Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 651

Evelyn Waugh’s aesthetic sensibility, the product of centuries of upper-class British breeding, did not permit him to advocate directly the values and customs in which he believed, but his strong moral sense, culminating in his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, was at the root of his writing. His casual racism,...

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Evelyn Waugh’s aesthetic sensibility, the product of centuries of upper-class British breeding, did not permit him to advocate directly the values and customs in which he believed, but his strong moral sense, culminating in his conversion to Catholicism in 1930, was at the root of his writing. His casual racism, xenophobia, snobbery, and superciliousness are the trappings of a serious mind at its most trivial, and their expression in comic thrusts is a part of a dazzling surface that does not prevent the reach and depth of his thinking from coming through in his best work. His relish for satirizing the ethnic absurdities of peculiar local customs is balanced by his glee in rendering comparable British idiocies, and while his dismissal of anything un-British as inferior is a cultural vice his background made inevitable, it is his concentration on what he believed were failures of his own nation that is most enduring in his work. While his attitudes toward the non-British seem stupidly condescending today, they are still a side issue. It is the British who matter for him, and it is their pretensions that most disturb him. Native or European folly is unimportant, as these people, for Waugh, are not really important. Thus, the title Black Mischief is partly ironic since the “mischief” is often lethal, but mischief nevertheless, not evil.

According to his standards, which are very high, when the British fail as a result of deficiencies of character, education, or cultural shortcomings, then, for Waugh, civilized values—all that England should stand for—are in danger. Natives mimicking the foolishness of British colonial behavior are not culpable; they are simply copying a standard once formidable, now in decline. The full brunt of Waugh’s attack is on the British who should be carrying Rudyard Kipling’s “burden” but who fail to guide or lead because of defects which Waugh flays. At the center of this failure is a self-centeredness that Waugh, covertly committed to concepts such as duty, courage, sacrifice, and loyalty, finds intolerable. His religious inclinations demanded a transcendence of the self in the name of some higher or more profound institution, and while Waugh relished the upper-class cultivation and refinement of intellectual, social, and sexual expression, he believed that these were not sufficient goals in themselves. Basil Seal seems to be endowed with the cold wit of the professional guest, the mocking eye of the casually brilliant dilettante, and the indifferent sneer of the pampered snob, but, once removed from London where these “qualities” are cultivated for their own sake, he is stirred from exhaustion and ennui to call upon traditional values, which Waugh supports. What complicates the moral equation and gives Waugh’s work its unique style is the fact that Seal’s London ways have also admirably suited him for survival in the midst of turmoil and lawlessness. This is Waugh’s way of obliquely explaining and apologizing for all the elements in a complex psychological amalgam.

In a letter to the Cardinal of Westminister in 1933, defending Black Mischief against charges of anti-Catholic sentiment, Waugh wrote that his “silly pages” were an attempt “to prosper the cause which we all have so closely at heart.” He claimed that he chose “ridicule” as the method “more becoming the novelist” in his attack on evil, but when, as he put, “barbarism at last emerges from the shadows and usurps the stage,” the contrast between the merely ridiculous and the genuinely tragic becomes strikingly evident. Because Waugh does not explore the psychology of barbarism, the Conradian horror at the heart of darkness is only suggested, but even as a hovering presence, it is still powerful. Writing a decade before the world began to become aware of the full range of bestiality of which “civilized” Europeans were capable, Waugh’s presentation of a comic plain registering sinister vibrations is still effective as living history and as moral advocacy.

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