Brideshead Revisited is concerned above all with the operation of divine grace in the modern world. Permeated with grotesque incidents and metaphysical similes and allusions, it incorporates supernatural agency into the conventions of the realistic novel. In this context, both the appeal and the strangeness of Christianity become central themes. Waugh’s depiction of a Catholic family through the eyes of a nonbeliever defamiliarizes Christian culture to highlight its paradoxes. The Flytes discuss sacred and profane ideas side by side; they discern supernatural motives and causes in everyday events; even the lapsed members of the family believe firmly in the reality of sin.
Although he presents three rebellious Catholics and an agnostic assent in the end to the existence and providence of God, Waugh consistently maintains that conversion does not solve the painful dilemmas of life. Instead, the author draws on a Catholic understanding of redemptive or sacrificial suffering. Thus, Sebastian’s suffering confers the dignity of holiness on his apparently ignominious life, while the fulfillment of Charles’s love for Julia requires his separation from her. In the world of Brideshead Revisited, genuine happiness and worldly success rarely coincide: The novel is a true tragedy, redeemed by the persistence of faith and not by an outwardly happy ending.
Because Waugh sets his novel in historical time, his portrayal of the intersection of the supernatural with the natural extends beyond individual lives, becoming a mode of interpreting the twentieth century, World War II, and the triumphs and heresies of modernity. Aesthetic themes also flood the novel so that art, like history, becomes infused with supernatural significance. Ultimately, the novel achieves a synthesis between physical and spiritual events, affirming the belief that nothing happens without a purpose.