Evelyn Waugh’s novels are distinguished by thenarrative detachment with which they survey the madness and chaos of the modern age. His characters participate in a hopeless, often brutal, struggle for stability that hardens them to the absurdities of civilization and leads them, ultimately, to an unheroic retreat from the battle of life. Ironic detachment, thus, is Waugh’s principal comic technique and his principal theme as well.
Because each of Waugh’s novels reflects actual experiences, the nature of this detachment changes through the course of his career. In his early works, which satirize the havoc and instability of the 1920’s and 1930’s, he achieves comic detachment by splicing together the savage and the settled, the careless and the care-ridden, the comic and the tragic. Victims and victimizers alike are caught in the whirlwind of madness. Waugh’s satiric method changes in his postwar novels: Comically ineffectual characters still wage battle against the absurdities of life, but one is more aware of their struggle to maintain or recapture spiritual and moral values amid the absurdity. Waugh maintains comic distance in these novels by recommending a quiet sort of spiritual heroism as the only source of people’s happiness in the uncertain postwar world.
Decline and Fall
Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, traces the misadventures of Paul Pennyfeather, a temperate, unassuming student of theology at Scone College, Oxford. He is “sent down” for indecent behavior when drunken members of the university’s most riotous (and, ironically, most aristocratic) club assault him, forcing him to run the length of the quadrangle without his trousers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Pennyfeather is an innocent victim temperamentally ill suited for the world into which he is thrust. Indeed, Decline and Fall owes much to Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759): its Menippean satire, its cyclical “resurrection” of secondary characters, and the hero’s ultimate resignation from life.
The action itself provides a thin framework for Waugh’s satire on modern life. Pennyfeather finds employment, as Waugh himself did, as a schoolmaster in Wales—the only occupation, Pennyfeather is told, for a young man dismissed from the university for indecent behavior. At Llanabba Castle, he meets three characters with whose stories his own is interlaced: Grimes, a pederast and bigamist who pulls himself out of the continual “soup” he gets into by feigning suicide; Prendergast, a doubting cleric who becomes a “modern churchman” and is eventually murdered by a religious fanatic; and Philbrick, the school butler, a professed impostor, jewel thief, and arsonist who manages to secure a continual life of luxury by his preposterous stories about his criminal life. At Llanabba, Pennyfeather also meets Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a rich socialite to whom he becomes engaged; he is arrested the afternoon of their wedding for unknowingly transporting girls to France for her international prostitution ring. His innocent association with Margot thus leads to his conviction for another act of “indecent behavior,” this time leading to a prison sentence in Blackstone Gaol—a “modern” penal institution.
What strikes one about the novel is not the injustices served Pennyfeather, but the very madness of the world with which his innocence contrasts. Characters with criminal designs—Margot, Philbrick, and Grimes—are unaffected by changes in fortune; those in charge of social institutions—Dr. Fagan of Llanabba Castle and Sir Lucas-Dockery of the experimental prison—are eccentrically out of touch with reality. Their absurdity, when contrasted with Pennyfeather’s naïve struggle, defines Waugh’s theme: The only sanity is to become cautiously indifferent to the chaos of modernism. At the end of the novel, when Pennyfeather returns to Oxford under a new identity and continues his study of the Early Church, he assumes the role of a spectator, not a participant, in the madness of life.
Although Decline and Fall’s narrative structure is more derivative and its characters less fully rounded than those of Waugh’s later novels, it displays techniques typical of his fiction at its best. The callous descriptions of the tragic—little Lord Tangent’s death from Grimes’s racing pistol or Prendergast’s decapitation at Blackstone Gaol—and their fragmented interlacement into the plot are hallmarks of Waugh’s comic detachment. Tangent’s slow death from gangrene is presented through a series of casual offstage reports; the report of Prendergast’s murder is incongruously worked into verses of a hymn sung in the prison chapel, “O God, our Help in Ages Past.” The tragic and the savage are always sifted through an ironic filter in Waugh’s novels, creating a brutal sort of pathos.
A Handful of Dust
Waugh’s fourth novel, A Handful of Dust, was his first to present a dynamically sympatheticprotagonist. Pennyfeather, from Decline and Fall, and Adam Symes, from Vile Bodies, attract one’s interest largely because they provide a detached perspective from which one can observe the chaos of modern civilization. Basil Seal in Black Mischief, although a participating rogue, is amiable largely because of his comic disregard for the mischief he makes. Tony Last of A Handful of Dust, however, is a fully sympathetic character as well as a pathetic victim of the modern wasteland to which the title alludes. Unlike Paul Pennyfeather, Tony is not simply an observer of social chaos: His internal turmoil is set against the absurdity of external events, and in that respect, his quest for lost values anticipates that of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited and of Guy Crouchback in Sword of Honour.
Waugh’s theme is the decadence of tradition, emblematized, as it is in many of Waugh’s novels, by the crumbling estates of the aristocracy. Tony’s futile effort to maintain his Victorian Gothic estate, Hetton Abbey, thus symbolizes his struggle throughout the plot. He is wedded to the outmoded tradition of Victorian country gentlemen, while his wife, Brenda, embraces the social life of London. She eventually cuckolds Tony by having an affair with the parasitic John Beaver, whose mother, an interior decorator, sees in her son’s affair an opportunity to “modernize” Hetton with chromium plating and sheepskin carpeting.
The pathos one feels for Tony is ultimately controlled by the absurd contexts into which Waugh sets the pathetic scenes. When his son, John Andrew, dies in a riding accident, Tony is left emotionally desolate, yet the cause of the accident is ironic; John Andrew’s horse is startled by a backfiring motorcycle, a modern “horse.” Later, one is made brutally aware of the irony of Tony’s grief when one learns of Brenda’s initial reaction to the news of her son’s death: She assumes it was John Beaver, her lover, not John Andrew, her son, who died. In the same way, Tony’s later divorce from Brenda empties him of values he traditionally respected. He consents to the legal convention that he should give evidence of his infidelity, even if his wife has been the unfaithful partner. His evidence incongruously turns into an uncomfortable weekend with a prostitute and her daughter at Brighton, and the absurdity of this forced and inconsummate infidelity further defines Tony’s loneliness. Ironically, it provides him with a means to deny an exorbitant divorce settlement that would force him to sell Hetton Abbey.
In the end, Tony searches for his Victorian Gothic city in the jungles of South America and suffers a delirium in which his civilized life at Hetton Abbey is distorted; these scenes are made comically pathetic by interlaced scenes of Brenda in London trying to regain the civilized life she lost in her estrangement from Tony. Ultimately, she does not find in London the city she sought, nor does Tony in South America. Tony does find, instead, an aberration of his vision; he is held captive by an illiterate who forces him to read aloud from Charles Dickens’s novels in perpetuity.
Perhaps Waugh’s emotional reaction to his own divorce from Evelyn Gardner prior to the publication of the novel accounts for the increase of pathos in A Handful of Dust. Perhaps Waugh realized that thinness of characterization in his earlier novels could lead only to stylistic repetition without stylistic development. Whatever the reason, this novel depicts characters struggling for moral equilibrium in a way that no previous Waugh novel had done.
Brideshead Revisited is different from Waugh’s earlier novels in two important ways. First, it is the only novel Waugh finished that employs the first-person point of view. (He had attempted the first person in “Work Suspended” in 1942, but either the story itself faltered or Waugh could not achieve a sufficient narrative detachment to complete it.) Second, Brideshead Revisited was the first novel in which Waugh explicitly addressed a Roman Catholic theme: the mysterious workings of divine grace in a small aristocratic Catholic family. As a result, it is Waugh’s most sentimental and least funny novel. Although it departed radically from his earlier satires, it was Waugh’s most popular and financially successful work.
The narrative frame creates much of what is sentimental in the novel but also provides a built-in detachment. Charles Ryder’s love for Sebastian Flyte during his years at Oxford in the 1920’s and for Julia Mottram, Sebastian’s sister, a decade later, live vividly in Ryder’s memories when he revisits the Brideshead estate during a wartime bivouac. His memories tell the story of Sebastian’s and Julia’s search for happiness, but because they are remembered by an emotionally desolate Ryder, the novel is a study of his spiritual change as well.
Before he meets Sebastian, Ryder is a serious-minded Oxford undergraduate, not unlike Paul Pennyfeather at the end of Decline and Fall. Like Pennyfeather, he is drawn into a world for which he is unprepared, yet unlike Waugh’s earlier protagonist, Ryder is enthralled by a make-believe world of beauty and art. The Arcadian summer Ryder spends with Sebastian at Brideshead and in Venice are the most sumptuously written passages in any of Waugh’s novels, reflecting—as Waugh admitted in his 1959 revision of the novel—the dearth of sensual pleasures available at the...
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