Evelyn Waugh’s characters may seem a collection of zanies to the reader but not to themselves, at least not within the context of the story. Waugh makes his characters all the more comic because they act their ridiculous roles with dignity, at times with high moral sentiment. They are amusing (or to some readers, repulsive) precisely because they do not imagine themselves as objects of amusement (or of revulsion).
Like most of Waugh’s feckless heroes in other novels (Paul Pennyfeather, Tony Last, Gilbert Pinfold, Basil Seal), Dennis Barlow, the protagonist, is an innocent thrust into a world he cannot fully comprehend. A failure at nearly everything—poetry, screenwriting, his love life—he is, nevertheless, a sympathetic victim because he lacks malice. His romantic counterpart, Aimee Thanatogenos (her name, a grotesque mixture of words derived from French and Greek, may be roughly translated into English as “beloved of the race of death”), is a simpleton even more innocent, if that is possible, than Dennis. Waugh imagines her as a typical American woman: feeble in intellect, indecisive, sentimental, perpetually immature.
None of the other characters, whose activities revolve around those of the star-crossed lovers, are evil; they are, simply, bores, both the snobs and the vulgarians. Among the snobs are the Englishmen, especially Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (who may have been modeled, according to Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, upon the dignified actor Sir C. Aubrey Smith) and Sir Francis Hinsley. In this group also is Mr. Joyboy, a Californian whose claim to be an artist rests mainly on his cosmetic ability to transform hideous corpses into smiling replicas of human beings. Mr. Joyboy complements Aimee, because he is similarly immature, a perpetual child under the domination of his mother.
Other characters are, in different degrees, crassly materialistic (Mr. Schultz and the tycoons at Megalo) or dissipated (Mr. Slump) or pretentious (Dr. Wilbur Kenworthy). Stripped of their comic masks, these vulgarians represent forces that hasten the decline of Western culture.