Study Guide

A Handful of Dust

by Evelyn Waugh

A Handful of Dust Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Waugh’s “new” style, which is so closely associated with Brideshead Revisited (1945), was actually introduced in A Handful of Dust. This novel contains familiar elements, the most obvious of these being the victim as hero. The reader’s perception of the tone, or spirit, of the earlier novels is largely determined by a lack of identification with their protagonists. Adam Fenwick-Symes, for example, is a cardboard figure whose passivity is thoroughly appropriate to the world of Vile Bodies, a world in which there is a crazy inconsequence to everything, including infidelity, financial ruin, and even violent death. The things that happen to Tony Last in A Handful of Dust will not be unfamiliar to the reader of the earlier novels. Yet whereas Adam is a farcical figure, Tony is a tragic one.

Tony Last loves his ancestral home, Hetton. Each bedroom at Hetton features a brass bedstead and a frieze of Gothic text; each is named from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Tony has slept in Morgan le Fay since leaving the night nursery and his wife, Brenda, sleeps in Guinevere (a fitting bedchamber for the adulteress she is to become). Tony eventually loses Brenda to John Beaver, a despicable nonentity from London. His loss of Brenda is not amusing, as is Adam’s loss of Nina, but poignant. In A Handful of Dust, identification exists between the narrator-persona and the protagonist-persona. Thus, Tony engages the reader in...

(The entire section is 611 words.)

A Handful of Dust Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

John Beaver lives in London with his mother, an interior decorator. Beaver is a worthless young man, twenty-five years old, who moves in the social circles of his mother’s wealthy customers. He is not well liked, but he is often invited to parties and weekends to fill spaces made vacant at the last moment.

One weekend, Beaver is invited to Hetton Abbey by its young owner, Tony Last. Tony lives in the old Gothic abbey with his wife, Brenda, and his young son, John. It is Tony’s dream that someday he will restore his mansion to its former feudal glory. Brenda, however, is bored with her husband’s attachment to the past; she finds relief in her weekly trips to London. Beaver’s stay at Hetton Abbey is rather dull, but Brenda likes him and does her best to entertain him. On her next trip to London, she sees him again and asks him to take her to a party. At first, Beaver seems reluctant; then he agrees to escort her.

Beaver and Brenda leave the party early, creating some idle gossip. In a way, the gossipers are correct, for Brenda has definitely decided to have an affair with Beaver. She returns home to the unsuspecting Tony and tells him that she is bored with life in the country. She says that she wants to take some courses in economics at the university in London. Tony, feeling sorry for her, okays her renting of a one-room flat in a building owned by Mrs. Beaver. Brenda moves to London and returns to Hetton Abbey only on weekends.

One day, when Tony goes to London on impulse, he finds that his wife already has engagements. He is forced to spend the evening getting drunk with his bachelor friend, Jock Grant-Menzies. Tony’s escapade bothers his conscience so much that when Brenda returns for the weekend she is able to persuade him to let Mrs. Beaver redecorate in modern style one of the rooms of the old house. Brenda’s conscience also bothers her. She tries to interest Tony in a young woman she brings down for a weekend, but it is no use. He only wants to have his wife back home. He still, however, trusts her and suspects nothing of her affair in London.

Things might have remained the same indefinitely if young John Last had not been killed by a horse while he was fox hunting. Tony sends Jock to London to break the news to Brenda. At first, Brenda thinks that Jock is speaking of John Beaver’s death, for he is out of town. When she learns the truth, she is relieved, realizing for the first time how much she cares for Beaver.

With young John dead, she feels that nothing holds her to Tony. She writes him, telling him everything, and asks...

(The entire section is 1064 words.)