backlash in the UK as well as changing the structure of society in the Caribbean, where those educated in Britain (like Owad and Anand in A House for Mr Biswas), if they chose to return, suddenly found access to far superior economic opportunities but often felt socially alienated from both their home countries and England.

Other Books Related to A House for Mr Biswas

Although V.S. Naipaul was famously averse to acknowledging his literary influences and was generally more keen to insult than praise other writers, he is often compared to the other most prominent British travel writer on Africa, Joseph Conrad, who is best remembered for his novella Heart of Darkness (1899). Naipaul’s writing also bears resemblance to that of the British Victorian novelist Charles Dickens, whose numerous portraits of characters struggling against poverty inspire and parallel Mr Biswas’s own journey. Other important Caribbean writers of Naipaul’s generation include fellow British-Trinidadian Samuel Selvon, best known for The Lonely Londoners (1956), and the fellow Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott, from St. Lucia, who is famous for his poetry. Naipaul is also often referenced alongside British-Indian novelist Salman Rushdie, best known for Midnight’s Children (1981) and internationally famous for the controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses (1988). Naipaul’s brother Shiva Naipaul is most famous for his first novel, Fireflies (1970), which is often compared to A House for Mr Biswas. Naipaul’s other famous literary works include The Enigma of Arrival (1987), a largely autobiographical novel about migrating from Trinidad to England, and In a Free State (1971), a collection of three short stories.
Key Facts about A House for Mr Biswas
  • Full Title: A House for Mr Biswas
  • When Written: 1958-1961
  • Where Written: London, England
  • When Published: 1961
  • Literary Period: Postcolonial, postmodern
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Setting: Trinidad in the first half of the twentieth century
  • Climax: Mr Biswas finally—but foolishly—purchases his own house from a dishonest solicitor’s clerk.
  • Antagonist: The Tulsis, con artists, natural disasters
  • Point of View: Third-person narrator

Extra Credit for A House for Mr Biswas

Fictionalized Autobiography. Many of the characters and events in A House for Mr Biswas are fictionalized versions of Naipaul’s own family history: his father, like Mr Biswas, grew up on a rural estate and was lucky to learn to read while his brothers did not; Naipaul actually has a cousin named Owad and a sister named Savi; and his mother’s family, the Capildeos, grew up in “The Lion House” in Chagaunas, on which Naipaul based the Tulsis’ “Hanuman House” in Arwacas.

Survivor’s Guilt. In a 1983 article for the New York Review of Books, the author claimed to have never read A House for Mr Biswas since he sent the final version for publication; when he heard an abridged version on the radio, he claimed to have been “in tears, swamped by the emotions I had tried to shield myself from for twenty years.”