Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1707
Essential Passage 1: Book I, Chapter 5
“I believe God prefers drunkards to a lot of respectable people.”
"For God’s sake,” I said, for I was near to tears that morning, “why bring God into everything?”
“I’m sorry. I forgot. But you know that’s an extremely funny question.”
“To me. Not to you.”
“No, not to me. It seems to me that without your religion Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man.”
“It’s arguable,” said Brideshead. “Do you think he will need this elephant’s foot again?”
Charles has learned that Sebastian is to be placed under guard with a Catholic priest, to prevent his further descent into alcoholism. Naturally upset, Sebastian plans on cabling his father, who has no love for the Catholicism of his estranged wife. He hopes that Lord Marchmain will intervene and prevent this from occurring. Sebastian thinks that Charles is being drawn in by his mother into spying for her, something which Charles denies. Charles continues to drink with Sebastian, despite his concern for his health. Eventually, Sebastian is withdrawn from Oxford by his mother, and his brother Bridey comes to collect his things. Bridey and Charles discuss Sebastian’s alcoholism, leading Bridey to state that he believes God prefers drunkards to respectable people. Charles does not attempt to argue this premise, but only the fact that religion is such as constant topic among the Brideshead family. Charles, who is at best agnostic, resents that everything must be viewed in relation to religion. Bridey, a Catholic with marginally strong views, does not resent Charles’ agnosticism, and admits that the strict standards of Catholicism may have some blame in Sebastian’s rebellion against his family’s expectations, yet not to the point that he would reject the faith.
Essential Passage 2: Book II, Chapter 5
...Then I knelt, too, and prayed: “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,” and the man on the bed opened his eyes and gave a sigh, the sort of sigh I had imagined people made at the moment of death, but his eyes moved so that we knew there was still life in him.
I suddenly felt the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman I loved, who knelt in front of me, praying, I knew, for a sign. It seemed so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgement of a present, a nod in the crowd. All over the world people were on their knees before innumerable crosses, and here the drama was being played again by two men—by one man, rather, and he nearer death than life; the universal drama in which there is only one actor.
The priest took the little silver box from his pocket and spoke again in Latin, touching the dying man with an oily wad; he finished what he had to do, put away the box and gave the final blessing. Suddenly Lord Marchmain moved his hand to his forehead; I thought he had felt the touch of the chrism and was wiping it away. “O God,” I prayed, “don’t let him do that.” But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.
Lord Marchmain has come home to England, to Brideshead, to die. Surrounded by family (except for Sebastian and the deceased Lady Marchmain), Lord Marchmain has resisted the last rites of the Catholic church, on the grounds that he has been so long absent from the faith. Yet at the end, the priest is allowed to administer the rites. Charles, who has had a long-term relationship now with Julia, prays for a sign, not for his own sake, but for Julia’s. Julia has grown closer of late to the faith that she took for granted and paid little heed to. Now, as she sees her father’s approaching end, faith becomes more central to her thoughts and life. For her sake, Charles prays to a God in whose existence his in doubt, that she would receive a sign of her father’s ultimate salvation. Lord Marchmain, on receiving the anointing of the holy oil, makes the long-accustomed sign of the cross. This sign is one which sparks an idea of faith in Charles’ soul. The possibility of faith becomes more real to him.
Essential Passage 3: Book II, Chapter 5
“Just go on—alone. How can I tell what I shall I do? You know the whole of me. You know I’m not one for a life of mourning. I’ve always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can’t shut myself out from His mercy. That is what it would mean’ starting a life with you, without Him. One can only hope to see one step ahead. But I saw to-day there was one thing unforgivable—like things in the schoolroom, so bad they are unpunishable, that only Mummy could deal with—the bad thing I was on the point of doing, that I’m not quite bad enough to do; to set up a rival good to God’s. Why should I be allowed to understand that, and not you, Charles? It may be because of Mummy, Nanny, Cordelia, Sebastian—perhaps Bridey and Mrs. Muspratt—keeping my name in their prayers; or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won’t quite despair of me in the end.”
Lord Marchmain has died, giving the sign of the cross as he takes the last rites. It is this scene which has haunted Julia with the importance of God. Having lived with Charles for some time, despite their not being married, Julia now feels that to continue to do so would be a sin. Not only that, but she cannot even marry Charles, due to the strictures of the Catholic Church on the remarriage of divorced persons. It is for this reason that she has decided to end her relationship with Charles, something that Charles had foreseen since Lord Marchmain’s death. Julia despairs of her own goodness, but rather focuses on her need for God’s mercy in the depths of her sin. Although she acknowledges that a life with Charles would have been good, especially if they were married, she cannot put her own good above that of God. She therefore leaves Charles and returns to God, whom she will serve in aiding the sick and wounded in the upcoming war. Joining her sister Cordelia, Julia will mirror the “saintliness” often bestowed on her mother. The primacy of faith overshadows that of love.
Analysis of Essential Passages
Religion, in the form of the Roman Catholic Church, plays a pivotal role in the lives of Brideshead. It affects the relationships within the family, it influences the choices that each person makes, it serves as a foundation for daily life and thought to one degree or another. Yet each person adapts his faith to fit his own wants and desires, rather than vice versa. From the saintliness of Lady Marchmain and Cordelia, to the indifference yet nominal adherence of Sebastian, religion is the framework that defines the family.
Charles’ role in connection with the story forces him to make a choice concerning faith. He maintains a strong agnosticism throughout the greater part of the story. Influenced perhaps by the loss of his mother and his distant relationship with his father, Charles’ views on God are based on skepticism and doubt. His concept of fatherhood, learned through the marginal role his own father plays in his life, makes Charles doubt the “father” nature of God. He does not have much faith in the love of his earthly father, so why should he trust in the love of a heavenly one? His love is centered on his friendships, particularly with Sebastian. Sebastian’s faith does not intrude much on their relationship, merely providing an oddity about Sebastian that perplexes Charles.
It is in his relationship with Julia, however, that leads Charles to the investigation of the viability of faith. As Julia grows to cling to her faith more at the passing of her father, Charles is forced to take it more seriously than he has ever done. His belief that such a “sinner” as Lord Marchmain can be the channel for a miraculous sign (as Charles believes Lord Marchmain’s genuflections to be) brings him face to face with the God inhabited in the Roman Catholic Church.
The emptiness that Charles is enveloped by during the war is brought home to him as he revisits the chapel in Brideshead. Once again confronted by faith in the place where he first learned it, Charles gives some indication of entering into at least some kind of faith, though it might not be the same as that of Julia and Cornelia, who have devoted their lives to religious service in aiding the wounded and sick. In a path that mirrors Waugh’s own conversion to Roman Catholicism, Charles turns to face God after a lifetime of looking at Him out of the corner of his eye. How much this newfound faith will influence his life is left unsaid. Considering that he has lost his wife and children, Julia, and Sebastian, the only sense of belonging that seems to be left to Charles is that of faith. It is in the closing scene of the novel, after Charles has been to the altar in the Brideshead chapel, that his second-in-command notes that Charles looks “unusually cheerful” that day, perhaps denoting that, in the midst of war, Charles Ryder has found a profound peace at last.
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