53 pages 1 hour read

V. S. Naipaul

A House for Mr. Biswas

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 1961

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Summary and Study Guide


A House for Mr. Biswas is a 1961 novel by V. S. Naipaul. The story takes a postcolonial perspective of the life of a Hindu Indian man in British-owned and occupied Trinidad. Now regarded as one of Naipaul's most significant novels, A House for Mr. Biswas has won numerous awards and has been adapted as a musical, a radio drama, and a television show. This guide is written using an eBook version of the 2001 First Vintage edition.

Content Warning: The source material features depictions of domestic abuse, assault, and violence towards children and animals.

Plot Summary

The birth of Mohun Biswas causes a stir of confused excitement in the rural community of Trinidad and Tobago where he is born. His parents are Hindus from India who live on the island of Trinidad. The community is surprised by his birth because he has six fingers on one hand. This extra finger is taken as a sign of bad luck. According to one wise man—referred to locally as a pundit—the extra finger will mean that the infant Mr. Biswas will grow up to be an unlucky person and recommends keeping him away from water. The pundit also suggests that Mr. Biswas will be a lecher and possibly a liar. He should also be shielded from his father for the first 21 days of his life, and during this time, his mother should only look at him by his reflection in a mirror.

When he is a child, Mohun Biswas is entrusted with his neighbor's calf. He leads the animal to a nearby stream and is surprised by the depth and noise of the water. His fascination with the stream distracts him, and the calf wanders away. Frightened of being punished, Mohun hides from his parents. His father becomes convinced that his son has fallen into the stream. Remembering the pundit's words, he jumps into the water and drowns. The death causes a breakup in the Biswas family. Mohun's sister is sent away to become a servant for her mother's sister Tara and her husband Ajodha. Mohun's brothers, Pratap and Prasad, work on the local sugar plantation while Mohun and his mother live in a house on the estate. Mohun is a member of the Brahmin caste, so he is sent to be trained as a pundit by a man named Jairam. However, his education is cut short because he offends Jairam's religious principles by throwing a stained towel on a flowering tree used for important rituals. Instead, he is sent to work in a rum shop until he is falsely accused of theft by the owner, Bhandat.

While searching for work, Mr. Biswas discovers that he is a talented sign writer. He is hired to work on a sign for a shop owned by the Tulsi family. Mr. Biswas spots a young woman named Shama and mentions to the family that their daughter is very attractive. The Tulsi family is impressed that a member of the Brahmin class would want to marry Shama, so they hastily arrange the marriage. Mr. Biswas tries and fails to back out of the marriage, so he marries Shama. Mr. Biswas is welcomed into the Tulsi family and allowed to run the store. However, his business dealings are not successful and many of the decisions he makes lose the family money. The Tulsi family takes Mr. Biswas, Shama, and their young daughter Savi out of the store and move them to a barracks in the plantation town of Green Vale, where he will be an overseer.

Mr. Biswas dislikes his marriage and his job on the plantation, where the workers hate him. He becomes increasingly sad and unhappy with his existence. Noticing the steady creep of his depression, the Tulsi family recall Mr. Biswas from the plantation and give him time to recover. By the time Mr. Biswas has four children, he recovers and decides that he wants to make a new life for himself where he is not bound to the Tulsi family.

Mr. Biswas goes to the Trinidad capital city, Port of Spain. He leaves his family behind. When he finds a job as a journalist at a newspaper known for running half-truths and gossip items, the Tulsi family hears about his success, and they are impressed. Shama invites Mr. Biswas to reunite, and he meets her at a house in the city owned by the Tulsi family. During this time, Mrs. Tulsi decides that her son Owad should be sent to England to study to become a doctor. She leaves the house to make arrangements and, while she is away, Mr. Biswas enjoys his freedom. He is not able to enjoy the house for long, however, as his brother-in-law Seth soon arrives and begins making changes to the house. Seth's behavior annoys many members of the Tulsi family, and they turn against him. Most of the family moves away from Seth to a large estate named Shorthills.

The Tulsi family endures a large upheaval. Mrs. Tulsi becomes sick, and several family members die. At this time, the outbreak of World War II influences the Trinidad economy. The local buses become unavailable, and children struggle to get to their different schools. Mr. Biswas is annoyed by this, and he decides to change his life again. He returns to the Tulsi house in Port of Spain, living with Chinta, his sister-in-law, and her husband, Govind. Another couple also lives in the house, and Mr. Biswas privately mocks them, referring to them as the Tuttles, as they enjoy the books of author W. C. Tuttle, who Mr. Biswas considers to be a poor writer. On the ground floor of the house, a widowed Tulsi family member runs a boarding school.

At the newspaper, Mr. Biswas becomes an investigator and is placed in charge of whether individuals should be granted poor relief funds. The funds are designed to provide help to the neediest, most desperate people in Trinidad at a time of tough economic travails. He does well, to the point where he is eventually offered a role with the newly founded Community Welfare Department. He is even given a company car, which wins him many plaudits among the Tulsi family members.

Owad returns from England with a medical degree. His arrival means that Mr. Biswas is told to leave the house for a while so Mrs. Tulsi can redecorate his room in preparation for Owad's return. When Owad returns, he is treated like a hero. His nephew Anand (who recently placed third in a Trinidad-wide writing contest) is pleased to see Owad. He is particularly interested in his uncle's newfound political beliefs, and they talk often about communism. Owad becomes the de facto head of the family. His elevation grates with Anand and Mr. Biswas, who are soon told to move out of the house. Mr. Biswas learns about a house which is for sale, and he convinces himself to buy it, craving the independence it will offer. He borrows money from Ajodha to buy the house but, once his family is moved in, he realizes that it is poorly constructed and that he has been tricked. In the final years of his life, his other children move abroad to study. He grows to respect Shama more. He suffers numerous heart attacks, the second of which leaves him limited in his mobility. His children are successful, more successful than he ever was. Five years after buying his house, Mr. Biswas dies.

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By V. S. Naipaul