Despite—or, perhaps, because of—his birth to illiterate peasants in a mud hut in rural Trinidad, Mr Biswas is obsessed with social hierarchy and constantly worries about how he fits into it. His demands for respect and attention usually fall on deaf ears, especially within the Tulsi family, but his career as a journalist and government welfare agent in Port of Spain finally elevate him the status he has always sought. Despite achieving success through hard work and self-improvement, however, Mr Biswas does not abandon his faith in outward symbols of status, which ultimately contributes to his downfall. Naipaul shows how the temptation to conspicuously prove one’s wealth and success can undermine one’s ability to actually achieve them.
Mr Biswas is obsessed with winning respect and attention from the people around him, and this becomes his primary metric for self-worth. As an infant, Mr Biswas received luxurious oil massages from his mother; afterwards, “Mr Biswas’s importance steadily diminished” as his parents began viewing him as a liability, and nobody ever offered him the same level of care or affection. From the moment of his birth, the protagonist is only ever called “Mr Biswas,” and few other characters get this honor of being called by his last name; his desire for respect and sense of social entitlement precede and overshadow his actual status.
Mr Biswas’s insistence on respect reflects his desire to find legitimacy in the society that surrounds him, and not only in his own family. He was continually frustrated with the Tulsis because they did not acknowledge his presence or the value of his labor; indeed, Owad’s respect for Mr Biswas’s job was enough to engender a friendship between the two. At Green Vale, Mr Biswas was excited when he became a driver at the sugar estate because the workers initially looked up to him, particularly when he brought out the moneybags to pay them on Saturdays. And, when he worked for the government, “he discovered that he was a dandy” and began to buy expensive, tailored suits to show off his newfound wealth. Although he hated cricket and complained about having to cover it at the Sentinel, in his new post, Mr Biswas goes to an important match with a tin of cigarettes and box of matches, because that is what he believes respectable gentlemen should do. Similarly, his favorite parts about his jobs at the Sentinel and Community Welfare Department are the recognition they earn him—when he spends much of his time interviewing desperate and impoverished Trinidadians, he finds himself incapable of empathizing with them. Instead, he values his work merely because of his status and salary, and not because he might be doing a social good for people who grew up just like him.
More fundamentally, Mr Biswas insistently sees the world as divided into winners and losers, but his desire to “win” whenever possible also makes him horribly gullible and leads him into trouble, as it makes him jealously resent anyone above him who does not respect him back (like Pundit Jairam, Hari, Seth, and eventually Owad) and actually prevents him from winning the status he wants. Early in the book, after realizing that he does not want to marry Shama, he nevertheless goes along with it despite his reservations, feeling thrilled that “he had been involved in large events” and “achieved status.” Later, of course, he resents his confinement in the Tulsi family but never comes to think that his own propensity for social climbing may have been to blame. His most egregious mistake of all is buying an expensive house that looks beautiful and well-constructed in the dark—when a man comes to buy the materials from his old, burned-down house in Shorthills, Mr Biswas convinces himself to spend 5,500 dollars on the new house because his savings have suddenly gone from 800 dollars to 1,200 dollars, which—since it is in the thousands—feels close enough to 5,500 dollars that he comes to believe he is worthy of the better house. This conspicuous purchase turns out to be quite literally empty—the house’s bricks are hollow, and it is bound to crumble any day.
Ironically, most of Mr Biswas’s deepest failures are direct results of his attempts at winning esteem in the eyes of the world. The ultimate superficiality of his house reveals the shallow nature of his quest for status: he sees the house’s beautiful street and façade but fails to notice any of its flaws and buys it on impulse for a thousand dollars above its actual price. And, realizing these flaws, he nevertheless takes inordinate pride in his house, especially when the so-called W.C. Tuttle and his wife come to visit. The family’s true upward mobility stems from his own the children’s education in England, a place Mr Biswas never gets to visit, while his gestures to win the respect he believes he deserves in Trinidad end up looking foolish and overeager. Naipaul accordingly suggests that colonized peoples might understandably pursue status in order to overcome oppression, but warns that this can easily turn into a game of appearances that masks and often sabotages the economic and political terms under which freedom must be pursued.
Social Status and Hierarchy ThemeTracker
Social Status and Hierarchy 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.
How often did Mr Biswas regret his weakness, his inarticulateness, that evening! How often did he try to make events appear grander, more planned and less absurd than they were!
And the most absurd feature of that evening was to come. When he had left Hanuman House and was cycling back to Pagotes, he actually felt elated! In the large, musty hall with the sooty kitchen at one end, the furniture-choked landing on one side, and the dark, cobwebbed loft on the other, he had been overpowered and frightened by Seth and Mrs Tulsi and all the Tulsi women and children; they were strange and had appeared too strong; he wanted nothing so much then as to be free of that house. But now the elation he felt was not that of relief. He felt he had been involved in large events. He felt he had achieved status.
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.
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.
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!
It sickened him that he had fallen into Mrs Tulsi’s trap and shown himself grateful to her. She was keeping him, like her daughters, within her reach. And he was in her power, as he had been ever since he had gone to the Tulsi Store and seen Shama behind the counter.
[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.