Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Brideshead Revisited is concerned above all with the operation of divine grace in the modern world. Permeated with grotesque incidents and metaphysical similes and allusions, it incorporates supernatural agency into the conventions of the realistic novel. In this context, both the appeal and the strangeness of Christianity become central themes. Waugh’s depiction of a Catholic family through the eyes of a nonbeliever defamiliarizes Christian culture to highlight its paradoxes. The Flytes discuss sacred and profane ideas side by side; they discern supernatural motives and causes in everyday events; even the lapsed members of the family believe firmly in the reality of sin.
Although he presents three rebellious Catholics and an agnostic assent in the end to the existence and providence of God, Waugh consistently maintains that conversion does not solve the painful dilemmas of life. Instead, the author draws on a Catholic understanding of redemptive or sacrificial suffering. Thus, Sebastian’s suffering confers the dignity of holiness on his apparently ignominious life, while the fulfillment of Charles’s love for Julia requires his separation from her. In the world of Brideshead Revisited, genuine happiness and worldly success rarely coincide: The novel is a true tragedy, redeemed by the persistence of faith and not by an outwardly happy ending.
Because Waugh sets his novel in historical time, his portrayal of the...
(The entire section is 286 words.)
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In the preface to a 1959 reprinting of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh defined its theme as "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." If one adds that Waugh identified divine grace with the Roman Catholic Church, one will then have quite an accurate idea of the book's central thematic strand. In Waugh's view, his religion is the only means by which the current destruction of social traditions and consequent loss of individual self-confidence can be overcome, and his attempt to demonstrate this in a novel prompted many critics to complain that Brideshead Revisited was nothing more than a well written religious tract.
There are two factors which soften and largely ameliorate the book's undoubted dogmatic tendencies. The first of these is Waugh's fairness in taking cognizance of opposing points of view, which he presents as honestly held and, given the superstitions some Catholics still indulge in, entirely reasonable; indeed, many of Brideshead Revisited's Catholic readers were deeply offended by its sometimes satirical treatment of problematic details of belief and practice. The second is the presence of a significant secondary theme which humanizes the religious message by showing how it affects the love affair between protagonist Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte, one of the daughters of the Brideshead estate. It is the attraction, affinity and ultimate separation of these two personifications of...
(The entire section is 260 words.)
Religion and Catholicism
Brideshead Revisited is filled with references to its characters' views on religion. Charles Ryder is an agnostic, having received little or no religious training as a child, and each member of the Flyte family presents a different image of a Catholic. Charles's cousin Jasper advises him in book one, chapter one, "Beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm." Throughout the novel, Charles questions members of the Flyte family about their beliefs and even makes light of religion until his epiphany at the end of the book.
Sebastian is a believer but has trouble staying within the rules and strictures of Catholicism. "Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic," he notes in book one, chapter four. In that same chapter, he and Charles have their first discussion, of many, about Catholicism, and Charles expresses great amazement that Sebastian believes the "awful lot of nonsense" that Catholics ascribe to, such as the story of Christ's birth. "Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me," answers Sebastian. His life is a struggle between what he wants to do and what he believes his church requires him to do. After years of drunkenness and wandering around the world, Sebastian ends up as an aide at a monastery in Tunis, in a sense returning to his religion while still being...
(The entire section is 1620 words.)