The action of Brideshead Revisited describes providence, grace, and the redemption through suffering of a jaded, often hilarious modernism. Evelyn Waugh explores these themes in the memory of his fictional narrator, Charles Ryder. In the prologue, Ryder prepares to move from the military camp where he has been stationed for several months. At the age of thirty-nine, he reflects that he has begun to feel old, and his love for the army has died. His company travels to camp on the grounds of Brideshead Castle, a name that evokes Charles’s memories and propels him into the narrative, which comprises the body of the novel.
Charles first remembers his experience of college at Oxford, which essentially begins when he meets Lord Sebastian Flyte, a Roman Catholic of eccentric habits, endearing innocence, and a love of beautiful things. As an apology for his drunken behavior, Sebastian invites Charles to a luncheon in his rooms, and the two quickly form a deep friendship. On one occasion they travel to Sebastian’s home at Brideshead Castle, stopping on the way for wine and strawberries in the countryside. Sebastian explains that his mother, his older brother Lord Brideshead, and his sisters Julia and Cordelia live in the house, while his father lives with a mistress in Venice. On this first visit, Charles begins to note stirrings in himself of his own love of beauty, which will later develop into his artistic career and his religious conversion.
The friends spend the term in decadent misbehavior, which elicits a remonstrance from Charles’s cousin Jasper and a different kind of remonstrance from the colorful Anthony Blanche. At the end of the term, Charles returns impoverished to his father, with whom he engages in silent battles of will over the dinner table. Their relationship declines until a summons from Sebastian brings Charles to spend the rest of the vacation at Brideshead. There, Charles indulges his interest in art and aesthetics. He also discovers the central place the Roman Catholic religion holds in...
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Brideshead Revisited first appeared in a limited edition in December, 1944 (Waugh often published small, sometimes specially engraved and illustrated limited editions for his friends). The regular edition followed in May of the next year. For fifteen years, Waugh had been acquiring a faithful but not a huge audience. Brideshead Revisited made him a best-selling author for the first time. It also alienated a number of critics.
To some, like Edmund Wilson, the richness of the language is the novel’s chief sin, causing it to tend throughout toward romanticism and sentimentalism. For others, the structure of the novel is at fault. James F. Carens argues that too much of the novel is devoted to the Oxford period and too little to Charles Ryder’s love affair with Julia Flyte. For still others, the protagonist himself is the chief problem. Ryder is a snob who seems clearly lacking in generosity of spirit. Moreover, Waugh, so these critics argue, compounds his difficulties by choosing Ryder as his narrator. So strong is the suggestion, even if it be erroneous, that the first-person narrator is a mouthpiece for the author, that for the first time Waugh was personally identified with his unsympathetic hero.
The novel is a framed story. It begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, both set in wartime England. The flashback, which is the bulk of the novel, constitutes The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (the subtitle). This flashback is divided into two books: “Et in Arcadia Ego,” which deals largely with Ryder’s Oxford years, and “A Twitch upon the Thread,” which chronicles the working of the divine will upon the Marchmain family and, through them,...
(The entire section is 708 words.)