Evelyn Waugh World Literature Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4332

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...

(The entire section contains 4332 words.)

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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, therefore, extremely important. Finally, the identification between the narrator-persona and the protagonist-persona is complete in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold and the war trilogy Sword of Honour (1965; includes Men at Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, and The End of the Battle).

Waugh was a writer obsessed with technique. Virtually everyone with whom he discussed his work, in interviews and in correspondence, has testified to the meticulousness with which he chose both the language and the incidents of his books. For such a writer, the movement of the narrative point of view, over a period of some thirty years, from the objective, through the first person, to the limited third person, reveals much about Waugh’s development as an artist and about the degree of his engagement with the world he described in his fiction.

Many writers pass through phases or periods of change. Yet few literary careers have a division as pronounced as Waugh’s. Was it the Catholicism, medievalism, and romanticism of the postwar novels, or was it the altered personas, the new techniques, and stylistic tendencies that led Edmund Wilson to believe Waugh had strayed over a precipice? A contrary view is put forward by the perceptive critic James E. Carens, who believes that the “second stage” of Waugh’s career, ushered in by Brideshead Revisited and leading inevitably to the war trilogy, produced his most satisfying satire. In the novels dating from 1945 to 1961, he successfully exposes folly while introducing positive values absent from the early books. Are the novels of Waugh’s middle years the blighting of early promise, or are they his crowning achievement? The question poses extreme alternatives, but they are appropriately extreme. Waugh consistently evoked extreme responses, both as an artist and as a man.

Vile Bodies

First published: 1930

Type of work: Novel

The “bright young people” of the postwar generation lead frenetic, chaotic, and absurd lives.

Adam Fenwick-Symes, the protagonist of Vile Bodies, is, in a sense, a man of the world: a novelist, recently returned from Paris, and one of the “bright young people.” Yet he is passive, an antihero like so many other Waugh protagonists. Things simply happen to him as he drifts through the novel.

When the young novelist disembarks following a perfectly awful Channel crossing, an overzealous British customs officer leafs through the just-completed manuscript of his autobiography, determines it is too lubricious for native consumption, and seizes it on the spot. His action causes Adam to breach his contract with his publisher. Adam is then forced to sign a new one that commits him to virtual bondage. Because he has no money, he is unable to marry his fiancé, Nina Blount. The remainder of the novel is highly episodic; what plot movement there is emanates from two rather mild conflicts: establishment disapproval of the younger generation and Adam’s desultory quest for the means to marry Nina.

In Vile Bodies the narrator frequently becomes a sort of camera’s eye that cuts from scene to scene, revealing dialogue and external behavior only. Since the narrator, during these montage passages, does not go inside the minds of any of the characters, he appears more distant than does the narrator of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. Two themes that appeared in the first novel—and which would be addressed with increasing seriousness in the novels to follow—are treated in a broadly comic fashion. These are the modern perversion of Christianity and the destruction of the stately homes of England.

The action of the novel occurs largely during the Christmas season (November 10 to Christmas Day) in the “near future,” as the author points out in his foreword. The first cleric to appear is Father Rothschild, S.J. This ubiquitous Jesuit possesses in profusion those qualities that most excite British prejudice: He is a plotter in international affairs; he knows everything about everybody, even the location of the prime minister’s love nest in Shepheard’s Hotel; and he is a member of a wealthy banking family, thus exuding the double menace of wily Jesuit and crafty Jewish financier. Another ecclesiastic, a rector, plays a small comic role as Colonel Blount’s neighbor and reluctant chauffeur. The novel also features the making of a bogus film of the life of John Wesley at Doubting Hall, known to the locals as “Doubting All.”

The embodiment of “modern” religion in the novel is the rum-drinking revivalist, Mrs. Melrose Ape. She is clearly a caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson and is one of the few characters in the novel whose models can be definitely identified. The lesbian Mrs. Ape is accompanied by a band of angels, who carry their wings in violin cases and sing her famous hymn, “There ain’t no flies on the Lamb of God.” During the revival in Britain, two of her angels, Chastity and Divine Discontent, are ironically proselytized away from the proselytizer by the Latin American Entertainment Company, a white-slavery ring.

A Mr. Isaacs of the Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain demeans Doubting Hall at the behest of the dotty Colonel Blount. In the film made there, John Wesley is wounded in a duel, is nursed back to health by his lover, Selina, countess of Huntingdon, and later, in America, is rescued from Red Indians by the same Lady Huntingdon disguised as a cowboy.

The degradation of religion and the great house, bulwarks of a once-healthy England, is portrayed against a background of neurotic merrymaking. The escapades of the “bright young people” often end in disaster, several times in death. These deaths elicit no sympathy from the reader, not because the reader (or Waugh) is a monster, but because these characters are. They are grotesqueries, to whom cruel and terrible things indeed happen. Yet they are like circus performers called out by the ringmaster, Evelyn Waugh, to run through their paces. Their various acts may contain a latent tragedy, but it is well disguised behind the gaudy costumes and painted faces.

A Handful of Dust

First published: 1934

Type of work: Novel

A cuckolded husband leaves England to recover his ideal world but meets a terrible fate in the South American jungle.

Waugh’s “new” style, which is so closely associated with Brideshead Revisited (1945), was actually introduced in A Handful of Dust. This novel contains familiar elements, the most obvious of these being the victim as hero. The reader’s perception of the tone, or spirit, of the earlier novels is largely determined by a lack of identification with their protagonists. Adam Fenwick-Symes, for example, is a cardboard figure whose passivity is thoroughly appropriate to the world of Vile Bodies, a world in which there is a crazy inconsequence to everything, including infidelity, financial ruin, and even violent death. The things that happen to Tony Last in A Handful of Dust will not be unfamiliar to the reader of the earlier novels. Yet whereas Adam is a farcical figure, Tony is a tragic one.

Tony Last loves his ancestral home, Hetton. Each bedroom at Hetton features a brass bedstead and a frieze of Gothic text; each is named from Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur (1485). Tony has slept in Morgan le Fay since leaving the night nursery and his wife, Brenda, sleeps in Guinevere (a fitting bedchamber for the adulteress she is to become). Tony eventually loses Brenda to John Beaver, a despicable nonentity from London. His loss of Brenda is not amusing, as is Adam’s loss of Nina, but poignant. In A Handful of Dust, identification exists between the narrator-persona and the protagonist-persona. Thus, Tony engages the reader in a way that Adam never does.

Tony loves churchgoing. Every Sunday he sits in the family pew, and he reads the lessons on Christmas Day and Harvest Thanksgiving. Yet his religious practice, though not a sham, is merely a part of the venerable Hetton tradition, a refuge-within-a-refuge from the modern world. He is humane, but not Christian. Tony is secular man at his best: kindly, loving, selfless. Yet when his wife abandons him and his son, John Andrew, is kicked to death by a horse, Tony’s fine qualities cannot save him (in fact, they make him an easier prey for the predators surrounding him). He has, moreover, no faith by which to save himself.

An amusing representative of this empty Anglicanism is the Reverend Tendril, who adds his own touch of fantasy to divine services. He composed his sermons during his many years in India. They were addressed to the congregation at the garrison chapel, and he has made no attempt to accommodate them to his altered circumstances. They are, therefore, studded with references to the Queen Empress and to home and loved ones far away. These sermons in no way trouble his parishioners, who do not expect the things said in church to have any application to their own lives.

In his misery, Tony is led by the strange Dr. Messinger on a search for a lost city in the Brazilian jungle. The expedition ends disastrously. Dr. Messinger is drowned, and Tony, ravaged by malaria, falls into the hands of Mr. Todd, a mad half-breed. As Tony daily reads Charles Dickens to his illiterate host, he comes to realize with increasing horror that he is a prisoner. Mr. Todd will never let him go. He must spend the rest of his life reading Dickens to a madman in the middle of the jungle.

Now the scene switches to England again, and the narrative is quickly concluded. Tony is declared dead. Brenda, whom Beaver has long since abandoned, marries Jock, Tony’s old friend. Tony’s poor relations inherit Hetton and turn it into a fox farm. All that remains of Tony Last is his monument, bearing the simple (and ironic) epithet “Explorer” for this least adventurous of Englishmen.

Brideshead Revisited

First published: 1945

Type of work: Novel

A young painter falls under the spell of glamorous aristocratic family members and becomes enmeshed in their tragedy.

Brideshead Revisited first appeared in a limited edition in December, 1944 (Waugh often published small, sometimes specially engraved and illustrated limited editions for his friends). The regular edition followed in May of the next year. For fifteen years, Waugh had been acquiring a faithful but not a huge audience. Brideshead Revisited made him a best-selling author for the first time. It also alienated a number of critics.

To some, like Edmund Wilson, the richness of the language is the novel’s chief sin, causing it to tend throughout toward romanticism and sentimentalism. For others, the structure of the novel is at fault. James F. Carens argues that too much of the novel is devoted to the Oxford period and too little to Charles Ryder’s love affair with Julia Flyte. For still others, the protagonist himself is the chief problem. Ryder is a snob who seems clearly lacking in generosity of spirit. Moreover, Waugh, so these critics argue, compounds his difficulties by choosing Ryder as his narrator. So strong is the suggestion, even if it be erroneous, that the first-person narrator is a mouthpiece for the author, that for the first time Waugh was personally identified with his unsympathetic hero.

The novel is a framed story. It begins with a prologue and ends with an epilogue, both set in wartime England. The flashback, which is the bulk of the novel, constitutes The Sacred and Profane Memories of Captain Charles Ryder (the subtitle). This flashback is divided into two books: “Et in Arcadia Ego,” which deals largely with Ryder’s Oxford years, and “A Twitch upon the Thread,” which chronicles the working of the divine will upon the Marchmain family and, through them, upon Ryder.

As the novel begins, Ryder, a thirty-nine-year-old captain of infantry, is transferred, along with his battalion, to a new camp. The troops arrive in the middle of the night, and Ryder does not realize until the next morning that he has returned to Brideshead, once the elegant country home of the Marchmains. As he looks out over the familiar vista, the nostalgic memories that make up the novel proper are triggered.

In book 1, set in the Oxford of the 1920’s, Ryder meets and becomes infatuated with charming, irresponsible Sebastian Flyte, second son of Lord and Lady Marchmain. Lord Marchmain has been separated from his wife for many years and lives with his mistress in Venice. Sebastian takes Ryder to Brideshead to meet the rest of his family: Lady Marchmain, beautiful and enigmatic; Brideshead (Bridey), heir to his father’s title, as stolid as Sebastian is animated; Julia, with whom Ryder will eventually fall in love; and Cordelia, the youngest child, devout in a natural, unaffected way. The Marchmains are a Catholic family, and Brideshead Revisited is often called a Catholic novel. Sebastian is attempting to escape the demands of his religion through drink and is rapidly becoming a hopeless alcoholic. Julia is rebelling by marrying Rex Mottram, a Canadian adventurer and wheeler-dealer. This far-from-ideal family is a curious device if, as some have charged, Waugh’s novel is a Catholic apologia.

In book 2, Ryder becomes an architectural artist; he paints the great houses of England, often just ahead of their dismemberment or destruction. Thus, two of Waugh’s recurring motifs, the artist-as-hero and the great house, come together in the character of the protagonist. Ryder marries Celia Mulcaster, whom very quickly he cannot abide. He is glad to learn that she is unfaithful, for he is then free to dislike her. Ryder and Julia encounter each other on an Atlantic voyage and become lovers. Lady Marchmain has died, and Lord Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die. His deathbed conversion (in a scene roundly condemned by some critics) profoundly affects Julia. The smoldering coals of her Catholicism are fanned into a raging blaze. She breaks off her affair with Ryder and declares that she will remain married to the loathsome Rex.

In the epilogue, Ryder never states but strongly implies that he has become a Catholic. He enters Brideshead’s art-nouveau chapel to find a lamp burning before the altar there. Although he has lost most of what he desired in life, for the convert Ryder, the faith, to him both ancient and new, lives on.

Sword of Honour

First published: 1965; includes Men at Arms, 1952; Officers and Gentlemen, 1955; The End of the Battle, 1961 (also known as Unconditional Surrender)

Type of work: Novels

This trilogy recounts the wartime experiences of Guy Crouchback, another of Waugh’s maimed romantics.

Sword of Honour is both a general title for Waugh’s World War II trilogy and the specific name of a streamlined, one-volume collection of the novels appearing toward the end of the author’s career. Waugh did some cutting here and there and eliminated a few minor characters, but none of the three novels are substantially altered in the Sword of Honour edition.

The trilogy may or may not be Waugh’s best work; certainly it is his most ambitious. His heavily plotted story charts the moral deterioration of the West and the spiritual growth of his hero, ironically concurrent developments. He deftly “modulates” (a favorite term among critics of the trilogy) the tones of irony, satire, farce, and tragedy against a naturalistic background. Furthermore, most of Sword of Honour was written during Waugh’s fifties when, according to his biographers, his health was failing and he was becoming progressively more disheartened, depressed, and lethargic. To him, Nazi Germany had been defeated at the cost of British honor; his country was rapidly becoming a thoroughly agnostic, materialistic, socialistic state; and, most horrifying of all, the Holy Mother Church that he had embraced in 1930 was, only twenty-five years later, admitting liberalizations (to Waugh, corruptions) and accommodating itself to the society that it ought to be resisting with all its might.

Men at Arms introduces the protagonist, Guy Crouchback, a familiar Waugh character type. Following his divorce, Guy has spent eight empty years at Castello Crouchback in Santa Dulcina, Italy. His wife, Virginia (like so many of her fictional predecessors), is a shallow, amoral woman who left her husband for another man. After the Russian-German alliance, Guy returns to England seeking a commission. In opposing the hateful combination of Nazism and Communism, he feels he is taking up arms against the Modern Age. Before leaving Italy, Guy visits the tomb of Sir Roger of Waybroke, an English knight who was shipwrecked near Santa Dulcina while on his way to the Second Crusade. Guy runs his finger along the sword atop the knight’s effigy and swears to take up Sir Roger’s unfulfilled quest. Sir Roger’s is the first “Sword of Honour.” Waugh will introduce, with bitter irony, a second sword in the final novel. Because of his age, thirty-six, Guy experiences difficulty in gaining his commission, but he finally finds a place with the Royal Corps of Halberdiers. Guy loves the army and this venerable unit. His first real shock is the discovery that the British military would welcome the breakup of the Russian-German alliance, thinking only of the diminished odds against them, not of Guy’s romantic crusade.

Guy soon meets the two major comic characters of the book. Apthorpe is a slightly absurd junior officer of Guy’s age. Brigadier Ben Ritchie-Hook is a war lover who has lost one eye and most of his right hand during a lifetime of “biffing” whatever enemies he could find. Men at Arms is the most comic of the three novels largely because of a protracted conflict over Apthorpe’s thunderbox, his personal chemical toilet, acquired during his African days. Ritchie-Hook discovers its existence, covets it, and launches a wildly funny guerrilla campaign designed to secure it for himself. Apthorpe’s ludicrous death at the end of Men at Arms is reminiscent of several deaths from the early novels. After Apthorpe suffers a recurrence of jungle fever, Guy smuggles a bottle of whisky into his hospital room. Apthorpe later consumes the entire bottle, suffers a violent reaction, and dies.

The tone of Officers and Gentlemen darkens markedly, especially in the disastrous battle for Crete (in which Waugh himself fought with distinction). Two more crucial characters are featured: Trimmer, a lazy, incompetent probationary officer, who appears briefly in Men at Arms, and Corporal-Major Ludovic, an effete man with disconcerting pink eyes and no documented past.

Trimmer is a man of many names. He was Gustave during his career as a hairdresser on ocean liners. He is the fabricated hero of an inconsequential and totally mismanaged operation called Popgun. As such, he is sent on a morale-boosting tour of Britain in the guise of Captain Alistair McTavish; he occasionally promotes himself to Major McTavish. In Glasgow, he meets Virginia, whose hair he once did on the Aquitania. They have a brief affair, and he leaves her carrying his child. The Ministry of Information finally determines there are too many Scots heroes. McTavish becomes Trimmer once more and is returned to active service. He promptly deserts and is never heard from again.

Ludovic has been likened to one of Henry James’s evil-minded servants. Beneath his inscrutable facade, he is a hard and crafty man. When, on Crete, the Brigade Major breaks down under fire and becomes a liability to the men of his command, Ludovic kills him. He is the embodiment of the British army’s ignoble retreat to the sea, a rout in which the men are killing their officers and taking their uniforms and vehicles. Later, Ludovic murders a sapper captain in order to claim his place in the getaway boat. He mistakenly believes that Guy has knowledge of these murders and, during the balance of the trilogy, he grows increasingly paranoid from fear that Guy will one day expose him.

Unconditional Surrender was published under the title The End of the Battle in the United States. It covers the last years of the war and the period immediately following. Disillusionment is piled upon disillusionment. Guy, now an intelligence officer, is posted to Yugoslavia, where he recognizes Premier Tito’s war effort as primarily a means to defeat the royalists and his other rivals and communize the country. The British blithely hand their former Serbian allies over to the Communists to be shot. Ritchie-Hook turns up in Yugoslavia as an observer but throws his life away in a bogus partisan attack. The happy warrior’s death is appropriate since the modern world has no use for those of his ilk.

In London, Sir Ralph Brompton, a sinister politician and Ludovic’s former homosexual lover, is loading the British military mission to Yugoslavia with Communists. In terrible contrast to Sir Roger’s sword, the Sword of Stalingrad, the loathsome symbol of Britain’s alliance with atheism and totalitarianism, is displayed in splendor in Westminster Abbey. In Guy’s private life, interesting developments have preceded his departure for Yugoslavia. Virginia, after failing to find a suitable abortionist in war-torn London, decides to have Trimmer’s child. Guy, who as a Catholic believes that his marriage to Virginia—now divorced from her most recent husband—has never truly ended, feels obligated to marry her again. She has the baby, legally Guy’s, and leaves it in the country. She is later killed by a “doodle” bomb in the final days of the war.

After the war, the tortured and reclusive Ludovic moves to Italy, even masochistically purchasing the Castello Crouchback. He becomes the best-selling author of The Death Wish, an extravagantly romantic novel that most critics take to be a satiric version of Waugh’s own Brideshead Revisited. Guy returns to Broome, his country home, and marries Domenica, the tomboy daughter of friends. Virginia’s son is christened Gervase, the noblest name in the Crouchback line, and Guy unselfishly wills the family name and all that goes with it to the son of Trimmer.

Of the two titles, Unconditional Surrender and The End of the Battle, the first is clearly the more successful artistically. As well as referring to the surrender of the Axis Powers, it hints at Britain’s surrender to expediency in order to win the war. Finally, it suggests that Guy’s final, selfless act in the trilogy is a surrender to the Divine Will.

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