How does Evelyn Waugh use irony to illustrate guilt in A Handful of Dust?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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One major theme in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust concerns the emptiness of Anglicanism. In other words, Waugh felt the Anglican church had become merely a tradition without any substantial meaning behind it as members of the church no longer had true faith. The main character Tony Last is a prime example of a church member who has no real faith. He loves going to church but only out of what he considers to be family tradition. He has no genuine faith in God. Reverend Tendril is also used to portray the theme of the emptiness of Anglicanism, and the sermons he delivers are an excellent example of Waugh's use of irony. What's more, since the irony is used to portray the theme of spiritual emptiness, and those like the minister should feel guilty about being spiritually empty and failing to lead his congregation closer to faith, the irony is also being used to portray a sense of guilt.

Tendril delivers sermons to Tony's village in England that Tendril actually wrote while he was a chaplain in the Queen's  military stationed in India during England's colonial days. Hence, the sermons actually have nothing to do with his present congregation. We particularly see how unrelated his sermons are when we hear him referring to "our Gracious Queen Empress," meaning the deceased Queen Victoria, and further in passages describing being miles and even an ocean away from England, as we see in the passage:

... and let us think of our dear ones far away and the homes we have left in [Queen Victoria's] name, and remember that though miles of barren continent and leagues of ocean divide us,we are never so near to them as on these Sunday mornings. (p. 53)

Tendril delivering non-related sermons is an excellent example of situational irony. Situational irony refers to any moment in which something happens that would be the complete opposite of what was expected to happen. A. T. Watt gives us the excellent example of a weatherman: "When a TV weather presenter gets caught in an unexpected storm, it is ironic because he or she is expected to know the exact weather changes" ("The 3 Types of Irony"). Similarly, a minister should know that ministry needs to be a very personalized experienced. If a minister is called to preach before multiple flocks, or congregations, he is expected to cater to the spiritual needs of each flock because everyone has different spiritual needs. Hence, the fact that he has not written a new sermon in decades but is rather recycling all of his old sermons is extremely ironic and very different from what would be expected of a minister and, therefore, a perfect example of situational irony.

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