The Destabilization of Masculinity in a House for Mr. Biswas and the Mimic Men

Article excerpt

V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men expose conflicting and contradictory performances of masculinities in a colonized, creolized culture. Focusing on Naipaul's male protagonists, we argue that the complex interconnections between gender performance, nationalism, race, class, and ethnicity destabilize Indo-Caribbean masculinities and exacerbate power imbalances at a personal and cultural level.

V.S. Naipaul once stated, "The politics of a country can only be an extension of its ideas of human relationships" (Hemenway 193). Through an investigation of Naipaul's treatment of masculinity as illustrated by his male protagonists in A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men, we argue that this citation should be qualified to read, "The politics of a country can only be an extension of its ideas of gender relations as they intersect with race, class, ethnicity, and nation." While an unqualified usage of gender is frequently interpreted as referencing women, Naipaul's attention to the contradictions and negotiations of masculinity undertaken by his male protagonists--coupled with his overly simplified portrayals of female characters--allows us to understand that, for Naipaul, gender refers to men. Focusing on the subtleties of masculine performances between differently positioned men within a single, yet multitudinous, culture, we read Naipaul's careful consideration of the pitfalls of masculinity to directly comment on the emasculating effects of colonial rule and postcolonial consciousness between more and less hegemonic men. (1)

A House for Mr. Biswas and The Mimic Men dramatize the socio-historical effects of colonialism in Trinidad and focus on the plight of Indo-Caribbean men, albeit in different historical moments and class positionings. Through their personal trials and tribulations, the protagonists demonstrate how East Indian men in the British Caribbean performed their gender in reaction to a larger culture of domination, in ways that continued to undermine, as well as strengthen, their individual agency. By engaging with Naipaul's depiction of the performative aspects of masculinity, this essay explores the ways in which these novels illustrate how gender, specifically masculinity, is intimately connected to questions of cultural survival and of identity formation as interwoven with issues of race, class, ethnicity, and nation.

Set in colonial Trinidad, A House for Mr. Biswas is a painfully humorous account of an ordinary man's epic struggle for independence. After marrying into the large and overbearing Tulsi family, Mohun Biswas becomes increasingly dependent on his financially stable in-laws. His efforts to break free from Tulsi rule, which result in a constant shifting of vocations and unsuitable residences, almost always end in disappointment. Despite being tied down by his family duties, Mohun refuses to give up his dream of becoming a self-made man and owning a house of his own. In The Mimic Men, protagonist Ralph Singh is a middle-aged man of Indian heritage who is brought up in Isabella (a fictional British-dependent Caribbean island) (2) and completes his education in England. At the start of the novel, Ralph is in exile writing his memoirs at a quiet hotel on the outskirts of London. He documents his memories in an attempt to give his life meaning and order. As he recalls his paradoxical childhood, unsuccessful marriage, and unsatisfying career as a government minister, he becomes overwhelmed with a feeling of cultural displacement. Ralph's moving and disturbing memoirs expose his uncertainty and disillusionment. His life is the story of a post-colonial man who desperately wants to understand his own cultural identity.

It is not just the protagonists' unique performances of masculinity that highlight their importance for understanding the relationship between colonial and gender relations. The relationship between the two characters--and the two novels, more broadly--is significant. …