Evelyn Waugh’s novels are distinguished by thenarrative detachment with which they survey the madness and chaos of the modern age. His characters participate in a hopeless, often brutal, struggle for stability that hardens them to the absurdities of civilization and leads them, ultimately, to an unheroic retreat from the battle of life. Ironic detachment, thus, is Waugh’s principal comic technique and his principal theme as well.
Because each of Waugh’s novels reflects actual experiences, the nature of this detachment changes through the course of his career. In his early works, which satirize the havoc and instability of the 1920’s and 1930’s, he achieves comic detachment by splicing together the savage and the settled, the careless and the care-ridden, the comic and the tragic. Victims and victimizers alike are caught in the whirlwind of madness. Waugh’s satiric method changes in his postwar novels: Comically ineffectual characters still wage battle against the absurdities of life, but one is more aware of their struggle to maintain or recapture spiritual and moral values amid the absurdity. Waugh maintains comic distance in these novels by recommending a quiet sort of spiritual heroism as the only source of people’s happiness in the uncertain postwar world.
Decline and Fall
Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, traces the misadventures of Paul Pennyfeather, a temperate, unassuming student of theology at Scone College, Oxford. He is “sent down” for indecent behavior when drunken members of the university’s most riotous (and, ironically, most aristocratic) club assault him, forcing him to run the length of the quadrangle without his trousers. Like Voltaire’s Candide, Pennyfeather is an innocent victim temperamentally ill suited for the world into which he is thrust. Indeed, Decline and Fall owes much to Candide: Ou, L’Optimisme (1759; Candide: Or, All for the Best, 1759): its Menippean satire, its cyclical “resurrection” of secondary characters, and the hero’s ultimate resignation from life.
The action itself provides a thin framework for Waugh’s satire on modern life. Pennyfeather finds employment, as Waugh himself did, as a schoolmaster in Wales—the only occupation, Pennyfeather is told, for a young man dismissed from the university for indecent behavior. At Llanabba Castle, he meets three characters with whose stories his own is interlaced: Grimes, a pederast and bigamist who pulls himself out of the continual “soup” he gets into by feigning suicide; Prendergast, a doubting cleric who becomes a “modern churchman” and is eventually murdered by a religious fanatic; and Philbrick, the school butler, a professed impostor, jewel thief, and arsonist who manages to secure a continual life of luxury by his preposterous stories about his criminal life. At Llanabba, Pennyfeather also meets Margot Beste-Chetwynde, a rich socialite to whom he becomes engaged; he is arrested the afternoon of their wedding for unknowingly transporting girls to France for her international prostitution ring. His innocent association with Margot thus leads to his conviction for another act of “indecent behavior,” this time leading to a prison sentence in Blackstone Gaol—a “modern” penal institution.
What strikes one about the novel is not the injustices served Pennyfeather, but the very madness of the world with which his innocence contrasts. Characters with criminal designs—Margot, Philbrick, and Grimes—are unaffected by changes in fortune; those in charge of social institutions—Dr. Fagan of Llanabba Castle and Sir Lucas-Dockery of the experimental prison—are eccentrically out of touch with reality. Their absurdity, when contrasted with Pennyfeather’s naïve struggle, defines Waugh’s theme: The only sanity is to become cautiously indifferent to the chaos of modernism. At the end of...
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