Sunday, February 19, 2006


Mohun's Noble Journey

A House for Mr. Biswas ends after 564 pages of pilgrimage. Mohun Biswas works and saves, spends, then works, then saves, and again and again tries to stake a claim for himself and his family on the island of Trinidad. The novel ends, on that 564th page, with the paper printing, “JOURNALIST DIES SUDDENLY” instead of his desired “ROVING REPORTER PASSES ON”, and his treasured son Anand decides against coming home to be with his father. To top it all off, his house, which he has worked his whole life for, was dilapidated and had been bought for too much money from a crooked land developer.

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.

Even though I can't let go of the "crappy" condition of Mr. Biswas' house, I can concede that this ending was a fitting one for this book. On one of the first days of class, we discussed the character of Mohun and whether he could be classifed as a "hero" or as a normal guy. I think that the plot has demonstrated that Mohun is an ordinary guy, with real struggles. So, it may be fitting the the house has imperfections among further inspection. I see Mr. Biswas as a modern man, and someone who is trying to negotiate a reality that is not founded in being a "mimic man." So, if in order to do this, he has to buy an imperfect house, at least it is his, and at least his efforts have amounted to something.
I definitely agree that the ending is fitting for the book. Taking the story at face value and as an example of "realism", I knew that the end would not involve Mr. Biswas winning the lottery and buying a mansion, or some other "Oliver Twist-like" ending, where Mr. Biswas turns out to be really rich and lives happily ever after. He worked hard his whole life, struggling until the very end, but he got his house. And true, it isn't a great house, but it is something he can claim as his own, the fruit of his labor. He came into the world as a nobody, without even a birth certificate to acknowledge his existence. If he had not achieved his one goal of possessing a house, it is quite possible he could have passed out of the world the same way he came in: with no proof of his existence. Therefore, I would even go as far as to say that it is a happy ending, because he goes from having nothing to claim as his own, to having physical proof of his life and work: his children and his house.
Great post & good conversation here. I can't tell you how happy it makes me to see veterans of the Realism class pulling it all together, throwing out those Oliver Twist connections. And I'm glad Lisa is reminding us that the house is crappy -- this is a key point to Naipaul's meaning here at the end of the novel.
I would also maintain that "A House For Mr. Biswas" ends happily and also plausibly. It has been noted by others that Biswas was, in fact, a simple man. He was not a man of great wealth, or knowledge, or even luck. Biswas was, however, in control of his future. He persevered through set back after set back to accomplish his single goal: to have a house of his own. Though the house he eventually acquired was imperfect so was his journey. Perhaps it is more the journey to desination than destination itself in this case. Biswas forced himself to turn around the bad luck he was born in to and that he encountered repeatedly to, as Mike said, stake his claim on the earth. He left his mark on Sikkam Street, but perhaps more importantly on his family who he worked so diligently to provide a better life for. Biswas' house, though crappy and imperfect, was his own.
I agree with Mike that Mr. Biswas managed to fulfill his lifelong quest successfully. But the more important and meaningful aspect of his success lay not so much in his house acquisition as in his children – or at least in Savi. Savi (who did not get the prunes and milk) represents a continuation of Mr. Biswas’ achievements. In fact, Savi is even more successful, getting “a job, at a bigger salary than Mr. Biswas could ever have got.” More importantly, however, she was a good person. Unlike Anand, she took care of her parents. Although Anand was a major disappointment (about which Mr. Biswas “never complained again”), he was just one of the many projects that never worked out. The disappointment of Anand, however, did not diminish the success of Savi. This success – and potentially the two younger daughters about whom we know very little – represents Mr. Biswas’ most important achievement. His children, who “would see about the debt,” were his true and only hope.
Mike, you have shown me the light. Before reading this blog, I had a very difficult time seeing the ending of A House for Mr. Biswas as anything but bleak. I could only focus on Mohun’s constant struggle through life. While reading the book, I wanted happiness for Mohun. Throughout Mohun’s journey, I never felt that he reached his internal goals, and obtained happiness. Mohun’s story was seemingly a let-down, after let-down, after let-down. However, I see your point that the ending of this book could have been much worse. Mr. Biswas did FINALLY find a house; and even though the house is “crappy,” it is still much better than most of his other homes. Also, I saw Mr. Biswas as a respectable man. In your post, you highlight the people at his funeral, and the eventual reconciliation with Shama. This is extremely important to the end of Mohun’s story because he continually pushed away from his family, when they were sometimes the only people on which he could rely. Your post is quite convincing; however, after reading an entire book of depressing struggles, I wanted a much happier ending (Possibly Disney style).
Katy raises the really interesting idea of, if this were to be made into a Disney film, who would be cast as the characters? If it were animated, who would be the voice of Mr. B??
I agree with Mike, that Mr. Biswas is definitely a happy ending. I feel as though when one passage says as Mike mentions that "And teh house did not fall," I took this to be that Mr. Biswas' spirit did not fall, he may have died physically, but spiritually, he left his mark. He endured hardships and strived to have his own house. Although it was sort of a run down house, it's okay, it was Mr. Biswas' house. The houses' condition signified all that Mr. Biswas had to endure in my eyes. Mike is right, his journey was a "noble one." Why? Because it took SOMETHING, for him to get what most people would think was really nothing. In my eyes, Mr. Biswas finally obtained his prize.
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