Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 357

The question of how one can lead an ethical life in an unethical world is at the core of Decline and Fall, and Paul Pennyfeather is the only one of the novel's dramatis personae to do the right thing when confronted with a difficult moral decision. He has to choose between either shielding the guilty woman he loves or condemning her to a prison sentence for which she is much less well prepared than he, and he opts for the former in a spirit of renunciation not unlike that of a religious martyr. Although Pennyfeather realizes that the person he is protecting is unworthy of his sacrifice, making it gives him such a sense of rightness and satisfaction that he is left with no doubt as to the correctness of his action: Having remained innocent of the self-delusions practiced by his contemporaries, he is still capable of behaving in a truly moral manner.

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Other than Pennyfeather, Decline and Fall's characters constitute a kind of catalogue of methods of convincing oneself that the path of least resistance corresponds to an ethical way of life. In one of the book's few symbolic passages, men's existences are described as like those of riders on a ferris wheel, who may get on at one point and get off at another, but in actuality just go round and round on a predetermined route. It is only at the exact center of the wheel that one can achieve some perspective upon the whirling events of life, and it is in keeping with the fundamentally ironic stance of Decline and Fall that Paul Pennyfeather only attains this insight by going to prison: In a world where even religion, the historical haven for the contemplative, has been infected with the general decay of society, those who would lead a good life must first remove themselves from the world before they can hope to understand it. Although this is often obscured by the book's uproarious humor and bitter satire, it is the essentially moral nature of Paul Pennyfeather's internal conflicts that makes Decline and Fall such a deeply affecting, as well as extremely entertaining, reading experience.

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