A House for Mr. Biswas: Naipaul’s art of characterization
Characters constitute one of the vital constituents of a novel. Characters evolve on the basis of the novelist’s imagination and experience. The novelist endows them with distinct manners in order to create an illusion of reality. Since the facts of life are transmuted into fictional terms in A House for Mr. Biswas, all characters are vivacious and convincing. A large number of characters of the novel remind one of those of Dickens novels. Naipaul’s characters are both types and individuals. Most of the men and women presented in the novel belong to the Indian Community of Trinidad and represent the middle class and the destitute.
Detestable yet dignified, weak but independent, Mohun Biswas, the protagonist of V.S. Naipaul’s A House for Mr. Biswas is an ordinary man with extraordinary interests and visions. Through his quest for identity, Naipaul throws light on the dilemma of rootless existence, uncertainty and the futile struggle for security and identity in a postcolonial society. Mr. Biswas inherited the expatriate sensibility as a legacy from his forefathers, who had been migrated from India to the West Indies as indentured labourers of the sugar-estates. Although his father, Raghu, succeeded in striking root in an alien country by making his own house in Parrot Trace, a small village of the West Indies, he became homeless and fatherless in his childhood, and was uprooted from that village. After leaving his paternal village he moved from one place to another, and finally, he drifted from the countryside to the metropolitan city of Port of Spain. He struggled all through his life, a postcolonial everyman’s struggle, to gain an identity of his own. His search for root and professional identity in a chaotic society constitutes the central theme of the novel.
Mrs. Tulsi is an important character in the novel. She is the center of the Tulsi family around whom the other characters like Sharma and Seth revolve She maintains a matriarchal tyranny over the household. It is really significant that in Hanuman House, the usual Hindu tradition by which daughters go to live with their husbands and become almost servants of their mother-in-law is reversed, in that the husbands stay in that the husbands stay in the daughters’ household and become subservient to their mother-in-law, Mrs. Tulsi This is part of the humiliation which Mr. Biswas feels so strongly and tries to reject. The manipulation which Mrs. Tulsi directs towards those around her is clearly concealed under an appearance of martyrdom and suffering if someone steps out of line, she faints and retires to the Rose Room where she is endlessly massaged by the faithful Sushila and other daughters, and remains there until the offending son-in-law, who encounters silence and hostility on all sides, is forced to capitulate and apologise to her. She is able to control her moods according to the occasion, to become maudlin and sentimental to disarm her opponent. This is shown when she tries to win Mr. Biswas back to family allegiance after the birth of Savi, whom he wishes to name Lakshmi.
The novel shows the decline of the Tulsi family which is caused by internal wrangles and the disruptive effects of a different culture. Mrs Tulsi is anxious for her sons to succeed and sends them to a Roman Catholic collage, thus compromising her. Hindu beliefs as Mr Biswas is quick to point out with his image of her as ‘the orthodox Roman Catholic Hindu’ who has salmon only on Good Friday. Mrs Tulsi moves to Port of Spain when she feels that the younger god’ Owad should be looked after during his schooling following his brother’s marriage. It is at this point that the power structure in Hanuman House begins to be threatened, since Seth, though he can maintain control, fails to impose harmony.
We are told that, after the death of Mrs Tulsi’s sister, Padma, the ‘virtue’ of the family dissolves, and Mrs Tulsi assumes more and more the role of an invalid. She is still able to exert control over her daughters, and on her move to the city from short hills, succeeds in making their lives a misery as she develops her command of invective and obscenity.
To conclude, human destiny looms large in all Naipaul’s works and is reflected largely in the primitive vitality of his art. Naipaul’s characters represent a world not. moved by love but dominated by greed, conflict and futility. As a satirical artist, he aims to provide a kind of hurtful laughter that may offer catharsis but not redemption. Naipaul observes, “My world is more confused than that of the other writers; I’ve had to fit in as part of the background” (Drozdiak 17), and hence, it is easy to recognize that the miseries and sufferings faced by Naipaul’s protagonists have natural conformity with the experiences of people all over the world, living in an alien land dominated by a colonized society.