Brideshead Revisited Essay - Critical Essays

Critical Evaluation

Evelyn Waugh’s official biographer, Christopher Sykes, asserts that the author relied upon metaphor to a greater extent in Brideshead Revisited than he had ever done before. Sykes further suggests that metaphor can be a perilous device. A principal characteristic of this novel is certainly its richness of language, yet some critics regard the language as the novel’s chief sin. Foremost among these detractors is Edmund Wilson, who profusely praised Waugh’s earlier novels and described him as the greatest comic genius since George Bernard Shaw. In his review of Brideshead Revisited, however, Wilson claimed that the novel tends toward romanticism and sentimentalism. Critics who consider the structure of the novel to be its greatest flaw argue that too much of the novel is devoted to the Oxford section and too little to Ryder’s crucial love affair with Julia. Still others dislike the tone set by the protagonist and first-person narrator, Charles Ryder, who strikes them as smug and snobbish.

Despite the adverse criticism the work received—far more than was leveled at any of Waugh’s previous novels—Brideshead Revisited was easily the most popular of Waugh’s books. It was so popular in America that it brought the author downright celebrity, a level of attention that, in the role of curmudgeon that he played from his middle years until his death, he claimed not to enjoy.

Political aspects of Brideshead Revisited were controversial. Certainly Waugh’s portrayal of the incompetent Lieutenant Hooper, who complains constantly about the army’s inefficiency but cannot be trusted to perform the simplest task, was interpreted as hostility toward the working class. Indeed, Waugh has Ryder state that he considers Hooper the symbol of Young England, a typical product of the awful age of the Common Man. Controversial, too, was the fact that Brideshead Revisited was regarded as the first novel in which Roman Catholicism is at the heart of the narrative.

The far-from-ideal Marchmain family is certainly a curious device if, as some have charged, Waugh’s novel is indeed an apologia for Catholicism. Lord Marchmain has been separated from his wife for many years and lives with his mistress in Venice. Lady Marchmain is lovely, kind, and good, but she is also enigmatic. Her saintliness makes her into a kind of vampire, who unintentionally sucks the lifeblood from her husband and second son. The eldest child, heir to Lord Marchmain’s title, is Brideshead (Bridey), who is as stolid as his younger brother is charming,...

(The entire section is 1057 words.)