Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1057

Evelyn Waugh’s official biographer, Christopher Sykes, asserts that the author relied upon metaphor to a greater extent in Brideshead Revisited than he had ever done before. Sykes further suggests that metaphor can be a perilous device. A principal characteristic of this novel is certainly its richness of language, yet some critics regard the language as the novel’s chief sin. Foremost among these detractors is Edmund Wilson, who profusely praised Waugh’s earlier novels and described him as the greatest comic genius since George Bernard Shaw. In his review of Brideshead Revisited, however, Wilson claimed that the novel tends toward romanticism and sentimentalism. Critics who consider the structure of the novel to be its greatest flaw argue that too much of the novel is devoted to the Oxford section and too little to Ryder’s crucial love affair with Julia. Still others dislike the tone set by the protagonist and first-person narrator, Charles Ryder, who strikes them as smug and snobbish.

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Despite the adverse criticism the work received—far more than was leveled at any of Waugh’s previous novels—Brideshead Revisited was easily the most popular of Waugh’s books. It was so popular in America that it brought the author downright celebrity, a level of attention that, in the role of curmudgeon that he played from his middle years until his death, he claimed not to enjoy.

Political aspects of Brideshead Revisited were controversial. Certainly Waugh’s portrayal of the incompetent Lieutenant Hooper, who complains constantly about the army’s inefficiency but cannot be trusted to perform the simplest task, was interpreted as hostility toward the working class. Indeed, Waugh has Ryder state that he considers Hooper the symbol of Young England, a typical product of the awful age of the Common Man. Controversial, too, was the fact that Brideshead Revisited was regarded as the first novel in which Roman Catholicism is at the heart of the narrative.

The far-from-ideal Marchmain family is certainly a curious device if, as some have charged, Waugh’s novel is indeed an apologia for Catholicism. Lord Marchmain has been separated from his wife for many years and lives with his mistress in Venice. Lady Marchmain is lovely, kind, and good, but she is also enigmatic. Her saintliness makes her into a kind of vampire, who unintentionally sucks the lifeblood from her husband and second son. The eldest child, heir to Lord Marchmain’s title, is Brideshead (Bridey), who is as stolid as his younger brother is charming, irresponsible, and doomed. Sebastian becomes a hopeless alcoholic. Perhaps Lady Marchmain is intended to represent God’s demands on Sebastian and his father; the harder they struggle against those demands, the more complete becomes their ruin. Julia, who willfully marries the abominable Rex Mottram, later, when she falls in love with Ryder, decides she cannot marry him because of the Church’s prohibition of divorce. Cordelia, the youngest, who is devout in a natural, unaffected way, is the most normal.

In book 2, the Marchmains submit severally to God’s will. After Lady Marchmain’s death, Lord Marchmain—in the most roundly condemned scene of the novel—returns and experiences in the opulent Chinese drawing room a deathbed reconciliation with the Catholic faith. Bridey marches pompously on, unimaginatively practicing his Catholicism to the letter and marrying a middle-aged widow whom no one in the family likes but to whom he is “ardently attracted.” Sebastian, overwhelmed and ravaged by alcoholism, ends up living the austere life of a porter in a monastery near Carthage. Julia remains the wife of the unloved and unlovable Rex. Cordelia is destined for a life of service and self-abnegation. Ryder gains a faith but loses the woman he loves. It is not possible to say that any of these characters achieves “happiness”; if Waugh was writing about the Catholic life, at least he did not err on the side of glamorizing its earthly rewards.

The charges of romanticism laid against the book center on the way Waugh treats Ryder’s Oxford days and his love affair with Julia. While Waugh sometimes employs metaphor recklessly in the serious sections of the book, he shows an admirable restraint in the comic sections. The passages featuring Ryder in conversation with his eccentric father are among the funniest Waugh ever wrote.

The significance of Waugh’s shift to the first-person narrative can hardly be overemphasized. Every theme in Brideshead Revisited is implicit in the earlier novels, as is every prejudice and every antipathy of the author. It is as if Waugh is not directly associated with the ideas of his narrator until the narrator becomes a character in the novel. Then such is the power of suggestion in the first-person narrative that Ryder suddenly reveals himself to be very like Waugh.

It would be misleading to suggest that the adverse criticism of Brideshead Revisited resulted merely from personal disapproval of the author’s attitudes. The criticism concentrates on two major areas of weakness in the novel—its structure and its tone—both of which were considered areas of great strength in the preceding novels. Negative response to the novel’s structure must have stung, for Waugh had every right to be proud of his skill in architectonics. His 1960 revision of the novel attests the fact that he came to take this criticism seriously.

The problems with the novel’s tone must finally be attributed to the first-person narrator. In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh does, however, succeed in creating a style that allows him to do more than merely criticize the modern world he has been humorously denouncing for a decade and a half. The snobbish but sensitive artist who narrates Brideshead Revisited makes explicit the social, political, and religious attitudes that are merely implicit in the earlier novels. Waugh proves that he can easily master the conventions of the realistic novel, and through the device of his first-person narrator, he proves that he is not limited to the point of view of the detached (or frequently sardonic) narrator.

Critical opinion remains quite mixed on this best known of Waugh’s novels. Some influential critics have judged the book an artistic failure, and there is evidence to suggest that Waugh himself came to the same conclusion. If Brideshead Revisited is a failure, however, it must be considered one of literature’s most magnificent failures.

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Brideshead Revisited