Brideshead Revisited Essay - Critical Overview

Critical Overview

The reviews of Brideshead Revisited ranged from adoring to condemning when the book was first published in 1945. James F. Carens in The Satiric Art of Evelyn Waugh notes that while the magazine Catholic World raved about the novel and called it "a work of art," critic Edmund Wilson (as quoted by Carens) was less positive. Even though Wilson was an admirer of Waugh's earlier, more satirical works, he called Brideshead Revisited "disastrous" and declared that the author "no longer knows his way." John K. Hutchens, reviewing the novel in 1945 for the New York Times, wrote that the novel "has the depth and weight that are found in a writer working in his prime."

Carens encourages readers to weigh the book carefully, advising, "A novel that has provoked such diverse views deserves consideration. It may be an imperfect work; it can scarcely be a vapid one." Indeed, despite many critics' disappointment with the book's lack of satirical sharpness, Brideshead Revisited is the book that introduced American audiences to Waugh.

Much of the negative criticism of Brideshead Revisited has charged that in this book, Waugh leaves his earlier empire of hard-bitten satire and wades into the gentler world of romance. Some critics, such as Paul Fussell in the New Republic, appear to suggest that Waugh has become soft in his middle age. Comparing Brideshead Revisited with Waugh's short stories written in the 1930s, Fussell argues:

If, in that overripe fantasy, manufactured in the grim 1940s, he seems at pains to register his worshipful intimacy with the aristocracy, in these stories of the 1930s, he exhibits for the unearned income set an intellectual and moral disdain hard to distinguish from that of a contemporary Marxist-Leninist. If he'd conceived Sebastian Flyte in 1935, he'd have little trouble discerning from the start the selfishness, cruelty, and fatuity behind those expensive good looks.

For many critics, Brideshead Revisited marks a change in Waugh's style that continues for the rest of his writing life. Richard P. Lynch, in Papers on Language and Literature, remarks that Waugh's later novels, except for The Loved One, "are more reassuring to readers of conventional romance." The...

(The entire section is 953 words.)