Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh

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Summary

(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

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 the family’s life. At the end of the summer, the two friends visit Lord Marchmain and his mistress, Cara, in Venice, where they enjoy the artistic beauties of the city. Cara describes to Charles the hatred Sebastian and his father bear toward their mother and warns him about Sebastian’s drinking habit.

In the following term, Sebastian begins to exhibit symptoms of alcoholism. Charles realizes the gravity of his problem at Easter, when Sebastian becomes drunk in front of his family. When the two are arrested for Sebastian’s driving drunk, the family responds by treating Sebastian like a child, having him watched and stopping his allowance. Charles sides with Sebastian against the rest and gives him money, although drunkenness and family tension strain their friendship. Finally, Sebastian is sent down from Oxford, and Lady Marchmain sends Charles away from Brideshead.

Charles leaves Oxford for art school in Paris but returns to London for the General Strike of 1926. There, he learns that Lady Marchmain is dying, and the family sends him to search of Sebastian. Finding him in a Moroccan hospital, Charles stays with him until he is discharged and then returns to England alone. He paints the Marchmain family’s London house just prior to its destruction, a work that launches his artistic career.

Ten years pass, after which a growing feeling of deadness and an unhappy marriage provoke Charles to flee abroad in search of peace. Returning to England three years later, he meets Julia Flyte on board their ship. She tells him of her stormy romance and unhappy marriage to politician Rex Mottram. Charles and Julia begin a love affair that breaks both of their marriages, though Julia becomes torn between her love for Charles and her conscience.

In the spring before World War II, Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead Castle to die theatrically at home. Bridey, Cordelia, and Julia ask that a priest be admitted. Although Lord Marchmain refuses at...

(The entire section is 1,542 words.)