Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4353
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 the novel, when Pennyfeather returns to Oxford under a new identity and continues his study of the Early Church, he assumes the role of a spectator, not a participant, in the madness of life.
Although Decline and Fall’s narrative structure is more derivative and its characters less fully rounded than those of Waugh’s later novels, it displays techniques typical of his fiction at its best. The callous descriptions of the tragic—little Lord Tangent’s death from Grimes’s racing pistol or Prendergast’s decapitation at Blackstone Gaol—and their fragmented interlacement into the plot are hallmarks of Waugh’s comic detachment. Tangent’s slow death from gangrene is presented through a series of casual offstage reports; the report of Prendergast’s murder is incongruously worked into verses of a hymn sung in the prison chapel, “O God, our Help in Ages Past.” The tragic and the savage are always sifted through an ironic filter in Waugh’s novels, creating a brutal sort of pathos.
A Handful of Dust
Waugh’s fourth novel, A Handful of Dust, was his first to present a dynamically sympatheticprotagonist. Pennyfeather, from Decline and Fall, and Adam Symes, from Vile Bodies, attract one’s interest largely because they provide a detached perspective from which one can observe the chaos of modern civilization. Basil Seal in Black Mischief, although a participating rogue, is amiable largely because of his comic disregard for the mischief he makes. Tony Last of A Handful of Dust, however, is a fully sympathetic character as well as a pathetic victim of the modern wasteland to which the title alludes. Unlike Paul Pennyfeather, Tony is not simply an observer of social chaos: His internal turmoil is set against the absurdity of external events, and in that respect, his quest for lost values anticipates that of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited and of Guy Crouchback in Sword of Honour.
Waugh’s theme is the decadence of tradition, emblematized, as it is in many of Waugh’s novels, by the crumbling estates of the aristocracy. Tony’s futile effort to maintain his Victorian Gothic estate, Hetton Abbey, thus symbolizes his struggle throughout the plot. He is wedded to the outmoded tradition of Victorian country gentlemen, while his wife, Brenda, embraces the social life of London. She eventually cuckolds Tony by having an affair with the parasitic John Beaver, whose mother, an interior decorator, sees in her son’s affair an opportunity to “modernize” Hetton with chromium plating and sheepskin carpeting.
The pathos one feels for Tony is ultimately controlled by the absurd contexts into which Waugh sets the pathetic scenes. When his son, John Andrew, dies in a riding accident, Tony is left emotionally desolate, yet the cause of the accident is ironic; John Andrew’s horse is startled by a backfiring motorcycle, a modern “horse.” Later, one is made brutally aware of the irony of Tony’s grief when one learns of Brenda’s initial reaction to the news of her son’s death: She assumes it was John Beaver, her lover, not John Andrew, her son, who died. In the same way, Tony’s later divorce from Brenda empties him of values he traditionally respected. He consents to the legal convention that he should give evidence of his infidelity, even if his wife has been the unfaithful partner. His evidence incongruously turns into an uncomfortable weekend with a prostitute and her daughter at Brighton, and the absurdity of this forced and inconsummate infidelity further defines Tony’s loneliness. Ironically, it provides him with a means to deny an exorbitant divorce settlement that would force him to sell Hetton Abbey.
In the end, Tony searches for his Victorian Gothic city in the jungles of South America and suffers a delirium in which his civilized life at Hetton Abbey is distorted; these scenes are made comically pathetic by interlaced scenes of Brenda in London trying to regain the civilized life she lost in her estrangement from Tony. Ultimately, she does not find in London the city she sought, nor does Tony in South America. Tony does find, instead, an aberration of his vision; he is held captive by an illiterate who forces him to read aloud from Charles Dickens’s novels in perpetuity.
Perhaps Waugh’s emotional reaction to his own divorce from Evelyn Gardner prior to the publication of the novel accounts for the increase of pathos in A Handful of Dust. Perhaps Waugh realized that thinness of characterization in his earlier novels could lead only to stylistic repetition without stylistic development. Whatever the reason, this novel depicts characters struggling for moral equilibrium in a way that no previous Waugh novel had done.
Brideshead Revisited is different from Waugh’s earlier novels in two important ways. First, it is the only novel Waugh finished that employs the first-person point of view. (He had attempted the first person in “Work Suspended” in 1942, but either the story itself faltered or Waugh could not achieve a sufficient narrative detachment to complete it.) Second, Brideshead Revisited was the first novel in which Waugh explicitly addressed a Roman Catholic theme: the mysterious workings of divine grace in a small aristocratic Catholic family. As a result, it is Waugh’s most sentimental and least funny novel. Although it departed radically from his earlier satires, it was Waugh’s most popular and financially successful work.
The narrative frame creates much of what is sentimental in the novel but also provides a built-in detachment. Charles Ryder’s love for Sebastian Flyte during his years at Oxford in the 1920’s and for Julia Mottram, Sebastian’s sister, a decade later, live vividly in Ryder’s memories when he revisits the Brideshead estate during a wartime bivouac. His memories tell the story of Sebastian’s and Julia’s search for happiness, but because they are remembered by an emotionally desolate Ryder, the novel is a study of his spiritual change as well.
Before he meets Sebastian, Ryder is a serious-minded Oxford undergraduate, not unlike Paul Pennyfeather at the end of Decline and Fall. Like Pennyfeather, he is drawn into a world for which he is unprepared, yet unlike Waugh’s earlier protagonist, Ryder is enthralled by a make-believe world of beauty and art. The Arcadian summer Ryder spends with Sebastian at Brideshead and in Venice are the most sumptuously written passages in any of Waugh’s novels, reflecting—as Waugh admitted in his 1959 revision of the novel—the dearth of sensual pleasures available at the time of its composition. The change in style also reflects a change in theme. Sebastian’s eccentricities about his stuffed bear, his coterie of homosexual “aesthetes,” and his refusal to take anything seriously would have been the object of satire in Waugh’s earlier novels. In Brideshead Revisited, however, the absurdities are sifted through the perspective of a narrator aware of his own desperate search for love. When Sebastian’s make-believe turns to alcoholism, the narrator himself becomes cynically indifferent.
Ryder’s love for Julia ten years after he has left Brideshead is an attempt to rediscover the happiness he lost with Sebastian. One is more aware, in this second half of the narration, of Ryder’s cynicism and of the discontentment that cynicism hides. When he and Julia fall in love on a transatlantic voyage back to England, they are both escaping marriages to spouses whose worldly ambitions offer no nourishment for the spiritual emptiness each feels. Julia’s return to the Church after the deathbed repentance of her father causes Ryder to realize that he has fathomed as little about Julia’s faith as he had about Sebastian’s. The narration itself thus ends on a note of unhappiness that recalls the separation of Ryder and Sebastian. In the epilogue following Ryder’s memories, however, Waugh makes it clear that the narrator himself has converted to Catholicism in the intervening years. Ryder sees in the sanctuary light of the chapel at Brideshead the permanence he sought with Sebastian and Julia and finds contentment, if not hope for the future.
It is easy to overstress the religious implications of the novel. Indeed, many critics find Julia’s hysteria about sin, Lord Marchmain’s return to the Church, and Ryder’s conversion strained. Some, such as Edmund Wilson, see the novel as an adulation of the British upper classes. Brideshead Revisited, however, is less a Roman Catholic novel than it is a lament for the past and a study in spiritual and artistic awakening. It was a turning point in Waugh’s fiction: His novels after Brideshead Revisited dealt less with the absurdity of life and more with the spiritual values that have disappeared as a result of the war.
The Loved One
Perhaps the grimmest of Waugh’s satires, The Loved One presents a sardonic vision of American culture. Its principal satiric target is Forest Lawn Memorial Park—a place that in many ways served for Waugh as the epitome of American pretensions to civilization. In “Half in Love with Easeful Death,” an essay he wrote for Life in 1947 after his visit to Hollywood, Waugh describes Forest Lawn as it would appear to archaeologists in the next millennium: a burlesque necropolis, like the tombs of the pharaohs in its aspirations, but, in fact, the product of a borrowed, devalued culture. His version of Forest Lawn, Whispering Glades, is a distorted wonderland in which the cosmetic and the artificial substitute for beauty and in which banality is glorified and substitutes for the poetic vision.
It is fitting that the protagonist, Dennis Barlow, be a poet—even though an unproductive one who has been seduced to Hollywood by a consultantship with Megalo Studios. Like many of Waugh’s other protagonists, he is the filter through which one sees absurdities satirized. Like Basil Seal in Black Mischief and Put Out More Flags, he is an opportunist, flexible enough to engineer a profit for himself out of the chaotic world into which he is thrust. His vision is grimly sardonic, however, in a way that even Seal’s is not.
When he first enters Whispering Glades, he is intrigued, as Seal would be, by its absurd glamour and by the potential of using that glamour to improve his own position at The Happier Hunting Grounds, a pet mortuary where he is employed. Whispering Glades, however, has a far deeper attraction; it would be the kind of place, if it were real, that would appeal to any poet, but Barlow is enchanted by its very fraudulence. At the human-made Lake Isle of Innisfree (complete with mechanized humming bees), Barlow falls in love with a mortuary cosmetician and enchants her by the very fact that he is a poet. The enchantment is false, just as everything is at Whispering Glades; he sends her plagiarized verses from The Oxford Book of English Verse and pledges his troth to her by reciting a stanza from Robert Burns’s “A Red, Red Rose” at The Lover’s Nook near the Wee Kirk o’ Auld Lang Syne.
If plagiarism lies at the heart of Barlow’s involvement at Whispering Glades, it also lies at the heart of Whispering Glades itself and the characters who work there—even though the place and the people are possessed by the utmost seriousness. The girl with whom Barlow falls in love is named Aimee Thanatogenos. Although she professes to be named after Aimee McPherson—the American huckster of religion whom Waugh satirized in Vile Bodies—her given name and her surname both translate into the euphemism that embodies all of Whispering Glades’s false coating: “The loved one.” Her enchantment with Barlow eventually takes the form of a burlesque tragedy. She is torn between Barlow and the head mortician, Mr. Joyboy—a poet of a different sort, whose special art is preparing infant corpses.
Aimee’s tragedy results from a bizarre sequence of events, comic in its effects. When she discovers Joyboy’s mother fixation and Barlow’s fraudulence, she seeks advice from her oracle, the Guru Brahman, an advice columnist. When the Guru, Mr. Slump—fired from his job and in an alcoholic funk—advises Aimee to jump off a roof, she kills herself in the more poetic environment of Whispering Glades. Her suicide by drinking embalming fluid gives a doubly ironic force to her name and to the title of the novel. The tragedy ends with a darkly humorous catharsis. Joyboy, fearful that Aimee’s death on his table might mar his lofty position at Whispering Glades, consents to Barlow’s extortion and to Barlow’s plan to cremate their beloved Aimee at The Happier Hunting Grounds. The novel’s conclusion, thus, strikes the grimmest note of all: Barlow sits idly by, reading a cheap novel, while the heroine—a burlesque Dido—burns in the furnace.
In some ways, The Loved One is atypical of Waugh’s postwar novels. In Scott-King’s Modern Europe and the Sword of Honour trilogy, Waugh turns his satiric eye to political issues. The Loved One, however much it satirizes American values, transcends topical satire. Barlow lacks the spiritual potential of Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited, even though he displays Ryder’s callousness. Barlow is an artist in search of beauty, but he leaves California, ironically, with an artist’s load far different from what he expected. It is the view of an ironist, like Waugh himself, who could hardly make a better travesty of Whispering Glades than it makes of itself.
Sword of Honour
The Sword of Honour trilogy, like Brideshead Revisited, is infused with a predominantly religious theme; it traces Guy Crouchback’s awakening to spiritual honor—a more active form of spiritual growth than Charles Ryder experienced. Like Brideshead Revisited, Sword of Honour is more somber and more deliberately paced than Waugh’s satires in the 1920’s and 1930’s, but it shares with his early works a detached satiric framework. Each volume is composed at a distance of ten or more years from its historical occurrence and, as a result, reflects a greater consciousness of the long-range implications of the absurdities presented.
Men at Arms
Men at Arms concerns the chaos of Britain’s first entry into the war, much like Waugh’s wartime satire Put Out More Flags. One is immediately aware, however, of the difference in Waugh’s detachment. Put Out More Flags was the product of a writer in his mid-thirties looking wryly at the days of peace from the middle of the war. Its protagonist, Basil Seal, is a mischief-making opportunist for whom greater chaos means greater fun and profit; the novel satirizes the madness of a world that leaves the characters trapped in the ever-changing insanity of war. Men at Arms, however, and, indeed, the entire trilogy, looks back from the perspective of the author’s later middle age, with a sense of disappointment at the final results of the war. Appropriately enough, Guy is an innocent at the outset of the war, not a mischief maker like Basil Seal. He is a middle-aged victim who is literally and figuratively cast into a battle for which he is ill prepared.
Guy’s heroic illusions are shattered in three successive stages through the separate volumes of the trilogy. Men at Arms concerns Guy’s search for the self-esteem he lost eight years earlier after his divorce from his wife. As an officer-trainee in the Royal Corps of Halberdiers, Guy temporarily finds self-respect, but the elaborate traditions of the Halberdiers and his traineeship at commandeered preparatory schools cause Guy to revert to adolescence. His physical awkwardness, his jealousy of fellow trainees, his vanity about growing a mustache, his ineffectual attempt to seduce his former wife on Saint Valentine’s Day, and the blot he receives on his military record at the end of the novel all seem more appropriate for a schoolboy than for an officer preparing to lead men into battle.
As in Waugh’s earlier novels, the comedy of Men at Arms depends not on the protagonist, but on the events and characters that he encounters. Apthorpe, a middle-aged miles gloriosus, and Ben Ritchie-Hook, Guy’s brigadier, represent two forms of the military insanity for which Guy trains. Apthorpe’s preoccupation with boots, salutes, and his portable field latrine, the “Box,” makes him an unlikely candidate for leading men into battle; Ritchie-Hook, whose only notion of military strategy is to attack, makes an elaborate game out of officer training by booby-trapping Apthorpe’s “Box”—a prank that causes Apthorpe to sink deeper into his madness. The confrontation between Apthorpe and Ritchie-Hook defines an absurd pattern that recurs later in the trilogy. Seeming madmen control the positions of power, and the protagonist is unwittingly drawn into their absurd worlds.
Officers and Gentlemen
Officers and Gentlemen further trains Guy in the illogic of military life, this time focusing on the efforts of gentlemen soldiers to re-create the comforts of their London clubs during the war. The novel ends on a more somber note, however, than did Men at Arms. Guy finds temporary solace in the commando unit to which he is transferred after his disgrace as a Halberdier and believes again that he will find some honorable role to play in the war, but the British defeat at Crete at the end of this volume negates whatever notions of honor he entertained.
Even more than Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen relentlessly parodies esprit de corps and pretentions to heroism. Ian Kilbannock’s gentlemanly service as a military journalist, for example, is to transform the ineffectual Trimmer into a propaganda hero for the common person. Julia Stitch’s yacht, the Cleopatra, brings the comforts of the English social world to the Mediterranean war. The burrowing Grace-Groundling-Marchpole absurdly continues the secret file he began in Men at Arms about Guy’s supposed counterintelligence activities. All of these events occur while England is suffering the first effects of German bombing and while the British disgrace at Crete looms ahead.
For a time, Guy imagines that the commandos are the “flower of England”; he even sees Ivor Claire as the ideal soldier, the kind of Englishman whom Hitler had not taken into account. The flower withers, however, in the chaotic retreat of British forces from Crete. Although Guy himself manages to maintain an even keel through most of the ordeal, the officers with whom he serves prove unheroic. His commander, “Fido” Hound, suffers a complete mental collapse in the face of the retreating troops; Ivor Claire, unable to face the prospect of surrendering, deserts his men and flees to India, where he is protected by his genteel birth. Eventually, Guy unheroically joins a boat escaping from the island and, exhausted, suffers a mental collapse. Guy initially resists Julia Stitch’s efforts to cover up Claire’s disgrace, but eventually he destroys his own diary recording the orders to surrender when he learns that nothing will be done about Claire’s desertion and when he learns of England’s alliance with Russia. Unlike the first volume, the second volume ends with Guy’s realization that he is an ineffectual player in a war that has lost a sense of honor.
It is curious to note that Waugh announced in the dust-jacket blurb for Officers and Gentlemen that, although he had planned the series for three volumes, he wanted his readers to regard it as finished with this second volume. The grimness of Guy’s disillusionment thus sheds a somber light on Waugh’s personal dilemma during the mid-1950’s. After completing about a third of the draft of this second volume, Waugh suffered the mental collapse he later fictionalized in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold. Guy’s hallucination at the end of Officers and Gentlemen probably owes some of its vividness to the madness Waugh himself endured in 1954, and perhaps the numbness that affects Guy at the end of the novel reflects Waugh’s own consciousness of his failing physical and mental powers.
The End of the Battle
Men at Arms and Officers and Gentlemen each deflate Guy’s illusions about honor. The End of the Battle follows the same pattern in terms of wartime politics and in terms of Guy’s military life, but in personal terms, Guy achieves a kind of unheroic, unselfish honor by the end of the novel. As a soldier, Guy accomplishes nothing heroic; even his efforts to liberate the Jewish refugees from partisan Yugoslavia is unsatisfying. Although most of the refugees are liberated, the leaders of the group—the Kanyis—are imprisoned and presumably executed. Guy’s struggle with the Yugoslavian partisans and his disgust at Britain’s alliance with the Communist-bloc countries further define the dishonorable end that Guy and Waugh see in the war.
Unlike the two previous volumes, however, The End of the Battle ends on a note of tentative personal hopefulness, effected by Guy’s renewed Roman Catholic faith. In the first two novels of the trilogy, Guy’s religion lay dormant—a part of his life made purposeless since his divorce from Virginia. In The End of the Battle, the death of Guy’s piously religious father causes Guy to realize that honor lies not in the “quantitative judgments” of military strategy, but in the spiritual salvation of individual souls. Guy’s efforts to rescue the Yugoslavian Jews is selflessly honorable, even if ultimately futile. His remarriage to Virginia, who is pregnant with Trimmer’s baby, is directed by the same sense of honor. Guy has little to gain emotionally from his remarriage; he does it for the preservation of the child’s life and, implicitly, for the salvation of its soul. It is a different sort of heroism than he sought at the beginning of the war, possible only because Virginia has died.
Sword of Honour is, in many ways, a fittingclimax to Waugh’s literary career. It poignantly expresses his reverence for religious values yet recognizes the anomalous existence of those values in the modern world. It burlesques the eccentric and the absurd, yet moves beyond superficial satire to a more deeply rooted criticism of postwar politics. It displays Waugh’s masterful ability to capture minor characters in brisk, economical strokes while working them thematically into the emotional composition of the protagonist. Waugh’s importance as a novelist lay in his ability to achieve this kind of economy in a traditional form. He kept alive, in short, a tradition of the comic novel that reaches back to the eighteenth century.