Christian Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 286

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.

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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.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 260

In the preface to a 1959 reprinting of Brideshead Revisited, Waugh defined its theme as "the operation of divine grace on a group of diverse but closely connected characters." If one adds that Waugh identified divine grace with the Roman Catholic Church, one will then have quite an accurate idea of the book's central thematic strand. In Waugh's view, his religion is the only means by which the current destruction of social traditions and consequent loss of individual self-confidence can be overcome, and his attempt to demonstrate this in a novel prompted many critics to complain that Brideshead Revisited was nothing more than a well written religious tract.

There are two factors which soften and largely ameliorate the book's undoubted dogmatic tendencies. The first of these is Waugh's fairness in taking cognizance of opposing points of view, which he presents as honestly held and, given the superstitions some Catholics still indulge in, entirely reasonable; indeed, many of Brideshead Revisited's Catholic readers were deeply offended by its sometimes satirical treatment of problematic details of belief and practice. The second is the presence of a significant secondary theme which humanizes the religious message by showing how it affects the love affair between protagonist Charles Ryder and Julia Flyte, one of the daughters of the Brideshead estate. It is the attraction, affinity and ultimate separation of these two personifications of humanity that makes Brideshead Revisited into an affecting novel with an important religious component and not merely an apologia for Catholicism, and that also helps to explain why the book achieved best seller status.


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Religion and Catholicism
Brideshead Revisited is filled with references to its characters' views on religion. Charles Ryder is an agnostic, having received little or no religious training as a child, and each member of the Flyte family presents a different image of a Catholic. Charles's cousin Jasper advises him in book one, chapter one, "Beware of the Anglo-Catholics—they're all sodomites with unpleasant accents. In fact, steer clear of all the religious groups; they do nothing but harm." Throughout the novel, Charles questions members of the Flyte family about their beliefs and even makes light of religion until his epiphany at the end of the book.

Sebastian is a believer but has trouble staying within the rules and strictures of Catholicism. "Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic," he notes in book one, chapter four. In that same chapter, he and Charles have their first discussion, of many, about Catholicism, and Charles expresses great amazement that Sebastian believes the "awful lot of nonsense" that Catholics ascribe to, such as the story of Christ's birth. "Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me," answers Sebastian. His life is a struggle between what he wants to do and what he believes his church requires him to do. After years of drunkenness and wandering around the world, Sebastian ends up as an aide at a monastery in Tunis, in a sense returning to his religion while still being very much a worldly man.

Lord Marchmain is openly disdainful of Catholicism, having rejected the Church when he left Lady Marchmain. Like Sebastian, he appears to come back to his religion in book two, chapter five, when, on his deathbed, he mutely signals that he is sorry for his sins in response to a priest's questions. Charles's response upon witnessing this, despite his previous dismissal of religion and Catholicism, is to say a brief prayer under his breath. Lady Marchmain is adamantly Catholic and, in book one, chapter five, announces that the Flyte family "must make a Catholic of Charles." The fact that she will not give Lord Marchmain a divorce is attributed to her being a devout Catholic.

When Cordelia is young, she attends a convent, and she tells Charles that because he is an agnostic she will pray for him. Her love of religion at that age takes typically childlike forms, such as saying a novena (a series of prayers recited for nine days) for a dead pet, but, as an adult, her love of God is manifested in pursuing good works as a nurse during wartime. She is the only Catholic character who truly seems to enjoy her religion and her relationship with God. Brideshead is a Catholic strictly because he was born one—he has no real interest in or passion for the subject. Most of his utterances about religion are legalistic, such as when he discovers that Rex cannot marry Julia in the Catholic Church because he is divorced.

Julia appears throughout most of the book to be uninterested in her Catholicism, except as it is a barrier to marrying her social equal. Only toward the end of the novel, after she has started her affair with Charles and divorces Rex, does she begin to think about being a Catholic. Even though she loves Charles, she expresses concern that her behavior—her "waywardness and willfulness, a less disciplined habit than most of her contemporaries" when she was a young girl, as well as her illicit affair with Charles—has filled her with sin. When she tells Charles after her father's death that she can no longer see him, she admits, "I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God." The Epilogue finds Charles saying a small prayer in the chapel at Brideshead, and he is pleased that the chapel is open years after he has last seen the family.

The novel provides an overview of how Sebastian's family and friends react to his increasingly destructive reliance on alcohol. At first, Sebastian seems to be a typical college student, drinking frequently, but always with friends and never suffering an unhappy consequence. Charles notices that the amount of Sebastian's drinking, as well as his generally happy demeanor, changes when they return to Oxford after their blissful summer at Brideshead mansion.

A number of incidents follow that mark the beginning of the end of the close friendship between Charles and Sebastian. After a party in London, Sebastian drives drunk with other people in the car, including Charles, and is stopped by the police. They are all taken to jail. During Easter at Brideshead, Sebastian is drinking heavily, missing meals, and treating Charles badly. He accuses Charles of spying on him for the family and eventually leaves for London.

The family's response to Sebastian's drinking is a classic case of denial. At Easter, no one in the family is willing to face what is happening to Sebastian, instead seeking out Charles to fix it for them. Lady Marchmain asks Charles about Sebastian's behavior. Charles covers for his friend, saying that Sebastian is getting a cold. Julia acknowledges to Charles that she knows of her brother's drinking but tells Charles that he must take care of Sebastian. "Well, you must deal with him. It's no business of mine," she says. Brideshead also asks Charles to help Sebastian stop drinking, and Lady Marchmain expects Charles to keep an eye on Sebastian. "You've got to help him. I can't," she pleads.

Eventually, a dean finds Sebastian wandering around the university, drunk. The school agrees to allow him to stay if he moves in with a monsignor (a member of the Roman Catholic clergy), something that Sebastian absolutely refuses to do. Sebastian leaves Oxford and sets out on a trip to the Middle East with Mr. Samgrass as his guardian, as arranged by his mother. This trip, rather than helping Sebastian, launches him on a lifetime of drinking and wandering around the Middle East and North Africa. Charles and Sebastian see each other only briefly after Sebastian leaves Oxford.

Male Friendship
Sebastian and Charles's friendship is an intense one. In fact, while their relationship appears to be platonic, the words Charles uses to describe their relationship border on the romantic. The picnic they take together in book one, chapter one, is portrayed in dreamy and romantic terms:

We lay on our backs, Sebastian's eyes on the leaves above him, mine on his profile … and the sweet scent of the tobacco merged with the sweet summer scents around us and the fumes of the sweet, golden wine seemed to lift us a finger's breadth above the turf and hold us suspended.

Cara, Lord Marchmain's mistress, notes the closeness between the two friends and surprises Charles by asking him about it in book one, chapter four. She approves of relationships between young men, "if they do not go on too long," and adds that at their young age it is better "to have that kind of love for another boy than for a girl."

The intensity of Charles and Sebastian's friendship transforms Charles. He changes his group of friends at Oxford after meeting Sebastian, and he even alters how his room is decorated and the books he reads based, on what Sebastian and his friends like. Charles also becomes deeply involved with Sebastian's family, and they come to think of him almost as one of their own. When Charles is later involved in his love affair with Julia, Sebastian's sister, he indicates that Sebastian was the "forerunner," the first person in the Flyte family with whom he fell in love. This all-encompassing friendship makes Sebastian's eventual drunkenness and depression especially painful for Charles.

Memories and Reminiscences
The entire novel is drawn as a series of Charles's memories; indeed, the novel's subtitle, The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder, makes this clear. The book opens in the present with Charles surprised to discover that he is encamped near Brideshead mansion, which sets off the memories that make up the body of the book. The novel closes with him in the present again and briefly walking through the house, running into Nanny Hawkins and savoring a few more memories about his friendship with the Flyte family.

As well, Charles is a man who values the past, whether imagined or real. Book one is entitled "Et In Arcadia Ego," which is Latin for "I, too, lived in Arcadia," referring to a pastoral and mountainous region of ancient Greece used extensively in painting and literature to denote a sort of Utopia, or a place where life is wonderful and well lived. Book one tells the story of meeting Sebastian, and the blissful time they spent together.

Throughout the novel, Charles believes that what was is preferable to what is; in the Prologue, he complains about the current behavior of "Young England." He bemoans young people's lack of an education, their dress, and their manner of speech. Even as a student at Oxford, he complains, as book one opens, when women arrive for a week of dances and parties. The change in atmosphere at his school upsets him.

All of Charles' memories of Sebastian during their first year as friends are romanticized. In book one, chapter four, for example, Charles fondly remembers a summer, spent almost always alone with Sebastian, when, "I, at any rate, believed myself to be very near heaven, during those languid days at Brideshead." And Sebastian, as well, realizes that this summer of their youth will be something they always look back on: "If it could only be like this always—always summer, always alone, the fruit always ripe."

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