Decline and Fall mingles farce with grim tragedy. Episodic in form, with many of its scenes no more than a page or so in length, it is a penetrating yet hilarious study of disordered English society in the period between the wars. Evelyn Waugh insisted that his books were not intended as satires, since the satirical spirit presupposes a stable and homogeneous society against which to project its critical exposure of folly and vice. For all that, the writer demonstrates in this novel a tremendous talent for comic satire. Paul Pennyfeather’s misadventures reflect one phase of the contemporary mood of disillusionment. The character of Grimes, on the other hand, who is a bounder and a cad, is timeless—a figure who would have been as much at home in the days of the Caesars as he was in the reign of King George V. Waugh’s distortions and exaggerations have also the quality of fantasy, for in his pages the impossible and the believable exist simultaneously on the same plane.
Decline and Fall is the first and possibly the best work of Waugh, a luminary of the English satirists. The novel is notable for its economy of time and space. The action extends over one year, and the protagonist’s circumstances at the beginning and end are virtually identical, which neatly rounds off the story. Waugh’s prose is sparse, his epigrams unlabored, as in, for example, Paul Pennyfeather’s quip that the English public school is a perfect conditioner for life in prison. Waugh lays low individuals and whole classes of society with a flick of a proper name: Digby-Vaine-Trumpington for a vain, trumpeting young aristocrat; Maltravers for a secretary of transportation; Prendergast for a clergyman aghast at his apprehension of divine indifference; Grimes for an earthy rascal; Pennyfeather for an impecunious, half-fledged scholar.
The tone is persistently cheerful. No amazement is expressed, even by the innocent and beleaguered protagonist, at anything that befalls him. Tragedies occur offstage. The death of Prendergast, for example, is revealed in a hymn. Lord Tangent’s demise is recorded as follows: In chapter 8, he is shown crying because he has been wounded in the foot by a bullet from the starter’s pistol; in chapter 12, Peter Beste-Chetwynde reports in an aside that Tangent’s foot is gangrenous; in chapter 13, the news comes that the foot is being amputated; finally in chapter 19, it is reported in an offhand way that he has died.
The list of groups and institutions that excite the author’s scorn is extensive; his opprobrium falls on the aristocracy, the newly rich, the universities, the public schools, old-school penology, newfangled penology, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Church of England, historical landmarks, modern architecture, and the League of Nations, to name a few....
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