Mr Biswas’s quest for a house symbolizes his overwhelming desire to claim space for himself, organize that space himself, and determine his own life within that space. After his childhood home mysteriously disappears, Mr Biswas spends his life traveling from one temporary family residence to another, fueling his desire for a house of his own. However, nearly all the functional houses in the book are organized and run by women (especially the Tulsis’ Hanuman House in Arwacas). When men take charge of houses, they inevitably fall apart: Mr Biswas’s own houses at Green Vale and Shorthills get destroyed, and the larger estate at Shorthills ends up in shambles because the men of the house strip and sell its component parts for their own personal gain. At the end of the book, Mr Biswas finds immense comfort when he returns from the hospital to find that his wife Shama has put the house in order—his desire for independence through a house is unachievable in the sense that he never truly comes to, or ultimately wants to, truly dominate the domestic space.
In the novel, houses also symbolize class status and financial standing. Mr Biswas continuously notes the shortcomings and furnishings of the places he visits, and his interest in the sturdiness and intricacy of others’ houses and furniture therefore reflects his attention to how the quality of a living space expresses the class status of its inhabitants. When Mr Biswas finally gets a house at the end of the book, it seems to indicate his financial independence and elevated class status. Ironically, he loans thousands of dollars to pay for it and dies with a debt seemingly greater than all the money he had ever saved his entire life. Of course, this house is not truly worth the money, but rather a cheap imitation of what a well-built and functional house should look like—Mr Biswas can only achieve a hollow, false version of what he wanted, yet somehow this is enough for him; the poverty and financial dependence on his uncle Ajodha that he takes on to obtain the house belie the appearances of class status and financial independence that it represents.
Finally, houses also symbolize the onerous project of independence in formerly colonized territories; as Trinidad’s people won sovereignty over their land in the years around this book’s publication, they were tasked with forging a new national identity based on the territory to which most were shipped as laborers. Mr Biswas’s sense of alienation from his many homes and partially-fulfilled desire to truly belong in a house of his own represent colonized people’s struggle to translate places and systems of oppression—the plantation, the institutions of colonial government, the local economy—into places of proud belonging and systems that benefit the population as a whole.
Houses Quotes in A House for Mr Biswas
How terrible it would have been, at this time, to be without it: to have died among the Tulsis, amid the squalor of that large, disintegrating and indifferent family; to have left Shama and the children among them, in one room; worse, to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one’s portion of the earth; to have lived and died as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.
And so Mr Biswas came to leave the only house to which he had some right. For the next thirty-five years he was to be a wanderer with no place he could call his own, with no family except that which he was to attempt to create out of the engulfing world of the Tulsis. For with his mother’s parents dead, his father dead, his brothers on the estate at Felicity, Dehuti as a servant in Tara’s house, and himself rapidly growing away from Bipti who, broken, became increasingly useless and impenetrable, it seemed to him that he was really quite alone.
Mr Biswas had never thought of Tulsi property as belonging to any particular person. Everything, the land at Green Vale, the shop at The Chase, belonged simply to the House. But the lorries were Seth’s.
He had found a site such as he always wanted, isolated, unused, and full of possibilities. It was some way from the estate house, on a low hill buried in bush and well back from the road. The house was begun and, unblessed, completed in less than a month.
[Mr Biswas] turned the long room into an office. In this room, where the lotuses still bloomed on the wall, he had lived with Shama. Through the Demerara window he had tried to spit on Owad and flung the plateful of food on him. In this room he had been beaten by Govind, had kicked Bell’s Standard Elocutionist and given it the dent on the cover. Here, claimed by no one, he had reflected on the unreality of his life, and had wished to make a mark on the wall as proof of his existence. Now he needed no such proof. Relationships had been created where none existed; he stood at their centre. In that very unreality had lain freedom. Now he was encumbered, and it was at Hanuman House that he tried to forget the encumbrance: the children, the scattered furniture, the dark tenement room, and Shama, as helpless as he was and now, what he had longed for, dependent on him.
And it was astonishing how the furniture, to which they had grown accustomed, suddenly, exposed on the tray of the lorry in the street, became unfamiliar and shabby and shameful. About to be moved for the last time: the gatherings of a life-time: the kitchen safe (encrusted with varnish, layer after layer of it, and paint of various colours, the wire-netting broken and clogged), the yellow kitchen table, the hatrack with the futile glass and broken hooks, the rockingchair, the fourposter (dismantled and unnoticeable), Shama’s dressingtable (standing against the cab, without its mirror, with all the drawers taken out, showing the unstained, unpolished wood inside, still, after all these years, so raw, so new), the bookcase and desk, Théophile’s bookcase, the Slumberking (a pink, intimate rose on the headrest), the glass cabinet (rescued from Mrs Tulsi’s drawingroom), the destitute’s diningtable (on its back, its legs roped around, loaded with drawers and boxes), the typewriter (still a brilliant yellow, on which Mr Biswas was going to write articles for the English and American Press, on which he had written his articles for the Ideal School, the letter to the doctor): the gatherings of a lifetime for so long scattered and even unnoticed, now all together on the tray of the lorry.