Whether he realizes it or not, Mr Biswas’s ambitions and successes are structured around his pursuit of language: he becomes a sign-painter because he loves the shapes of letters, and a journalist because he loved reading the newspapers that lined the walls in Green Vale. Although Pundit Sitaram declared Mr Biswas unlucky upon his birth, he did encounter one great stroke of luck in life: his literacy, which not only gave his children a meaningful chance at earning the economic independence he never fully achieved but also, against all odds, allowed him to find a vocation. Mr Biswas also strove to write literature, a dream he never realized—but for which his son Anand seems well poised. If work is the path to well-being in a postcolonial state, education is the most important step toward work that is meaningful, dignified, and lucrative enough to enable upward economic mobility.
Mr Biswas’s meager education, which was nevertheless better than his siblings’, allowed him to rise out of rural poverty. Mr Biswas’s first break was meeting Alec in school and copying his new friend’s letter-drawings; he even won the class’s approval by writing “I AM AN ASS” calligraphically on the blackboard. His appreciation for the potential beauty of letters led him to his job as a sign-painter, and, later, as a reporter for the Sentinel. In fact, literacy also allowed Mr Biswas to write the love note in English that convinced Mrs Tulsi to marry him off to Shama—and consequently also gave him opportunities for work and relocation through the Tulsi family’s connections. Meanwhile, Mr Biswas’s elder brothers, Prasad and Pratap, were illiterate and uneducated, spent their whole lives working on cane fields, and could scarcely relate to the protagonist when they visited him later in life.
Although he always thought of language as beautiful in itself, rather than as a means to an end, Mr Biswas was never able to realize his ultimate literary ambitions. Mr Biswas became a dedicated reader when he discovered The Book of Comprehensive Knowledge at Ajodha and Tara’s house; for the rest of his life, he spent as much time as possible with novels and used them as a sort of shelter from the realities of life and hardship. For instance, he convinced himself to go on with his more dreadful Sentinel assignments by reading Dickens novels about characters who worked hard despite their misery. Yet Mr Biswas failed repeatedly to write—he could not match his friend Misir’s formulaic stories about impoverished people’s failures to escape their condition, nor could he finish his own formulaic stories about his unhappy marriage after he splurged on a typewriter in Port of Spain. When asked to give a reading for his literary club, he lacked “the poet’s words” and instead offered a letter to his dead mother, Bipti. His job as a reporter required him to unlearn his initial flowery enthusiasm, pigeonholing his prose first into brief, simple headlines and then into the restrained language demanded by the Sentinel’s new ownership: “REPORT NOT DISTORT.” Ultimately, then, while Mr Biswas’s love for language led him to the writer’s profession, he never allowed himself to write words as art or produce the kind of literature that he had always admired.
Mr Biswas’s life as a writer, in various limited forms, nevertheless fulfilled his lifelong ambition to find meaningful and dignified work. More importantly, however, it gave his children the opportunity to earn the thorough and rigorous education he could not access. Mr Biswas’s life of work was dominated by his search for a “vocation,” rather than merely a job; although he occasionally found his assignments frustrating, his satisfaction as a reporter—while his brothers were still working in cane fields—seems like his life’s most unlikely and significant achievement, much more than winning his own house. In Port of Spain, Mr Biswas was adamant about sending his children to school and so enthusiastically supported Anand’s efforts in school that his son was embarrassed to be seen with him. Nevertheless, Anand quickly absorbed his father’s love of literature and found success with his school compositions.
In romanticizing Mr Biswas’s troubled, lifelong affair with words, Naipaul certainly means to honor his own father’s success in finding dignified work and inspiring his son to become a writer. However, he also shows how haphazard, meandering, and dangerous the intergenerational path from poverty to affluence can be. Since Mr Biswas certainly represents V.S. Naipaul’s father, a journalist who was lucky to get an education and avoid a life of manual labor, Anand’s enthusiasm for writing (and overseas education, from which he does not return at the end of the book) lends credence to the theory that Anand is a fictionalized version of Naipaul himself.
Education, Work, and Language ThemeTracker
Education, Work, and Language Quotes in A House for Mr Biswas
Mr Biswas never went to work on the estates. Events which were to occur presently led him away from that. They did not lead him to riches, but made it possible for him to console himself in later life with the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, while he rested on the Slumberking bed in the one room which contained most of his possessions.
“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.”
One of the first stories Mr. Biswas had written for the Sentinel had been about a dead explorer. The Sentinel was then a boisterous paper and he had written a grotesque story, which he had often later regretted. He had tried to lessen his guilt by thinking that the explorer’s relations were unlikely to read the Sentinel. He had also said that when his own death was reported he would like the headline to be ROVING REPORTER PASSES ON. But the Sentinel had changed, and the headline he got was JOURNALIST DIES SUDDENLY. No other paper carried the news. An announcement came over twice on re-diffusion sets all over the island. But that was paid for.