Wednesday, February 22, 2006


Row, Row, Row Your Boat

A House for Mr. Biswas opens and closes with the death of Mr. Biswas. Many would find this an extremely depressing, circular novel. I see this as a “happy ending”. Mr. Biswas was born into misfortune, having six fingers, an uncontrollable sneeze and a poverty stricken family. From childhood, Mr. Biswas lived life as somewhat of a vagabond. He lived with his parents until his father’s death, and then he lived with Tara and eventually moved out on his own, which was only the beginning of his numerous relocations throughout the novel.

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.

I'm not sure that I would characterize the end of this novel as "happy", but I do agree that Mr. Biswas gains what he was looking for at the end of the novel. For Mr. Biswas, simply owning his own home and asserting his independence from the Tulsis is more than enough to satisfy him. Americans have such a bad habit of equating success with dollar amounts. However, as a Trinidadian, this is not what measures Mr. Biswas's success. Mr. Biswas owns a house. He dies there, surrounded by members of his family. Yes, his house is falling down and yes, he is in debt up to his ears. But in a land full of unbelieveable poverty, he still can lay claim to a piece of land that is his alone. That is why he is able to die a (relatively) happy and satisfied man.
I wholeheartedly agree that the ending of “A House for Mr. Biswas” is indeed a happy one. Throughout the novel, Mr. Biswas is constantly struggling to “lay claim to one’s portion of the earth” (11). His experiences with the Tulsis, the Chase, Green Vale and Shorthills discourage Mr. Biswas, but they do not defeat him; his desire to “paddle his own canoe” remains constant. Although Mr. Biswas’ house is not perfect, he and his family are able to look beyond that, for they quickly “forgot the inconveniences of the house…What could not be hidden…they accommodated themselves to” (556). The house symbolizes Mr. Biswas independence from not only the Tulsis, but also everyone and everything that has held him back or prevented him from accomplishing his one true goal – “And the house did not fall” (564). Some may find Mr. Biswas’ actions selfish in that he leaves his family in debt, forced to pay off the house that was so important to him. Yet I see Mr. Biswas’ actions as selfless. He spends his entire life trying to own his own house, only to die within a few years after gaining his independence. The house represents Mr. Biswas’ legacy, a place where his wife and children can have a life of their own without depending on anyone else for survival. Savi, who “got a job at a bigger salary than Mr. Biswas ever could have got,” offers hope that she can pay off Mr. Biswas’ debt and possibly support her family (563). All in all, “A House for Mr. Biswas” truly does enjoy a happy, uplifting ending.
I follow with what Anna says. I wouldn't say this was a happy ending in the traditional sense of the word. There is no coming together of three different families under one house with a bright and happy future like Howards End or the picture perfect ending to Oliver Twist. I think the ending to A House for Mr. Biswas was just a real ending portraying what life would really be like in Trinidad. Granted that this is Naipaul’s portrayal of Trinidad to a Western world of literature, I’m sure that some elements of this novel strike close to the bone. Personally, I agree, that although not traditional, the ending to A House for Mr. Biswas is as happy as can be. Naipaul manages to captures that essence of happiness when Mr. Biswas returns from the Hospital and sees that they have done up the house. He walks into his garden and is, in a way, finally complete.
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