A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas

A House for Mr Biswas Part 2, Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Mr Biswas was the college’s most enthusiastic parent; he decorated all of Anand’s books and was the only one to fill out the homework validation sheet everyone else ignored. Myna, the next in line, passed her examination but did not win the scholarship. Gradually, Mr Biswas stopped worrying about his own future and thought only of Anand’s. However, one day, he woke up and realized that he had come to see his unhappy circumstances as inevitable, and particularly that he had “lost the vision of the house.” He sank back into depression and everything continued as usual in the house: the children went to school, the parents fought and worked, the widows tried and abandoned new business ideas.
Mr Biswas continues to take himself far too seriously, valuing Anand’s outward appearance of success in school. Nevertheless, Anand’s potential turns Mr Biswas selfless for perhaps the first time in the book. Since his son promises to achieve so much, Mr Biswas feels that he has created a place for himself in the world, and the concrete independence represented by his house no longer matters—until he realizes that, with his son’s future set, he can still focus on his own.
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However, “suddenly, quite suddenly, [Mr Biswas] was revivified.” As the Sentinel’s resident expert on social issues, Mr Biswas was tasked with interviewing the head of the new Community Welfare Department; he walked out of the interview not with an article but with a job that paid fifty dollars more every month than the Sentinel. He found the department head, a white woman named Miss Logie, attractive and graceful, more powerful and ambitious than any Indian woman he had met. Just when he had stopped daydreaming about finding another job, one came to him. He was delighted at the job security of government work and wrote a sincere, gracious letter of resignation to the Sentinel; the paper’s reply was dictated, five lines typed by a secretary.
Mr Biswas finally gets to translate his quasi-charitable work at the Deserving Destitutes column into a job that promises to address the poverty that defined his own childhood. His jobs are no longer discontinuous results of convenience or family connections; instead, he has begun to build a broader, coherent project and name for himself. Furthermore, Miss Logie challenges his preconceptions about gender, breaking down the strict division between men’s labor in formal markets and women’s work in the domestic sphere.
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Mr Biswas found Miss Logie a remarkably hospitable boss but was frightened when she asked to meet his family—he said they all had mumps (some of the boarders did). She asked if he might want to bring them on a vacation to her house at Sans Souci, and he eagerly agreed, coming to see that holidays might be something more than merely “days on which he did not go to work.” Shama agreed, and they began secretly preparing for the vacation—although the rest of the household quickly found out.
Mr Biswas fears Miss Logie’s judgment—particularly of his still relatively traditional Hindu family—and gets to take part in the Western ritual of a beach holiday, which marks his rise to an even higher class stratum associated with white colonial elites like Miss Logie. Instead of flaunting his success, as he might have done in the past, he decides to hide it from the others in the house so as to avoid internal conflict.
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Miss Logie came to pick up the Biswases in her Buick, but Mr Biswas feared that she might stumble upon the eccentrics in his family and ensured that everyone was ready to go early. The boarding children swarmed around them; fortunately, when she arrived, Miss Logie stayed in her car while the chauffeur directed the passengers and handled the luggage. Mr Biswas distracted Miss Logie with conversation; she said she felt ill and did not want to go all the way to Sans Souci, but changed her mind when Mr Biswas clarified that the other children were just orphans and not coming with them.
The scene of Mr Biswas swarmed by Shama’s orphaned nieces in front of his house gives the ironic impression that he is already a deeply charitable man worried about the welfare of disadvantaged Trinidadians. Miss Logie and the Biswases are happy to retreat to their privileged bubble and forget the orphans’ plight, which suggests there may be a fundamental hypocrisy in their Community Welfare Department.
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From Miss Logie’s Buick, the familiar landscape of North Trinidad looked better than ever, and Shama chatted endlessly with Miss Logie in the front seat; Mr Biswas was astonished that his wife “was so well-informed and had such violent prejudices.” They visited one beach and continued on to Sans Souci, where Miss Logie turned back, and the Biswases clustered in the same room of her enormous but foreboding house. The next day, the family visited beaches, picked fruit and nuts from trees, and began to enjoy the house’s solitude and comfort. But, just as soon as they arrived, the Buick came to take them back, and “they dreaded returning to what they knew.” Back in Port of Spain, the family pretended to keep up as usual before starting to interrogate the Biswases about their trip, and “the house seemed lower, darker, suffocating.”
Even though the Biswases passed the same landscape on their way to and from Shorthills, the experience was orders of magnitude better in a private car. Miss Logie again astonishes Mr Biswas by drawing out intellectual dimensions of Shama he had never seen or engaged with—even though this suggests they may have some secret common interests. At Sans Souci, the Biswases are unsure what to do with the material comfort of a huge house; it is foreboding and eerie to suddenly have so much space, and so they cram themselves into the same room like they have all their lives. They have difficulty adjusting to their newly achieved status.
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At his new job, Mr Biswas neither helped villagers develop nor enjoyed performances of song and dance; instead, he went door-to-door conducting surveys, and could even get his expenses reimbursed after filling out a series of forms. However, he did not save as much money as he wanted to; he spent it on Savi’s schooling and better food, Anand’s asthma treatment and higher-quality suits for himself, which he quickly started obsessing about and showing off whenever possible.
Mr Biswas’s job is even further from his fantasy than he anticipated: he becomes a voiceless and replaceable bureaucrat, tasked with performing tasks just as mechanical as the court and cricket reports he was ordered to write at the Sentinel. His work is no more meaningful than before, but he still eagerly adopts the outward signifiers of his new class status.
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One day, Mr Biswas decided to attend “an inter-colonial cricket match.” He had no interest in the game but wanted to appear with a tin of cigarettes and matchbox, as was fashionable. He came to the mostly empty stadium late, said “excuse me” in the appropriate fashion as he made his way to his seat, and sat down to thunderous applause from all sides as everyone in the stands stood up, celebrated the end of the match, and left. (He followed.)
As he tries to mimic the upper-classes’ manners in order to feel that he has truly joined them, Mr Biswas first appears to be symbolically rewarded for his efforts with the audience’s applause before realizing that he has just made himself look buffoonish by showing up at the very end of the game and taking himself all too seriously.
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Mr Biswas soon discovered that his data did not add up, for he was studying “a society that had no rules and patterns.” Soon, his 200 questionnaires were spread around the house, and he returned to cursing everything he could connect to his dissatisfaction. The real cause was that politicians and businessmen were penning attacks on his department, which they saw as a waste of money, and Mr Biswas had even begun to fear reading the newspapers every morning. He started visiting the Sentinel because “with every improvement in his condition, every saving, he felt more vulnerable: it was too good to last.”
Even though his job was mechanical data collection, Mr Biswas discovers that he has managed to do it wrong, which seems to validate the political attacks on his department. Much like his father, Mr Biswas grows more afraid the better his life gets, since he gains more that he can eventually lose. Class status does not bring the rewards he expected; instead, it just brings new anxieties.
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Mr Biswas sent in his reports, and the government gave him a car, which he decided not to mention to anyone else in the house. Govind complained that the new “matchbox” took his parking spot while Mr Biswas read the manual. He soon took his family back to the beach at Belinda, on the way to Sans Souci, but their ride was nowhere near as satisfying as their first visit; they decided to visit Ajodha on the way, and both he and Jagdat were skeptical of the new car’s sturdiness and safety. On their way back from the beach, the car briefly got stuck in the sand and the whole family was convinced it had been ruined.
Mr Biswas is still rewarded for his incomplete report and again thinks it would be more dignified to ignore rather than combat the jealous Tulsis; he soon discovers that his family, too, rejects his class predilections as foolish and believes they know better. As he fails to receive the respect he desired and feels out-of-place as a native elite, he learns again that his material pursuits are unlikely to bring lasting satisfaction.
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W.C. Tuttle never mentioned Mr Biswas’s suits, car, or holiday, but after the Biswases had settled into their new lifestyle, he “with one stroke wiped out all Mr Biswas’s advantages” by having Basdai inform them that he bought his own house in Port of Spain. Mr Biswas became irritable and combative, failing to comfort himself with the knowledge that they would reclaim space in the house and garage. But, in fact, the Tuttles did not plan to leave yet—they had to evict the tenants living in their other house, so Mr Biswas started hoping at the same time that W.C. Tuttle would fail in his case, which he did until he convinced the City Council to force repairs and moved his family out with little fanfare.
W.C. Tuttle’s new house is particularly crushing because Mr Biswas had begun to double down on his emotional investment in status symbols; nevertheless, all along, his cars and suits seem to have been mere substitutes for the house he truly desired. He talks himself into contradictions in order to justify his desire to see W.C. Tuttle fail; he has no good will for the Tuttles because their success makes him focus even more on his own perceived inadequacies.
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Soon, Mrs Tulsi announced that she was moving into the spare rooms, and everyone fell into misery, anticipating her illnesses and arbitrary orders. She brought Miss Blackie, Sushila, and of course the expected, ambiguous ailments that left her mostly bedridden, in need of attention, and profoundly bored. Sushila was charged with caring for Mrs Tulsi and bearing the brunt of her wrath; Miss Blackie and a visiting Jewish doctor were her confidants, and the other sisters visited periodically out of obligation. She was much nicer to the sons-in-law and ordered the children around, making them perform for her enjoyment and insisting that they take her favorite remedies. Old friends visited from Arwacas and pundits—a different one every time—came to perform pujas until she tired of Hinduism and switched to Catholic rituals.
Although everyone used to respect and adore Mrs Tulsi, she has now become a burden on the family, which illustrates the impermanency of the status and power Mr Biswas so ardently pursues. Just like him, she invents problems and conflicts to win others’ attention and secure their loyalty. Like Mr Biswas, she still treats her caretakers as disposable and blames them for failing to validate her illusions (only Miss Blackie consistently does so). While she no longer truly seems to belong in the family, she forces herself to belong by ensuring that the family organizes around her needs and desires and remaining profoundly dependent on her daughters.
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Soon, absorbed in her illness, Mrs Tulsi started insisting that Myna pick out and kill her imaginary lice; Myna did this reluctantly, pretending to find one every so often, and soon became her grandmother’s favorite. When the newly wealthy Shekhar visited with Dorothy, his Presbyterian wife, the family recoiled and blamed her for his modern dress and pretensions. After going on vacations to Venezuela and Colombia for some time, Dorothy insisted on speaking Spanish whenever the Tulsis were around so they could not understand her. And Shekhar, who was busy campaigning against the Community Welfare Department, would always ridicule and provoke Mr Biswas on his way out.
Somehow, the Tulsis do not see that Shekhar’s marriage to a Christian might have something to do with his attending a Catholic school and socializing among the Western elite; they wanted him to be at once a committed, orthodox Hindu at home and a sophisticated connoisseur of the West outside it. W.C. Tuttle’s fragmented personality exemplifies the absurdity of this combination, and so Naipaul seems to affirm that colonized people face an unfortunate choice between their own cultures and the West’s so-called civilization.
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It was finally time for Owad to return from England, and everyone was thrilled to see him, for “absence had turned him into a legend.” While Mr Biswas was also excited to see him, he also felt vaguely threatened, as though he would have to leave. He had about 700 dollars by the end of the year—more then ever but not enough to get a loan for a real house. He combed through listings and even went to an auction, to no avail, until one day Shama affirmed that Mrs Tulsi was kicking them out and would allow them to live in one of her decrepit, roofless tenements. He resolved to never speak to her again.
At the same time as the Tulsis deride Shekhar for marrying a Christian, they praise Owad because of his opportunity to study in England. Mr Biswas’s eviction from the house to make space for Owad implicitly references the violence of British settler colonialism; people with the advantages of empire displace and drain resources from the needy. And, once again, Mr Biswas is forced to move and lacks any say in the matter.
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One evening, Mrs Tulsi stopped Mr Biswas on the verandah to ask about Anand’s health before mentioning Owad’s flowery letters about England and affection for Mr Biswas. To his surprise, she asked whether he was planning to come back to the house, and he eagerly agreed. This pleased him and Shama, although he was angry to have “fallen into Mrs Tulsi’s trap and shown himself grateful to her.” He recognized that she was manipulating him, as she had since the day they met in the Tulsi Store; he grew even angrier than before, and occasionally violent, making him as much an outsider as Govind and leading everyone to yearn even more for Owad’s return.
Mrs Tulsi’s messages are inconsistent and mixed, so it is no surprise that Mr Biswas sees her selective affection as a “trap” to win attention and loyalty. Now that he and Govind have become violent and uncouth, the rest of the Tulsis yearn even more for Owad’s ostensibly cultivated and wise presence as a patriarch for the increasingly disoriented family.
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The Biswases moved their furniture into the tenement and spent some of their time there, the rest in the house that was now Mrs Tulsi’s. Mr Biswas coordinated politics in whole villages during the day, only to return to his rotting tenement at night. One of his assignments was running a “‘leadership’ course” in Arwacas, where he stayed at Hanuman House with its sole inhabitant, a widow Seth never found out about. In fact, “Seth had acted wildly” since Padma’s death, losing his esteem from the townspeople and getting caught in another “insuranburn” scam before giving up on his dreams of power. Because of this, the Tulsis no longer mattered in Arwacas.
The Port of Spain house has gone full circle: from Mrs Tulsi to Mr Biswas and back again. The fulfillment and independence he achieved proved temporary (they were still fundamentally at Mrs Tulsi’s behest), like that of the Tulsis in Arwacas, where they are now irrelevant and even badmouthed. Seth’s abuse of the legal system finally caught up with him—for once, justice is served in Trinidad—and the former bastion of Tulsi pride and power, Hanuman House, became an empty ruin.
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With Hanuman House silent and decaying, Mr Biswas made an office out of his old room and remembered his past agony there, as well as the lack of belonging that allowed him to be independent; this freedom was replaced with an encumbering dependence on others who were also dependent on him.
Like at Green Vale, Mr Biswas recasts his past as the time of true freedom—he realizes now that, although he has found a sense of belonging, he has sacrificed the independence that he used to have when nobody wanted him around.
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Mrs Tulsi’s renovations in Port of Spain went slowly, as she underpaid and “regularly abused and dismissed” various contractors, while Miss Blackie comforted her by affirming how unreliable “my people” were. After three months, the work was done, and Mr Biswas was allowed to return; he was confined to a single room as the whole family shuffled to provide space for Owad, but he was still relieved. He thought about his children’s futures and particularly lamented his neglect of Savi, who “had grown reserved and grave.” He realized that he “missed their childhoods.”
Mrs Tulsi’s leadership became counterproductive and inefficient: she insisted on an absolute control she could never have and failed to understand that labor norms in the country were different from the city (where people could find other work and therefore choose to reject the paltry wages she offered). Much like Mr Biswas, her inability to consider other perspectives leads her to absurdity. Mr Biswas’s claim to have missed his children’s childhoods is clearly hasty and self-pitying: Myna and Kamla are still young, and perhaps he is thinking about his own missed childhood more than his children’s.
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