Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Row, Row, Row Your Boat
Mr. Biswas first introduces his motto “Paddle your own canoe” (101) when speaking to Govind. He explains that he would not give up sign-painting or his independence to work as a driver on the Tulsi estate. To no surprise, Govind repeats Mr. Biswas’ motto to Mrs. Tulsi and Seth. Mr. Biswas is mocked throughout the remainder of the novel for his idea of independence by Seth and other members of the Tulsi family.
Although Mr. Biswas made several attempts to gain independence from the Tulsi family by moving out of the Hanuman House on several different occasions, he always went crawling back to the Tulsis. He was unable to “disconnect”, both emotionally and physically. The Tulsis constantly degraded Mr. Biswas and his aspirations of building his own home, thus leaving their establishment. Each time Mr. Biswas gained the courage or became outraged enough to leave, he found himself returning to Hanuman House in need of food, shelter and often employment.
Mr. Biswas wanted to believe in his own motto of independence, but after moving back in with the Tulsis multiple times, he finally began to realize that his motto was not holding true. After a discussion with Shama and Anand regarding Lawrence and his father, Mr. Biswas told Anand, “I don’t depend on them for a job. You know that. We could go back any time to Hanuman House. All of us. You know that.” (365). This shows that Mr. Biswas is aware of his dependence on the Tulsi family to some extent. Even though Mr. Biswas seemed to notice his developing failure he continued trying to “paddle his own canoe,” (134).
Throughout the novel, I wondered if Mr. Biswas would ever prove his motto or at least escape it to avoid further mockery. This question was not answered completely until the very last page of the novel when Naipaul writes, “And the house did not fall.” (564). Not only can this sentence be taken literally, that no, the house did not fall regardless of its numerous imperfections, but it also means that Mr. Biswas did not fail as a person either. Although not achieved until the final months of his life, Mr. Biswas’ motto finally held truth. He had a house on his own that showed some permanence, unlike the various other residences that he temporarily entertained. The house, the most important symbol of the novel, ultimately earns its meaning. The house on Sikkim Street was proof that Mr. Biswas finally achieved independence.
Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Monday, February 20, 2006
To Speak of Him
A House for Mr. Biswas comes to a close most obviously with the death of Mr. Biswas. Perhaps it is not this death—the inevitable end of man’s journey through life—but rather, the presence of females that is most significant to Naipaul’s ending.
One might be out of bounds in speculating that Naipaul, who frequently contradicts many liberal sentiments, is a feminist, but his female characters do tend to be a source of support for his male protagonist.
Though Bipti is not exactly the model mother, Mr. Biswas still seeks her as a source of comfort. When he returns from Jairam’s house, he desires his mother to “welcome him with joy, to curse Jairam and promise that she would never allow him to be sent away again to strangers” (55).
It is Tara who brings order to the early chapters of Mr. Biswas’ story. She sorts out the funeral arrangements for the family, and treats Bipti’s children as her own responsibility. It is through her direction that Mr. Biswas finds his first jobs—and was responsible for “official notice [being] taken of Mr Biswas’s existence” (43).
Women dominate in the Tulsi household, and it is indeed Shama who gives Mr. Biswas a sense of security when they move out of the Hanuman House for the first time, rather than the decrepit house. His sense of “home” comes of being “glad to be told to do something and enjoying it when she reproved him for doing it badly” (139). Shama also comes to his rescue in managing the store, keeping the books. Perhaps most significantly, she is described as “a martyr” in any sort of stressful situation.
Mr. Biswas himself is often portrayed in a feminine manner, with a swollen belly resembling that of a pregnant woman. Perhaps it is this burden he carries—the unborn, unactualized dreams that leave him behind his female counterparts.
The focus of the novel seems to be Mr. Biswas' search for a house of a respectable and permanent nature. We learn in the Prologue that Mr. Biswas believes it would have been terrible "to have lived without even attempting to lay claim to one's portion of the earth" (11). Also, without a house, he believes that there would be "nothing to speak of him" (125).
Given this information, then, it may come as a bit of a shock that the house on Sikkim Street, with Mr. Biswas gone, is finally described as "empty" (564). Perhaps I put too much weight on these final words, but it seems significant that even though the house is still lived in, it is "empty" without Mr. Biswas. It could be speculated that it was not in fact the house that ends up speaking of him , but the women he left behind.
Life for a House
The Tulsi family, particularly Seth, thinks that Mr. Biswas is very ungrateful for all that they have given him. The Tulsis, including Shama and Mrs. Tulsi, insult Mr. Biswas for his selfishness by saying, "You come to us with no more clothes than you could hang on a nail." (533) The Tulsis seem to be Mr. Biswas' main motivation for getting a home of his own, simply so he will not have to rely on them for shelter, and such insults can no longer be used against him. While we can see the tyranny Mr. Biswas lives under while living with the Tulsis, we can also see how he is, as they say, ungrateful. Even Anand wonders why his father cannot simply be happy with what he has. Clearly, part of the struggle with Mr. Biswas is that his standards seem to be set unreasonably high, and it seems he cannot, as Anand points out, be happy with what he has.
Also, in his rampage to obtain a house of his own, Mr. Biswas takes out his frustrations and disappointments on Shama and his children. During his breakdown at Green Vale, he kicks a pregnant Shama and orders her and Savi out of the house, but demands Anand stays with him. In asking to keep Anand, Mr. Biswas knows he his intentionally hurting Savi, though of course she has done nothing wrong. He even completely misses the birth of Kamla, because he was incapacitated form his breakdown over the house. It is only until much later that Mr. Biswas reflects, "I have missed their childhoods." (510)
M. Biswas grew over time, and shortly before his death, he learned to appreciate the last and only house that was truly his. The house certainly had its flaws; "What could not be hidden by bookcase, glass cabinet or curtains, they accomodated themselves to." (556) However, after his first trip to the hospital, Mr. Biswas returns home and writes to Anand, "that he hadn't realized until then what a nice little house it was." (562) In the end, it took a nervous breakdown, several abandoned houses, many harsh words, bruised relationships, and a lifetime for Mr. Biswas to finally come around and realize he did not need to have all that he wanted, but to want all that he had.
That is why the ending is a happy one- because in his death, Mr. Biswas delivers his dreams in the shape of Anand. Mr. Biswas realized that he would fall short of his dreams in a gloomy doctor’s office in Port of Spain, “His freedom was over, and it had been false…If there ever was a place for him, it was one that had already been hollowed out by time, by everything he had lived through, however imperfect, makeshift, and cheating. (303)” Anand was created to be everything that Mr. Biswas wanted to be but never was. Anand shares many characteristics of his father, including the general gloominess that Mr. Biswas experienced so often in his young age. This is seen in the letters that he writes home, “They [Anand’s letters] were gloomy, self-pitying; then they were tinged with a hysteria which Mr. Biswas immediately understood. (561)” However, at the end of the novel Anand is the only one who has escaped, who has ventured to another land, who has obtained the education that Mr. Biswas so badly desired for himself in his own life. Anand is Mr. Biswas’ dream and identity, and this may be symbolic for the poor of Trinidad. This novel shows the difficulty of the struggle to the top, and the sacrifice that many people make so that their dreams may be achieved, even if it must be vicariously through future generations. Anand, although handicapped by inherited melancholy, will still arrive to be a successful person, thanks to his father’s dream. In the last line of the novel, Naipal writes, “Afterwards the sisters returned to their respective homes and Shama and the children went back in the prefect to the empty house. (564)” The empty house is Mr. Biswas, and the use of the word “empty” is crucial. All of his life, Mr. Biswas had been living in chaotic house after chaotic house, filled to the brim with screaming children, women, and men. How interesting, then, that this house, his house, is now empty. It is empty because Mr. Biswas has delivered his dream, his quest, from his troubled spirit, and now he is empty. He is able to rest in peace devoid of the pains that are associated with an unrealized dream.
This birth is symbolic of the fact that it is difficult, yet possible, for a person to find their identity in a globalized world. The opportunities for Mr. Biswas were much more diverse and numerous than for his previous generations. He saw so much opportunity and grandeur in the literature that he read, movies that he saw, and people that he met, but was restricted due to his past, his place in the world, and economic standing. A globalized world makes an individual’s dreams much larger- and this can lead to extreme frustration. While this novel does show the difficulty of finding identity in a globalized world, it also offers hope for those from imperfect backgrounds. This hope is offered through the symbol of Anand, who is meant to carry the dream of his family one step further.
Sunday, February 19, 2006
Mohun's Noble Journey
Yet, with all of this, I would maintain that this book has a happy ending.
The first evidence that I find for this comes in one of the final lines of the book. After Mr. Biswas has died, the well-dressed mourners fill his rickety house, “And the house did not fall” (564). Mr. Biswas’s efforts were not entirely futile. He had purchased a house for his family to live in outside of the sphere of influence of the Tulsis. And, although he paid too much for it, and although his family was going into a great deal of debt for it, and although it was not in the best of shape, the house did not fall. Perhaps more importantly, the house remained after Mr. Biswas died, as a lasting legacy, as proof that Mohun Biswas had lived and worked in Trinidad.
In addition to this argument, some words from the prologue might help to solidify this book’s “happy” ending. The situation in the house, at least from this perspective, doesn’t seem to be so bleak. When talking about Shama, since he had moved into the house, “he had grown to accept her judgment and to respect her optimism.”(6). Shama, in turn, “had learned a new loyalty, to him and to their children; away from her mother and sisters, she was able to express without shame” (6). The physical distancing from the Tulsis had helped the family dynamic, and had helped the at times strained relationship between Mr. Biswas and his wife.
Mr. Biswas continues to revel in his surrounding, “the audacity of it” (6) as he puts it. As he continues, “That he should have been responsible for this seemed to him, in these last months, stupendous” (6). So, regardless of the condition of the house, and regardless of the conditions of its purchase, it brought a great deal of satisfaction to Mr. Biswas, which was his quest all along.
But I think the most important words that are written to prove the book’s “happy”, if sober, ending are the final words of the prologue. Naipaul writes, “How terrible it would have been…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” (11). If nothing else, Mr. Biswas’s journey to stake his own claim, to carve out a niche for himself and his family, can be seen as a noble journey. And, perhaps the reason that he was able to die in such peace, and to wonder at and revel in the house that anyone else might see as worthless, was because he recognized the nobility of his undertaking, and could respect the results it produced, giving his life, and the book about it, a happy ending.
Thursday, February 16, 2006
A House for Mr. Biswas
Sunday, February 05, 2006
Roll with Me, Henry
Ironically, while imperialism acts isolationist, it is also concerned with exerting control; unfortunately, as history has shown, too much force can lead to rebellion and a regime change. This happens to Henry when Helen returns from Germany and he tries to maintain control. For one, his plan to "capture" Helen at Howard's End, "clever and well-meaning as it was, drew its ethics from the wolf-pack" (241). Secondly, when Margaret disobeys his plan, he orders Charles to forcibly remove the Schlegels from Howard's End, citing "'the rights of property itself'" (278). By treating Margaret and Helen like animals to be manipulated, Henry fails to connect with the Schlegels on a human level; in doing so, he causes Margaret to rebel against him, spend the night at Howard's End, and nearly leave him for good.
Clearly, Mr. Wilcox's plans cannot control his marriage and Howard's End. Yet after Charles is sent to jail, "Henry's fortress gave way. He […] shambled up to Margaret afterwards and asked her to do what she could with him" (285). Here, he finally admits weakness and relinquishes control to Margaret. He then begins to connect with the outside world instead of seeing others as things to be controlled or kept at a distance. It is important to note that he continually worries "'dreadfully'" about "'his part of the tangle'" (287), so he accepts some responsibility for the consequences of his actions. Moreover, in forgiving Helen and giving Margaret Howard's End, Mr. Wilcox shows he can eschew isolationism and indifference and show forgiveness and understanding.
On the other hand, is Henry's change of heart entirely satisfying? When he tells Margaret about Mrs. Wilcox's note, he says that she "'scribbled "Howards End" on a piece of paper. I went into it thoroughly, and, as it was clearly fanciful, I set it aside'" (292). Yet when Henry first received the note, Mrs. Wilcox explicitly gave Howard's End to Margaret, and he dismissed it within minutes (82-85). Henry is not clear on whether he has forgiven his wife for writing it, and he does not show much guilt for disregarding his wife's final wish. Since Forster leaves the context of Henry's words ambiguous, his statement could easily be attributed to an old man's forgetfulness. Yet if one interprets this scene as Henry manipulating facts to protect himself, perhaps Forster is presenting another statement on Imperialism: that an Imperialist's habits of control and protection can still linger and prove disabling even after an empire has fallen.
"There would after all be a future"
In the early 20th century people were in transition to the modern era, from the known to the unknown, the “seen” to the “unseen.” Global changes in economies and governments worried many that their worlds would be shattered in pieces. Forster nevertheless remained convinced that a better, fairer world was possible. Indeed, the very last sentence of the novel sums up Forster’s primary message that in the end everything will be more plentiful and successful than ever: “The big meadow! We’ve seen to the very end, and it’ll be such a crop of hay as never!” (293) Thus, although the endings of the personal stories of the characters are anything but happy, the larger story for which the individual characters are merely metaphors, is prophetic and optimistic. This is Forster’s happy ending.
The Wilcox family, particularly Henry, represents the new and aggressive upper-middle class not particularly concerned with the poor and other problems of the society not directly connected to them. In the end Henry grows more spiritual and his “fortress gave way” (285). When he “could bear no one but his wife, he shambled up to Margaret and asked her to do what she could with him” (285). This demonstrates Forster’s faith that there is some hope for the likes of Henry to realize eventually that money and business are not the only meaningful matters in life.
The Schlegel sisters, by contrast, symbolize an enlightened upper class who would be the instrument of change in the world. Helen, though flighty and impractical, is the most idealistic character in the whole novel. Her idealism is tempered by her sister Margaret’s pragmatism. Margaret “picked up the pieces, and made us a home” in a time of chaos (289). Forster’s hope was that an enlightened upper class, inspired by a pragmatic idealism, would uplift the poor and bridge the gulf between rich and poor so that, in the end, the meek – rich or poor – could “inherit the earth.”
Leonard, representing the poor working class, would not himself inherit anything, unfortunately. His untimely “end” was the culmination of a series of misfortunes to befall him, and there never was a silver lining for Leonard. The child he conceived with Helen, however, stood to inherit Howard’s End. Leonard and Helen each paid a high price for a “great chance that a child would be born into the world, to take the great chances of beauty and adventure that the world offers” (282). Leonard lost his life, and Helen lost her place in society. But in the greater story there is hope. Hope that the classes would merge and that class distinctions would be erased. Leonard’s and Helen’s child represents this union of rich and poor and a hopeful future.
In the end the three families – the Wilcoxes, Schlegels and Basts – are brought together under one roof, united and unified by a common problem. They didn’t necessarily change to suit each other, but at least they learned to appreciate one another for their differences. “They were building up a new life, obscure, yet gilded with tranquility” (287). The classes, too, in their struggle for a place under the sun, would also “be melted down, all over the world” (290).
In this way, Howard’s End is a very good example of a novel that “‘build[s]’ toward closure, but … [is not] fully or finally governed by it” (Miller). Even though there is no happy ending for the individual characters, there is some measure of closure for the major characters who are brought together at Howard’s End. But as Miller argues, the closure is not complete. It is far from complete and there is great uncertainty about their futures. For example, what will happen to Henry, Margaret, Helen and her child? Will Margaret outlive Henry and inherit Howard’s End? Will Helen’s child inherit Howard’s End after all?
Just as there is a happier ending at the deeper level of Forster’s story of class struggle and redemption, there is also greater closure. Forster foresees a promising future of reconciliation between rich and poor. This happy ending thus brings some closure to the more pessimistic state of affairs that exists throughout the novel. Just as with the individual characters, however, that closure is beset by uncertainties. There is no explicit promise and conclusion. The most promising and hopeful ending, that of a child inheriting Howard’s End – of the meek inheriting the earth – is possible, even foreseeable. But it is not guaranteed.
“Only connect!… Live in fragments no longer”
If this were the only result of the novel’s events, Howard’s End would have truly achieved a happy ending. However, there is a cost to this connection. The fact that Mr. Wilcox, Margaret, Helen and her baby all live together signifies the connection of the three families in Howard’s End: the Wilcoxes, the Basts and the Schlegels. However, these three families have lost some of their distinctness and identity in this union. Margaret gets Howard’s End and in her words, “had charged straight through these Wilcoxes and broken up their lives,” (291). Yet she made many sacrifices of her identity in order to triumph. Because of Mr. Wilcox’s influence she both failed to help Leonard Bast and deceived her sister. Mr. Wilcox has also lost some of his identity as a result of his contact with the Schlegels. By the end of the novel, he who had previously been characterized as an independent businessman and rational capitalist no longer works. The knowledge of his son’s fate was a huge blow to his mind and health. “I’m broken- I’m ended,” he tells Margaret (285). It is a blow that he never fully recovers from. Though he exclaims happily when Helen comes up to the house at the end, in the preceding scene he is described as a “weary” old man. “He used the old phrases, but their effect was unexpected and shadowy” (291).
Leonard Bast certainly cannot be said to have a happy ending. Leonard always sought to improve himself and grow into a better life by reading and adventure. Ironically, every point of contact with the upper class he admired brought him more misery. Unwillingly, the Schlegels caused him to lose his job, his house and finally his life. If anything, this would be an argument against trying to connect with other people, because it appears to bring Leonard only misery. Margaret’s assertion on page 289 that an adventure may have been enough for Leonard to get out of life seems unsatisfying. This is particularly true when Leonard’s reaction to his adventure in the woods is taken into account. “Looking back, it wasn’t what you may call enjoyment…You ought to see once in a way what’s going on outside, if it’s only nothing particular after all,” (102). He had an adventure, but he never got the enjoyment that he wanted. The only solace may be found in the fact that his spirit lives on through the child he had with Helen. The child will inherit Howard’s End and have a much happier life than his father.