Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1159

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Decline and Fall mingles farce with grim tragedy. Episodic in form, with many of its scenes no more than a page or so in length, it is a penetrating yet hilarious study of disordered English society in the period between the wars. Evelyn Waugh insisted that his books were not intended as satires, since the satirical spirit presupposes a stable and homogeneous society against which to project its critical exposure of folly and vice. For all that, the writer demonstrates in this novel a tremendous talent for comic satire. Paul Pennyfeather’s misadventures reflect one phase of the contemporary mood of disillusionment. The character of Grimes, on the other hand, who is a bounder and a cad, is timeless—a figure who would have been as much at home in the days of the Caesars as he was in the reign of King George V. Waugh’s distortions and exaggerations have also the quality of fantasy, for in his pages the impossible and the believable exist simultaneously on the same plane.

Decline and Fall is the first and possibly the best work of Waugh, a luminary of the English satirists. The novel is notable for its economy of time and space. The action extends over one year, and the protagonist’s circumstances at the beginning and end are virtually identical, which neatly rounds off the story. Waugh’s prose is sparse, his epigrams unlabored, as in, for example, Paul Pennyfeather’s quip that the English public school is a perfect conditioner for life in prison. Waugh lays low individuals and whole classes of society with a flick of a proper name: Digby-Vaine-Trumpington for a vain, trumpeting young aristocrat; Maltravers for a secretary of transportation; Prendergast for a clergyman aghast at his apprehension of divine indifference; Grimes for an earthy rascal; Pennyfeather for an impecunious, half-fledged scholar.

The tone is persistently cheerful. No amazement is expressed, even by the innocent and beleaguered protagonist, at anything that befalls him. Tragedies occur offstage. The death of Prendergast, for example, is revealed in a hymn. Lord Tangent’s demise is recorded as follows: In chapter 8, he is shown crying because he has been wounded in the foot by a bullet from the starter’s pistol; in chapter 12, Peter Beste-Chetwynde reports in an aside that Tangent’s foot is gangrenous; in chapter 13, the news comes that the foot is being amputated; finally in chapter 19, it is reported in an offhand way that he has died.

The list of groups and institutions that excite the author’s scorn is extensive; his opprobrium falls on the aristocracy, the newly rich, the universities, the public schools, old-school penology, newfangled penology, the House of Lords, the House of Commons, the Church of England, historical landmarks, modern architecture, and the League of Nations, to name a few. Although the novel manages to be hilarious at the expense of practically everybody, it has a serious side, or rather a serious center, namely, the schoolboy virtue of Pennyfeather contrasted with the cheery rascality of Grimes.

It is evident from the start that Paul is a right thinker and a square shooter. He owes his educational opportunities as much to his own industry, intelligence, and moderation as to the legacy left by his parents. He is earnest, diffident, and idealistic; in short, he is the very model of a middle-class English divinity student. The incredible things that happen to him seem at first reading to represent repeated assaults of a corrupt society on a genuinely decent character. Captain Grimes, on the other hand, shows up as a bounder of the very worst kind, a poseur who relies on public-school connections to rescue him from his frequent immersions in “the soup.” He milks the fellowship of honor and duty for all it is worth and does not hesitate to abandon ship at the first sign of bad weather—women, children, and gentlemanly behavior notwithstanding.

For all his roguery, however, Grimes is not a villain. He is instead the most sympathetic character in the novel. The chief element of his personality is common sense; it is he, and not Paul, who is the author’s persona, who embodies the impulses of sanity as opposed to the precepts of class and culture. During the war, for example, when faced with court-martial or honorable suicide, he relies on drink and old school ties to see him through alive, and they do. Trapped into marriage, he simply bolts, once into the public schools, once into the sea. Imprisoned, he makes his escape by sinking into a quicksand from which, Paul and the reader are confident, he will rise to drink his pint in new guise but with the old elemental verve. He is self-indulgent, brave, resourceful, and not to be humbugged.

Although self-disciplined, Paul is meek, credulous, and fundamentally passive by contrast. Everything that happens to him, good or bad, simply happens. His rather mild passion for Margot Beste-Chetwynde strikes him like lightning; his actual proposal of marriage is all Margot’s doing. He acquiesces alike to expulsion from college and rescue from prison with the same spongy plasticity cloaked beneath the ethical pose of being a good sport. In fact, it may be argued that believers in this schoolboy code of ethics suffer from a profound moral laziness and invite the outrages perpetrated on them in its name by those who do not believe in it. Paul’s explanation of why he does not outface Potts and take money from Trumpington is illustrative. He defines a gentleman as someone who declines to accept benefits that are not his by right or to profit from windfall advantage. Implicit in this stance is a kind of flabby ethical neutrality disguised as self-respect, a certain pride in taking no action. Grimes’s judgment is sounder and more vigorous, for he recognizes Potts as a stinker in prosecuting Paul for a crime he committed inadvertently.

The author remarks at one stage that Paul does not have the makings of a hero. No more has he the makings of a villain, for villainy requires the kind of enterprise exemplified by Margot. It is not Paul’s decline and fall that are recorded here but the degeneration of a society in which custom and privilege combine to nurture all manner of waste and wickedness. Paul is merely part of the problem. Grimes, the voice of blackguardism and good sense, is part of the solution. Paul toasts the stability of ideals, Grimes the passing moment.

Despite Grimes, however, Decline and Fall ends on a rather grim note, with Peter a wastrel and Paul embracing a pinched orthodoxy. The underlying sense is of honorable old forms giving way to a new and nastier regime, a theme that Waugh also pursued in later works. Indeed, he espoused it in his own life to the extent of rejecting the new order altogether. As a result, he was virtually a hermit at the time of his death.