Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1740
Essential Passage 1: Book I, Chapter 1
I had been warned against the dangers of these rooms by my cousin Jasper, who alone, when I first came up, thought me a suitable subject for detailed guidance. My father offered me none. Then, as always, he eschewed serious conversation with me. It was not until I was within a fortnight of going up that he mentioned the subject at all; then he said, shyly and rather slyly: “I’ve been talking about you. I met your future Warden at the Athenaeum. I wanted to talk about Etruscan notions of immortality; he wanted to talk about extension lectures for the working-class; so we compromised and talked about you. I asked him what your allowance should be. He said, ‘Three hundred a year; on no account give him more; that’s all most men have.’ I thought that a deplorable answer. I had more than most men when I was up, and my recollection is that nowhere else in the world and at no other time, do a few hundred pounds, one way or the other, make so much difference to one’s importance and popularity. I toyed with the idea of giving you six hundred,” said my father, snuffling a little, as he did when he was amused, “but I reflected that, should the Warden come to hear of it, it might sound deliberately impolite. So I shall give you five hundred and fifty.”
I thanked him.
Charles, as a student at Oxford University, is thrown in among a different class of people from that which he has encountered previously. Well-to-do, but not socially elite, Charles’ family remained on the outskirts of society. Since his wife’s death, Mr. Ryder has developed an uncomfortable relationship with his son. Charles has unwisely chosen rooms on the ground floor, with windows opening up on the front quadrangle. Charles’ cousin Jaspar (of the same personality as Charles’ father) warns him how inappropriate these rooms will be, considering that they are within easy access to any passersby. Not in the sense of theft, however, but in the sense of sociability. Jaspar fears that Charles’ rooms will become a way-station for all the other students who are not as committed to social proprieties and study as Jaspar is and thinks Charles should be. Charles’ father, however, is indifferent to anything that Charles does. He explains to Charles about his allowance, being more of a desire to show someone else that Mr. Ryder is better than he, rather than a concern for Charles’ personal welfare.
Essential Passage 2: Book I, Chapter 6
I was unmoved; there was no part of me remotely touched by her distress. It was as I had often imagined being expelled from school. I almost expected to hear her say: “I have already written to inform your unhappy father.” But as I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world.
“I shall never go back,” I said to myself.
A door shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden.
I had come to the surface, into the light of common day and the fresh sea-air, after long captivity in the sunless coral palaces and waving forests of the ocean bed.
I had left behind me—what? Youth? Adolescence? Romance? The conjuring stuff of these things, “the Young Magician’s Compendium,” that neat cabinet where the ebony want had its place beside the delusive billiard balls, the penny that folded double and the feather flowers that could be drawn into a hollow candle.
“I have left behind illusion,” I said to myself. “Henceforth I live in a world of three dimensions—with the aid of my five senses.”
I have since learned that there is no such world; but then, as the car turned out of sight of the house, I thought it took no finding, but lay all about me at the end of the avenue.
Charles has become a frequent visitor at Brideshead, the home of Sebastian Flyte, his best friend. He has also developed a strong relationship with Lady Marchmain, Sebastian’s mother, who has deputed him to stand guard over Sebastian. Sebastian has taken to drink, and is well on his way to becoming an alcoholic. Mr. Samgrass, a tutor hired by Lady Marchmain for Sebastian’s benefit in order to remain in school, has frequently failed in his own guardianship of Sebastian. Sebastian has snuck away from his tutor in order to find alcohol. The family has deprived Sebastian of money so that he will be unable to buy drink, but for some reason Charles gives him the money, and Sebastian comes home drunk. Lady Marchmain is furious with Charles, someone in whom she has entrusted the welfare of her son. In the face of her anger, Charles leaves Brideshead, seemingly indifferent. It is only as he leaves that he realizes how pivotal Brideshead and its family have been to his self-discovery. He recognizes his departure as an end, a close to his coming of age, of a family life, of illusion. He has left his house of dreams.
Essential Passage 3: Book II, Chapter 1
My theme is memory, that winged host that soared about me one grey morning of war-time.
These memories, which are my life—for we possess nothing certainly except the past—were always with me. Like the pigeons of St. Mark’s, they were everywhere, under my feet, singly, in pairs, in little honey-voiced congregations, nodding, strutting, winking, rolling the tender feathers of their necks, perching sometimes, if I stood still, on my shoulder or pecking a broken biscuit from between my lips; until, suddenly, the noon gun boomed and in a moment, with a flutter and sweep of wings, the pavement was bare and the whole sky above dark with a tumult of fowl. Thus it was that morning.
Charles’ youth has passed.
His relationship with the family at Brideshead has faded away. Seba stian is battling alcoholism, Julia has married (unhappily) Rex Mottram, Cordelia is growing up and becoming even more serious about her Catholic faith, and Bridey becomes more interested in matchboxes than in people. Charles has become a rather famous artist, married Celia (the sister of Boy Mulcaster, a fellow student at Oxford), produced two children (indifferently), and gone to South America to paint ancient ruins. He is returned home, stopping off at New York to pick up Celia, and sail across the Atlantic on a cruise ship. It is approaching the beginning of World War II, during which he joined the army that brought him back to Brideshead after many years. It is from this point that he thinks back on the memories he has of Brideshead, the place that awakened him to his own self. On the cruise ship he will encounter Julia Flyte once again and commence an affair with her that will bring him back into the family of Brideshead once again.
Analysis of Essential Passages
As Charles Ryder states, his theme is memory. Through his narration of the story, Charles’ underlying assumption is that the past is better than the future. Through his childhood, adolescent, young adulthood, and into adulthood, his life seems to have peaked at the moment he met the Brideshead family. Yet that ethereal conclave has introduced him to a life that never was, and has made him doubtful of all that he has previously believed.
Charles’ relationship with his father has suffered because of his mother’s death as a nurse in the First World War. His father’s inability to deal with his loss, especially in being saddled with the rearing of a son, has prevented Charles from having a positive family experience. It is with the Flytes that he comes to know what, for him, is more of a familial experience. Lady Marchmain has given him a taste of the mother he did not really have the opportunity to experience. The Flyte children (Bridey, Sebastian, Julia, and Cornelia) provide him with the siblings that he was denied by being an only child. Thus, when he is rejected by Lady Marchmain after his providing Sebastian with drinking money, Charles must come to terms with the reality or unreality of the life he has been living since he first met Sebastian. Not only has he been introduced to a family life, but into a higher social class than he had previously known. This loss flings him out into a cold and unfriendly world, which nevertheless accepts him as a brilliant artist.
It is in his art that Charles finds some sense of meaning. Yet this in itself is an unreality, as his specialty in painting is in structures that are soon to be demolished. His art is centered on the past. Thus indeed is memory his theme, in his art as well as in his life. The present and the future are inconsequential to him. It is perhaps for this reason that he begins his affair with Julia. Her brother Sebastian has been, as he states, her “forerunner.” It is through him that Charles first encountered love, of whatever kind Charles believes it to be. His relationship with Julia is an attempt to regain the past that has gone. When Julia ends their relationship, Charles then turns to the faith that was such an integral part of the life at Brideshead. Whether he clings to it out of true commitment to its tenets and its hopes, or rather he finds in it a way to retreat into the past is unclear.
Charles is in a world that has transitioned away from what it once was. The Second World War ended a world in which tradition played a key role. As Charles’ art is centered on the death of architecture, so this war betokens the death of a civilization, with little hint at the beginning of a new one. Charles finds himself at Brideshead, symbolic of the past. It is there that the story ends.
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