Evelyn Waugh Evelyn Waugh World Literature Analysis

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Evelyn Waugh World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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From the 1940’s until his death, Evelyn Waugh infuriated left-wing critics on both sides of the Atlantic and seemed to delight in doing so. These critics found his religious views superstitious, his social views obsolete, his political views reactionary, and his views on black-white relations racist.

Waugh’s early novels were almost universally praised, while critical opinion on the novels of his maturity has been seriously divided. Although much of the adverse criticism since the hostile reception accorded Black Mischief was clearly unwarranted, it could not be attributed entirely to a left-wing animus. A number of influential critics, foremost among them Edmund Wilson, lauded the early novels but condemned the later ones as betraying the promise first shown. So great is the division among Waugh’s critics that what some describe as growth in the later novels, others call decay. Wilson and others were quite distressed by the contrast between the elegantly witty prose of the early novels and the progressive Catholicism, medievalism, and romanticism of the later works. Waugh’s style did change over time, although he showed that he could, at will, recapture the manner of his first novels whenever he chose.

That Waugh’s literary reputation has endured is remarkable, considering how greatly at odds he was with most of his fellow writers, leading literary critics, and influential academics. He certainly put an immense strain upon the objectivity of the socially conscious critic when he stated during the Spanish Civil War that if he were a Spaniard, he would be fighting for General Franco; when he expressed an open admiration for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; when he made no attempt to disguise his distaste for the working class; when, in one of his novels, he pictured African soldiers eating their new boots and otherwise behaving in a primitive manner, at a time when many felt all humane Britons ought to be asking forgiveness for their colonial behavior; and when he launched Swiftian attacks upon anything that smacked of socialism or progressivism. Some critics (most notably Edmund Wilson and J. B. Priestley) responded by writing, in effect, that no one with such absurd notions could possibly author good books. Wilson had praised the early novels, even to the point of judging Waugh to be the greatest comic writer in the English language since George Bernard Shaw. Brideshead Revisited, however, the first of the Catholic novels, dismayed him. The pervasive Roman Catholicism of the novel apparently bothered many other critics of secular persuasion.

Waugh’s well-documented snobbery and tendency toward disagreeable behavior must also have taxed the fair-mindedness of his contemporaries. His diaries, which began appearing in expurgated installments in 1973, give ample evidence of the unattractive, even ugly, aspects of his personality. America and Americans were generally dealt with contemptuously in his work. Waugh’s best-known novella, The Loved One, is a savage satire on those aspects of Southern California society he found most false, tawdry, and dehumanizing. Little wonder that the arrogant, peremptory, and generally nasty protagonist of Kingsley Amis’s One Fat Englishman (1963)—a British novelist on an American lecture tour—was immediately labeled a portrait of Evelyn Waugh.

An ambitious effort to denote the characteristic features of Waugh’s art and to trace their evolution through the body of his fiction is that of William J. Cook, Jr. Cook attempts to account for Waugh’s change in technique by carefully examining the persona of the protagonist in each novel. These altered personas, he argues, are the key to the difference between the “early” and “late” novels. Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies employ the objective point of view. In A Handful of Dust, the narrator-persona and the protagonist-persona become more closely identified. Waugh’s experimentation with first-person narrative in Brideshead Revisited is,...

(The entire section is 4,332 words.)