The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

The primary component of both Evelyn Waugh’s distinctive “voice” as an author and his moral vision is his almost manic compulsion to regard all human existence from a satirical perspective. This angle of perception prohibits the development of character beyond the deft portraiture of representative figures of the world on view. Waugh is such a keen observer and so imaginative a recorder of behavior, however, that his depictions of the members of the British Colonial Service and the Mayfair “Smart Set” have become archetypal, the standard version of accepted historical truth. In addition, Waugh is comfortable with this satirical tack because, in the majority of his work, he is more interested in the reaction of his own mind/sensibility to the circumstances than that of almost any of his characters. With a few exceptions from his later works, particularly the Sword of Honour trilogy (1965), he is writing at a remove from all the characters. Even when he chooses to sympathize with them to some extent or to indicate his admiration for them when they act with reverence for the code he covertly cherishes and discretely proclaims, he maintains a judgmental distance. He expects only a few rare superior people to be able to see and know as much as he does, and, consequently, his attitude toward his characters ranges from mild amusement through scathing displeasure to absolute disdain and contempt.

The characters in Black Mischief are, for the most part, not worth contempt. Seth, with his pathetic misrepresentations of everything he has studied, is trying so hard to be regal with no instinct for how royalty should behave that he evokes pity for the most...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)


Seth, the newly crowned emperor of Azania. He is the twenty-four-year-old grandson of Amurath, the first emperor of this polyglot East African country. He has a naïve faith in the future and in progress, and he is determined to modernize the country at all costs. His progressive impulses are constantly at war with his tribal background and superstitious nature. He acquired enough information while at Oxford to prove Alexander Pope’s famous maxim that a little learning is a dangerous thing; his efforts are largely ineffectual. He gives boots to his barefoot army, and the soldiers eat them. He shows films on birth control all across the country, but they evoke only sympathy from the audiences for the unfortunate man on the screen who has so few sons.

Basil Seal

Basil Seal, an adventurer and one of the “Bright Young People.” He is handsome, charming, opportunistic, and unscrupulous. He once had Seth to lunch at Oxford. This tenuous association has lured him to Azania, where he finds himself high commissioner and comptroller general of the ministry of modernization.

Sir Samson Courteney

Sir Samson Courteney, the British minister to Azania. He is eccentric, inattentive, and comparatively unsuccessful in diplomatic life. The interminable assassinations, coups, and wars that characterize Azanian political life never touch him. He regards the slightest request from any Azanian as a...

(The entire section is 449 words.)