V.S. Naipaul’s novel A House for Mr Biswas traces the titular protagonist’s life in Trinidad from birth to death, chronicling his journey through temporary homes, unsatisfying jobs, and frustrating family relationships before he finds an eventual, if fleeting, sense of freedom in his own home. This quest to find independence—from family, drudgery, and fate—is the crux of Mr Biswas’s struggles, and his need to find a sense of belonging in a place and social group drives his quest for his own house. Yet these two impulses, to belong but also live independently, seem to pull in opposite directions: the first toward his family and the second away from it. Surprisingly, Mr Biswas manages to feel fully dependent when he is utterly alone, and independent when he relies on others.
Mr Biswas’s quest for a house reflects his search for belonging and independence. Throughout the whole book, lacking any better option, he lives wherever he is allowed to go—almost always with relatives, employers, or even relatives that employ him. However, he almost invariably hates the people he lives with and the places where he lives, feeling that he does not belong and resenting his dependence on others, which leads him to try and find a house of his own. The house where Mr Biswas is born ends up sold to a neighbor and demolished for the construction of oil drilling infrastructure: his original place of belonging, “the only house to which he had some right,” is destroyed—and would have made his family extraordinarily wealthy had they stayed. After this loss, he bounces among other people’s houses for his whole life—at least eleven places altogether, none of which he belongs in, because none of them belong to him. He always feels a burning desire to turn “from a visitor into a dweller” by building a home for himself, creating a place where he both belongs and can live independently from others. In particular, at Hanuman House, the Tulsis’ family home where many son-in-laws live along with Shama’s sisters, Mr Biswas becomes ostracized for his surliness and explosive arguments with the other family members. Despite the Tulsis’ numerous gestures of goodwill, during his initial stay in Hanuman House, he never feels truly part of the family and resents the fact that he must rely on other people (and especially eat their bland food).
Although a house of his own symbolizes the unity of independence and belonging, the tension between these two drives tears Mr Biswas apart, fueling his horrible mood swings, cruelty toward his family, and failure to achieve either independence or belonging. When he lives in the barracks at Green Vale, Mr Biswas falls into a deep depression—he gets to live a solitary life independent of his family (although he still relies on them for work) but fears the laborers around him. Indeed, he realizes that he fears and resents all people, whom he sees as capable of finding the freedom and community he has never had, and finds little pleasure living on his own. When he achieves independence, he recognizes how much he yearns for belonging. Before one of his family’s visits, he contemplates killing them; after they arrive, he refuses to interact with them and has a mental breakdown, which leads him to attack his wife, Shama, in front of their children and send them back to Hanuman House. Then, without realizing why, he insists that his son Anand stay; when Anand agrees, he is overjoyed and finds sincere happiness for the first time in the book.
Ultimately, Mr Biswas manages to achieve both independence and belonging without rejecting the family that he previously believed barred him from both. He learns to see his dependence on his family as a form of belonging and not as an imposition on his personal space. After he leaves Green Vale, Mr Biswas is overjoyed to wait out his illness in Hanuman House, where he finally realizes that—due to the family’s size—nobody will bother him or pay him much mind. Whereas the emptiness of his life in Green Vale depressed him, he finds peace in “the absence of the world” in Hanuman House. When he moves to Port of Spain, Mr Biswas again finds a sense of belonging and independence precisely through dependence on his family members: his brother-in-law Ramchand houses him and shows him around town, and then he finds the financial freedom to pursue his journalism career when Mrs Tulsi allows his family to live in her house for only eight dollars a month. Yet, when Mr Biswas finally buys his own house on Sikkim Street in Port of Spain, it is nearly uninhabitable and throws him into a deep debt from which he never recovers. He is miserable until the closing pages of the book, when he is nearing death, but his daughter Savi has returned from her studies abroad to find a job that pays more than he ever could have made. Finally, his family feels complete, and he finds a sense of belonging through a house and child that belong to him.
In a sense, Mr Biswas’s ability to feel independent and satisfied while utterly dependent and penniless reflects the ambivalent identity of colonized individuals and nations: they are never fully independent from colonial or financial overlords, whether they choose to identify with the victim or the oppressor, their families and histories or the powers that have forced them into destitution. Naipaul suggests that the feeling that one has actively chosen one’s path and community—even when one lacks choice in some fundamental sense—is a crucial component of a valuable life and can prevent one from dying “as one had been born, unnecessary and unaccommodated.”
Independence vs. Belonging ThemeTracker
Independence vs. Belonging 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.
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.
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.
As fatigue overcame him he began to long for the day to end, to relieve him of his freedom. He went back to the dark rooms tired, empty, miserable, yet still excited, still unwilling to sleep.
When her feet began to swell, Mr Biswas wanted to say, “Well, you are complete and normal now. Everything is going as it should. You are just like your sisters.” For there was no doubt that this was what Shama expected from life: to be taken through every stage, to fulfill every function, to have her share of the established emotions: joy at birth or marriage, distress during illness and hardship, grief at a death. Life, to be full, had to be this established pattern of sensation. Grief and joy, both equally awaited, were one. For Shama and her sisters and women like them, ambition, if the word could be used, was a series of negatives: not to be unmarried, not to be childless, not to be an undutiful daughter, sister, wife, mother, widow.
There was no need to ask where Jagdat was going. He was going to his family. He too, then, lived a divided life.
The darkness filled his head. All his life had been good until now. And he had never known. He had spoiled it all by worry and fear. About a rotting house, the threats of illiterate labourers.
Now he would never more be able to go among people.
He surrendered to the darkness.
He was going out into the world, to test for its power to frighten. The past was counterfeit, a series of cheating accidents. Real life, and its especial sweetness, awaited; he was still beginning.
He comprehended the city whole; he did not isolate the individual, see the man behind the desk or counter, behind the pushcart or the steering-wheel of the bus; he saw only the activity, felt the call to the senses, and knew that below it all there was an excitement, which was hidden, but waiting to be grasped.
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.
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.
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!
Mr Biswas went past Dehuti to look at the body. Then he did not wish to see it again. But always, as he wandered about the yard among the mourners, he was aware of the body. He was oppressed by a sense of loss: not of present loss, but of something missed in the past. He would have liked to be alone, to commune with this feeling. But time was short, and always there was the sight of Shama and the children, alien growths, alien affections, which fed on him and called him away from that part of him which yet remained purely himself, that part which had for long been submerged and was now to disappear.
[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.
The goats were an invention of Mr Biswas which never failed to irritate Suniti. “Goats,” she said to the yard, sucking her teeth. “Well, some people at least have goats. That is more than I could say for some other people.”
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.