A House for Mr Biswas was published during the ill-fated West Indies Federation, a year before Trinidad and Tobago became an independent nation, but set in the earlier years of the twentieth century. Naipaul’s portrait of Trinidad thus reflects a post-slavery colonial society in the midst of an economic and social transition toward the postcolonial state. The island is highly stratified, and different groups’ animosity for one another on the basis of race, religion, class, literacy, and the urban/rural divide demonstrates how Trinidad’s colonized people internalized imperial hierarchies. Yet Naipaul is also notorious for his deep appreciation of the opportunities that empire paradoxically gives colonized peoples, and this ambivalent pride is on full display in this novel. The source of Trinidad’s problems also appears as its solution: by studying in England, speaking English, and helping out the Americans, Trinidadians become wealthy and self-sufficient.
While Trinidad may have been undeveloped prior to colonialism, colonial interventions further impoverished it and created entrenched social divisions through slavery and indentured servitude. The island is divided among a minority of white colonists, the descendants of black slaves, and the families of Indian indentured servants (who are further divided between Hindus and converts to Christianity). The colonial legal and financial systems that govern Trinidad during the book systematically produce injustice rather than justice: for instance, a dishonest lawyer swindles Mr Biswas out of all his money in The Chase without ever meeting him, and he only makes it back when he agrees to “insure-and-burn” the store; in both cases, characters twist the colonial legal system to their own purposes, and Mr Biswas only hears of its dealings, which determine his livelihood, from afar. Mr Biswas experiences the colonial law as a privileged domain by means of which privileged Trinidadians maintain their power. When he finally becomes privileged enough to work for the Community Welfare Department, its work proves useless and it is quickly dissolved. The class of landless peasants that he helps while working for the Department—the same class he was born into—descends directly from the unfree labor that populated the island in the first place, and even after the abolition of slavery and indenture (under coercive, slavery-like labor conditions), the majority of Trinidadians are still working in cane fields and struggling to survive. World War II devastates the island because it is a colonial possession, even though there was no fighting anywhere near it: food was hard to come by because of rationing, and Americans began taking land for military bases. In other words, Trinidad’s status as a colony allows its people to be systematically exploited by distant, powerful forces, whether they physically reside on the island or not.
The island’s people end up internalizing and perpetuating these colonial hierarchies themselves, which sustains the deep and futile divisions among them. While there continues to be a lively debate over whether Naipaul is himself a racist, in this novel Afro-Trinidadians clearly live in the worst conditions and suffer the worst discrimination from others. Mr Biswas and his family subject them to insulting stereotypes: the whole family is astonished when a black student scores highest on the exhibition exam, and Mrs Tulsi enlists her maid, disparagingly named Miss Blackie, to help justify her refusal to pay black laborers the wages she promised. When they return to Arwacas after living in Port of Spain, Mr Biswas’s family disdains the rural Indians they meet there. The deep-seated divisions in Trinidad are also religious: one reason the Tulsis and Tara’s family hate one another is that the former are orthodox Hindus and the latter modern Hindus; indeed, Mr Biswas alienates himself from most of the Tulsis when he joins a group of Hindu dissenters conveniently named the Aryans. In contrast, Mr Biswas and his family revere most of the white people they meet: for instance, Mr Biswas idolizes Mr Burnett at the Sentinel, and Mrs Tulsi adores the Jewish doctor who visits her throughout her illness. This is another artifact of a colonial racism that associates whiteness with benevolence and power.
Despite its devastating effects on Trinidad, for Naipaul, the colonial state’s power is also a necessary tool by means of which the dispossessed can achieve social advancement. Most noticeably, English education is the secret to economic success in Trinidad. Even though his family speaks Hindi at home, Mr Biswas’s jobs all require him to write in English, something his brothers Pratap and Prasad never learned to do. Similarly, by going to school in England, Mrs Tulsi’s son Owad and Mr Biswas’s daughter Savi achieve far more social mobility than their parents ever do. Govind and the brother-in-law Mr Biswas calls W.C. Tuttle both earn fantastic salaries and gain status in Port of Spain by working for the American army: by unquestioningly embracing colonial power, they achieve far more than they could on their own terms. Indeed, Naipaul seems fundamentally suspicious about Trinidadians’ ability to develop economically for themselves. In Shorthills, the Tulsis purchase a French colonial estate—a clear metaphor for colonized people gaining control of their land after independence—but then begin hilariously dismantling it, destroying the swimming pool and cricket ground, cutting down trees, and letting a gully out front turn into an impassable gorge. In trying to take charge of their environment and means of survival, Naipaul suggests, colonized people undermine the admittedly corrupt beauty of what lay there before. Indeed, V.S. Naipaul’s ambivalent attachment to imperial power was clear in own life: he never considered moving back to Trinidad and recoiled at being called a “West Indian writer.”
While Naipaul is attentive to the circumscribed, stratified universe that colonialism creates and the way this limits Mr Biswas’s horizon of possible achievement in Trinidad, he nevertheless sees that colonized people’s best chance at winning dignified and autonomous lives usually lies in imitating the colonizer’s ways—even if it means abandoning their culture working subserviently for the West. In this sense, Mr Biswas’s struggle to free himself from the control of his economic and social superiors and ultimate end—in monumental debt, in a house he was deceived into buying—parallels his nation’s broader fate in the twentieth century.
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape ThemeTracker
Colonialism, Oppression, and Escape 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.
“This education is a helluva thing,” Ramchand said. “Any little child could pick up. And yet the blasted thing does turn out to be so damn important later on.”
DADDY COMES HOME IN A COFFIN
U.S. Explorer’s Last Journey
by M. Biswas
Somewhere in America in a neat little red-roofed cottage four children ask their mother every day, “Mummy, when is Daddy coming home?”
Less than a year ago Daddy—George Elmer Edman, the celebrated traveller and explorer—left home to explore the Amazon.
Well, I have news for you, kiddies.
Daddy is on his way home.
Yesterday he passed through Trinidad. In a coffin.
“I raised my hand but I did not know if it got to the top. I opened my mouth to cry for help. Water filled it. I thought I was going to die and I closed my eyes because I did not want to look at the water.”
“I don’t want you to be like me.”
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.
It was now that he began to speak to his children of his childhood. He told them of the hut, the men digging in the garden at night; he told them of the oil that was later found on the land. What fortune might have been theirs, if only his father had not died, if only he had stuck to the land like his brothers, if he had not gone to Pagotes, not become a sign-writer, not gone to Hanuman House, not married! If only so many things had not happened!