SOCIAL ANALYSIS: CHARACTER AND REBELLION IN “A HOUSE FOR MR. BISWAS” by V. S. Naipaul

Reading Time: 16 minutes

It is worth asking what is the social and universal significance of the rebellion of a mediocre, ridiculous man. Biswas certainly is this: an anti-hero moving through dimension after dimension of nearly epic Absurdity. He is forever trying to arrange his world, and ending up more deeply immersed in the Absurd situation. Though there are signs at his birth, these are part of the grotesque pattern of events which will be his life. Like Oedipus, he is fated to kill his father. Unlike Oedipus, he fulfils this “prophecy” in the most ridiculous of ways. His father drowns in an attempt to retrieve from a pond the body of his son, who is hiding under the bed at home. Later on, Biswas is to be the Scarlet Pimpernel for a local newspaper stunt, and is to read Samuel Smile’s tracts on the dignity of labour and the virtues of being a self-made man. It is the nearest he comes to achieving epic status.

It is predicted that he will be a liar, a lecher and a spend-thrift. Time proves him incapable of lechery, poverty preserves him from extravagance and he is incapable of falsehood since he constantly faces the harrowing facts of his condition. He is allowed no respite from the sense of his littleness. Riding like a Beckett character on his bicycle, moving countless times with his cumbersome furniture, savouring the bitter irony of his position as an investigator of “deserving destitutes,” he is l’homme absurd. But Biswas is also l’homme revolte, since he is persistent in hi& desire to understand existence and make sense of his milieu. It is important to note that Naipaul has illustrated the rebellion of a weak, mediocre man, since in writing elsewhere about West Indian society he undervalues the quality of rebellion in a world which he rejects as mediocre.

The death of his father has left this absurd Oedipus homeless and emotionally bewildered. The early affection which he feels for his mother dwindles when embarrassment and decorum prevent her from showing him any affection in the presence of strangers. But Biswas needs to be mothered and uses his aunt Tara as a mother-substitute until he allows himself to be browbeaten into marriage. It is difficult to imagine one less capable of physical or emotional love. He looks at his “comic make-believe clothes” regards his body with disgust, and swings his loose calf like a hammock or probes a stomach too distended to be fat. He confesses that he “don’t look like anything at all.” ( 143)

This sense of inferiority becomes particularly obsessive whenever Biswas is alone, and it leads to a grotesque exhibitionism which really indicates his need for love.

There were whole weeks when he devoted himself to some absurdity. He grew his nails to an extreme length and held them up to startle customers. He picked and squeezed at his face until his cheeks and forehead were inflamed and the rims of his lips were like welts. When his skin became pitted with little holes, he studied these with interest and found the perfection of their shape pleasing. And once he dabbed ointments of various colours on his face and went and stood in the shop doorway greeting people he knew (p. 165).

Mark Spilka has written about the comic grotesque. The principle of humanity in comic villains becomes overt in Dostoevsky’s fiction. The compulsion buffoon, Fydor Karamozov, insults and lacerates an entire monastery, and converts a pious businessman to his anti-faith. From the author’s point of view his buffoonery is defensive, a perverse display of his own in-adequacy performed with comic zest. Like Quilp in THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP. Karamazov is a master of sadistic play; his clever insults, his acute perception of human weakness, are part of a general campaign to advertise his need for love. His conduct is roughly that of a child rejected by his parents, who deliberately accentuates his faults to gain attention. The result paradoxically is a brilliant demonstration of potential worth.