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 part. Sir Samson Courteney never questions the worst manifestations of the British class system, but he is generally genial and seems more a pathetic bumbler than a villain, although his actions constitute villainy in their unintended consequences. Lady Courteney devotes herself to re-creating the English countryside in Africa by tending her garden no matter what catastrophes are occurring. She is so oblivious as to be childlike, although a rather privileged child. The Armenian merchant Youkoumian, with his comic burlesque of the English language and his constant scheming and minor bullying, is a relatively harmless lickspittle whose cruelties seem incidental. Prudence Courteney thinks of herself as an intellectual, an absurd overestimation that draws Waugh’s sharpest fire, but she is so much the lighthearted, rose-lipped English girl whose head is turned by romantic notions that she becomes rather endearing. Her fate is wholly undeserved. The two women who arrive from England to work for “Dumb Chums” as members of the League for Animal Rights are easy figures for ridicule, representative of all busybodies whose concern for animals or plants obliterates any consciousness of human need. The French minister and the other turf-protecting officials are caricatures from a stage farce or a slick magazine illustration used solely for comic effect. Most of the local power brokers are similarly flat and exist only to provide some flavor and variety to the forms of corruption and mendacity Waugh takes a perverse pleasure in describing. Attributes shared by all these targets of Waugh’s satire include the almost complete self-centeredness of their actions and their stasis.
The only character who exhibits any sense of change, any potential for growth beyond the prison of self, is Basil Seal, and he is initially presented as the most selfish and self-regarding person in the narrative. His transition from scrounging frivolity and self-assured indifference to engagement with another’s problems eventually leads him to act in accordance with principles he previously suppressed. This is Waugh’s indirect method for indicating how the values he defines as a part of “civilization” might be...
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- Critical Essays