Evelyn Waugh

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Waugh, Evelyn 1903–1966

An English satirical novelist, Waugh is the author of The Loved One, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust. (See obituary in Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)

Religion, the old Catholic religion, is presented in Waugh's later novels not as a living source of spiritual values which can redeem the modern waste land, but as what might perhaps be called the stiff upper lip of the soul; it gives the believer dignity of bearing, like wearing evening dress in the jungle. Thus religion provides aristocratic gestures to shore against the ruins. This is an odd use of religion in fiction.

David Daiches, in his The Present Age in British Literature, Indiana University Press, 1958, p. 110.

Mr. Waugh is both a sound moralist and an observant humorist and it is his humour which makes palatable the unpleasant medicines he prescribes for his readers.

The world depicted in the novels is one of seemingly irreparable futility. It is a sham world of hypocrisy and dishonesty, of irresponsibility and license, a world from which all spiritual values have been eliminated; a topsy-turvy world in which the innocent suffers instead of the guilty, in which the essential is subordinated to the trivial, in which things normally recognized as evils are hailed as real blessings; a tired world of sophisticated boredom expressing the fundamental human need for activity; a fleeting world where 'the past and the future are pressing so hard on either side that there's no room for the present at all'; a pathetic world which 'enjoys a vicarious intimacy with death' but which nevertheless evades the reality of pain and death. Life is a vacuum in which Mr. Waugh's characters move in a vicious circle of aimlessness, boredom and futility: eternally active, they achieve nothing, their deeds being 'barely worth the attention of the most assiduous beach-comber'. Yet underneath there is 'a fatal thirst for permanence', a half articulate desire for something different and an indeterminate search for a purpose in life.

From the chaos two problems emerge as major preoccupations: Mr. Waugh is concerned first of all with the disastrous effects of Science and progress on the human personality, and, arising out of this, is his vital concern about authority or leadership in the modern world…. Another facet of modern man's degradation is emphasized by Mr. Waugh—the loss of individuality or personal identity….

It would be rather absurd to suppose that Mr. Waugh is totally opposed to all science and all progress. His objection is more fundamental. He is opposed not to true science or true progress which cannot distort but to their popularized modern version: science which does not acknowledge God and progress which does not consider the ultimate end of human life….

A tripartite structure (reason: chaos: return to reason) is discernible in most of Mr. Waugh's novels….

In a country predominantly Protestant or Agnostic, the Catholic convert isolates himself from his fellows. This theme of isolation runs through the Catholic novels of Mr. Waugh, quietly expressed in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold but much more heavily underlined in the larger canvasses of Brideshead Revisited, and the war novels. Catholicism replaces the more generally defined personal integrity of the hero as the isolating factor in these later novels. Mr. Waugh is not only separated from his non-Catholic friends, he is equally distant from the Catholic members of society….

What strikes the reader of Mr. Waugh's Catholic novels is the strength of his faith and his quiet, resigned, one might almost call it, his joyless acceptance of all it entails. Catholicism involves sacrifice...

(This entire section contains 3839 words.)

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but because it gives life a meaning the sacrifice is worthwhile.

Patricia Corr, "Evelyn Waugh: Sanity and Catholicism," in Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, No. 51, 1962, pp. 388-99.

Close in their nihilism to Firbank's fruity nonsense and Huxley's despairing comedies of the twenties, Waugh's early novels also suggest the indifference to the larger world of Fitzgerald's playboys and Hemingway's dissolutes. His clearly is not the kind of humor or comedy that attempts to create balance by purging nonsense…. Only to a limited extent do social institutions come under his attack, and the people whom he mocks appear to be the only ones who count. In escaping them, apparently, one embraces the commonplace and tedious…. Waugh avoids issues, decisions, controversy, for all the world is the object of his farce. Nothing is sacred, not even the Catholic Church, which he joined in 1930, almost at the very start of his literary career. That perhaps explains why Brideshead Revisited … falls flat, for here Catholicism is to be taken seriously as a powerful but ambiguous force. Possibly that is why all of Waugh's doctrinaire works are slight and unrewarding. His comic approach precluded his worshiping at any altar, and when he did so, method clashed with subject matter….

Waugh has often been called a satirist, but satire presupposes belief, doctrine, dogma. Clearly, in his early and most effective work, Waugh is defending no one and nothing. Possibly the only belief that comes through plainly is his defense of the sanctity of the individual, as in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold….

Waugh, like Henry Green, is at his happiest when his theme is confusion. He is weakest when he deliberately attempts to turn chaos into order, hysteria into sanity, madness into normality….

Waugh's characters, rarely recognizing their limitations, and never apologizing, throw themselves fully into life. When they meet obstacles that they had not dreamed existed and their ultimate power is questioned, then Waugh has a comic situation.

The basis of Waugh's comedy, if it can be defined, is confusion compounded by human presumption. Waugh's characters usually assume more, or less, about themselves than they are intrinsically worth, and then, suddenly, they are thrust into zany situations…. Another aspect of Waugh's comedy is the characters' ability to throw off one role and assume another, as the situation calls for it. His characters adjust, merge, reshape themselves. Their substance is protean, their natures flexible and melting: they can do whatever life forces them to do, and, often, they are only too willing to re-make themselves. The bizarre, the eccentric, the idiosyncratic all appear normal to them. The disparity between what the character accepts and what the reader knows is right often provides the comic element….

Waugh's ideas, as we derive them from his later books, are too unconsidered to stand successfully separated from the comic devices which mask, strengthen, and give substance to them. Stated directly, his attitudes—politically and socially reactionary, prejudicial, contentious, snobbish, aristocratic—are no more effective than those of the outrageous newspaper magnates he guyed so unmercifully in his early novels. When he could lampoon all ideas, his own as well, Waugh had secure purchase on ground that was his alone; but when either because of age, success, or artistic belief he let down the comic mask and spoke personally, then his novels lost their style.

Frederick R. Karl, "The World of Evelyn Waugh: The Normally Insane," in his A Reader's Guide to the Contemporary English Novel (reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, Inc.; © 1962 by Frederick R. Karl), Farrar, Straus, 1962, pp. 167-82.

There is a view of Evelyn Waugh's fiction which is becoming increasingly familiar…. This view sees Waugh as turning quite early from the nihilistic fun of his first two novels, Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, to a kind of Tory romanticism, evident as early as 1934 in A Handful of Dust. Here, in the figure of Tony Last, we see the first outlines of the English Gothic dream, the cult of the aristocracy and the country house. In Brideshead Revisited (1945) this dream developed into a total myth; the aristocracy—particularly the Catholic aristocracy—were seen as the unique custodians of the traditional values in a world increasingly threatened by the barbarians, personified in the uncouth young officer, Hooper…. Brideshead Revisited first established Evelyn Waugh as a "Catholic novelist" (to use a term that is surely something of a kiss of death), but many readers found his association of Catholicism and aristocratic virtues, the identification of House and City, arbitrary in the extreme….

It is impossible to read A Handful of Dust and then Brideshead Revisited without feeling the force of Mr. Waugh's personal myth, in which the precise role of Catholicism, is to say the least of it, ambiguous (though to say this isn't, of course, to cast any doubt on the sincerity of Mr. Waugh's personal attachment to the Catholic religion). But I would also like to suggest that the myth is less simple than some critics have suggested, and that Waugh's own attitude to it isn't altogether straight-forward…. [With] the completion of the Crouchback trilogy ["Sword of Honor"], the romantic and aristocratic myth, previously so dominating, is totally transformed.

Bernard Bergonzi, "Evelyn Waugh's Gentlemen," in Critical Quarterly, Spring, 1963, pp. 23-36.

Waugh has frequently been accused of being a snob and deadly conservative, but in fact he treats the representatives of the old order as savagely as he does the new barbarians. He defends tradition, not the status quo; social order, not the establishment. The standards against which his fools are measured and found to be fools is not, in his early novels, located in any individual but in the values and social forms to which his characters without knowing what they are doing still give voice….

[All-pervasive] simplicity and mindlessness is the principal cause of the trouble in Waugh's satiric world…. Leave man, individual man, to decide on his own values, throw him into a relativistic world in which nothing is certain, corrupt the traditional institutions and ways of doing things so that no honest man can believe in them, and the result will be, as Waugh regularly shows, confusion, self-defeat, the grotesque distortion of human nature, and frantic but meaningless activity.

It is the arrangement of incidents and the overall pattern of events—plot—which ultimately establish the "meaning" in Waugh's novels. Like most satires, they lack a conventional story, intricately contrived and carefully followed….

By some standards Waugh would appear to have put his novels together very badly, but he is, of course, reproducing in his arrangement of scenes and his handling of time the chaotic, frenetic, disconnected movements of modern life. Only a true culture, not a disintegrating one, can have an Aristotelian plot in which one event follows inevitably from another and the whole is composed of a beginning, a middle, and an end.

Alvin B. Kernan, "The Wall and the Jungle: The Early Novels of Evelyn Waugh" (© 1963 by Yale University; reprinted by permission of the editors), in Yale Review, December, 1963, pp. 199-220.

One of the difficulties confronting the student of Mr. Waugh's fiction is the virtual impossibility of placing this author securely within a single comic tradition. His obviously comic novels seem far too meaningful to be regarded as mere caricature, and yet they lack both the tinge of bitterness one normally associates with irony, and the moral indignation which usually accompanies satire.

Marston LaFrance, "Context and Structure of Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited," in Twentieth Century Literature, April, 1964, pp. 12-18.

Evelyn Waugh's Decline and Fall … and Vile Bodies … and the rest of his satirical novels have a taste of mental and moral superiority. Contemporary humour and satire are in many cases held in duress by a pervasive undergraduate jocosity. The imprint of an unadult mind is upon Waugh's The Loved One…, devised as a satire upon the repulsively sentimental and grossly sanctimonious commercialized burial customs of the modern Americans. The theme is in reality so grotesque and nauseating that an exceptional degree of literary discipline and tact is required to treat it. Waugh exhausts the theme in the first dozen or so pages and the book thereafter becomes contaminated by prolonged gnawing at its own material. It must be noted, however, that reviewers gave The Loved One unmeasured praise. Waugh committed himself to a more ambitious theme in Brideshead Revisited…, a family chronicle which may well become his longest-remembered book, for its sense of period, the firmness of its character-drawing, and its convincing record of a Roman Catholic family whose religious foundations are shaken by a dipsomaniac son and an adulterous daughter. Amid the tragedy there are flashes of comedy, notably through the detached sardonic humour of the narrator's father. As a novel, though not as a demonstration of divine grace in terms of Catholic theology, Brideshead Revisited is weakened by an over-determined final contrivance of Faith Triumphant.

A. C. Ward, in his Twentieth-Century English Literature 1901–1960, Methuen-University Paperbacks, 1964, pp. 83-4.

There is a constant element in at any rate a majority of the novels Evelyn Waugh has written from Decline and Fall (1928) to Unconditional Surrender (1961): the hero is an innocent caught up in and done down by the machinations of a wicked world. But the nature of the world changes.

In Decline and Fall we are in a world as remote from moral considerations as a fairy story or a Marx Brothers film…. One calls Decline and Fall satire for lack of a more accurate word. But very largely, we are outside satire because we are outside moral considerations, as much as we are in Lewis Carroll….

With Vile Bodies…, we are out of fairyland and into Mayfair. Vile Bodies is one of those rare novels, like The Great Gatsby, that seem to define and sum up a period. It can stand for one aspect of life in the England of the twenties…. Vile Bodies, like Decline and Fall, is a fantasy, but a fantasy based on the observable reality of the times. So there is much more satire, of the kind one might find in a very brilliant theatrical revue; its targets are essentially the world as reflected in the popular press, which means the press itself, the Bright Young People it helped to bring into being, evangelists like Aimée Semple MacPherson, the world of motor racing, the book-banning activities of Sir William Joynson-Hicks, and so on. The truly remarkable thing is that it has survived its topicality; it is a triumph of style and the comic spirit….

Fantasy disappears altogether in A Handful of Dust (1934). Here we are in the real world, and innocence is well and truly done down. At once comic and grim, A Handful of Dust is one of the best novels of our time. Contempt for the social scene depicted and for those who inhabit it has entered in, and so has bitterness….

At the moment of writing, it seems that Unconditional Surrender may very well mark a turning-point in Evelyn Waugh's development as a novelist. Yet, as one looks back over the three novels and compares them with Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies, one is struck not so much by the differences as by the underlying similarity…. Perhaps the earlier novels are more true to life than we had believed.

Walter Allen, in his The Modern Novel (© 1964 by Walter Allen; published by E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. and used with their permission), Dutton, 1964, pp. 208-14.

The basis of judgment for Waugh's novels … must be the adequacy with which the vision is embodied: without balance and ironic contrast, Waugh could not develop his central subject, the individual in retreat from a chaotic and menacing society, into novels worthy of serious consideration; given proper form, the subject could sustain novels that deserve to be read and remembered by posterity. In these terms, Vile Bodies, The Loved One, and Sword of Honour are of the second rank; Scoop and Put Out More Flags are qualified successes; and Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, and A Handful of Dust represent Waugh's art and vision at their most effective.

The estimate of the first three novels listed may seem surprising…. In none of them, however, is Waugh's recurring subject rendered adequately, with the result that they are sentimental in the sense that facts are not proportionate to the emotional response demanded. Vile Bodies provides the clearest example: the outer world is clearly established as mad and confusing by the events of the novel, but the contrasting place of peace and security sought by Adam and Nina is adumbrated only in the Christmas scene at Doubting Hall (during an adulterous love affair that is not judged in Christian terms). Throughout most of the book Waugh must depend upon direct statement in his own voice or in that of his characters to indicate to the reader the principles according to which the action is to be judged. Consequently, the theme is too blatantly emphasized, while the narrative line, without effective contrast or thickening, is not very convincing….

In his three most successful novels, Decline and Fall, Black Mischief, and A Handful of Dust, Waugh presents the madness of the outer world as inevitable and therefore beyond judgment and the refuge as desirable and necessary but not fully secure or satisfying….

Because it confronts directly the ills of modern civilization and embodies them in characters rather than in a series of intellectual fads and because it traces more vividly and uncompromisingly the effects of seeking refuge from the world without adequate resources for the retreat or an ordered, enduring place of withdrawal, A Handful of Dust is the most penetrating of Waugh's novels….

Ultimately, questions about the value of Waugh's work can be reduced to one crucial question of whether or not he gives in his art a vision not of the truth but of a truth. It seems quite clear that he does. His novels embody a series of variations on one central theme: the individual, to be saved as an individual, must retreat from modern society; institutions are finally not worthy of loyalty, though ideals and people are; power in the world inevitably corrupts, but renunciation of the world and of power involves a real cost; the pressure of events is toward greater confusion, increasing drabness, and vitiation of energy; and private salvation cannot be shared.

Robert Murray Davis, "The Mind and Art of Evelyn Waugh," in Papers on Literature and Language, Summer, 1967, pp. 270-87.

Waugh's early novels all deal with people the author's own age, but only Vile Bodies treats them as a social entity. For all its flamboyance and seeming frivolity the book has a serious theme: the dissatisfaction of the young with inherited standards. Waugh sees a genuine malaise in contemporary society, and he is careful to imply that it is not restricted to the wealthy who were his inevitable subjects.

Steven A. Jervis, "Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, and the Younger Generation," in South Atlantic Quarterly (© 1967 by the Duke University Press), Summer, 1967, pp. 440-48.

To read a page of Waugh's prose is to revel in a cool, patrician, Augustan craftsmanship which is a world away from the Hemingway tradition. There is restraint, a lofty eschewing of the details of sex or violence, a love of the generalizing well-wrought period as opposed to the quick nervous presentation of sensuous experience as it happens. But there is in all Waugh's novels a hidden concern with violence that expresses itself in a ruthlessness which only the spirit of satire can excuse.

Anthony Burgess, in his The Novel Now: A Guide to Contemporary Fiction (reprinted by permission of W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.; © 1967 by Anthony Burgess), Norton, 1967, pp. 54-5.

[The] only genuine and non-politically motivated attack that can be arrayed against Waugh's early satires is … [that his] characters are two-dimensional caricatures who are externalized…. Waugh deliberately uses this technique…. Although the caricatures in the early satires are two-dimensional, they actually come alive because Waugh injects them with marvelous zest and vitality. (pp. 18-19)

What has not been sufficiently appreciated about Waugh is that most of his material has a very close relation to real happenings. He writes autobiographically, and even when he bases some of his information on gossip (say, in the description of the Ministry of Information in Put Out More Flags), the gossip has been carefully sifted to relate even the improbable as plausibly and as credibly as possible. (p. 20)

A Handful of Dust was a new departure for Waugh because for the first time he presented three-dimensional characters…. In a later pronouncement Waugh was to remark that A Handful of Dust was a statement about humanism, and contained all "he had to say about the subject." It is implicit in Waugh's view that humanism is not enough. Man must seek the spiritual to balance his existence. Secular goodness unaided by spiritual belief dooms modern man to an essentially incomplete life.

Waugh's final comment on humanism is reenforced by his urbane, heavily ironic, tragicomic approach and style. His black humor makes his theme especially telling as he portrays the deficiencies and inconsistencies of the "upside-down" or "mad" world humorously. This technique causes his readers to perceive fully both the implicit and explicit horrors of the situation. Completely serious treatment would not have been nearly as appropriate for his subject matter. The human race is incapable of any genuinely satisfactory humanism because it is simply incapable of perceiving and acknowledging its own monstrous inconsistencies and the ridiculously hypocritical and contradictory beliefs in which it is involved. (pp. 20-2)

One of the salient and most distinguishing features of Waugh's work has been his abiding preoccupation with style. His vocabulary proved exceptionally rich, and he was gifted with a special ability to choose the precise, absolutely correct word, to eschew the cliché, and except for Brideshead Revisited his economy in the use of language has been unchallenged…. The only serious mistake for which Waugh blamed himself was to write Brideshead Revisited in a romantic style, which has been called lush and lavish by several critics…. Waugh had committed an offense against his own canons of stylistic purity and restraint—an offense for which he could not forgive himself. (pp. 42-3)

In reviewing Waugh's literary career a clearly defined pattern presents itself. The early satirist of the follies and decadence of the upper classes and the Bright Young Things (the "jet set" of that period) evolved through his religious conversion to Christianity to more serious probing of the limitations of humanism. He then devoted his novels primarily to the task of tracing the workings of God's Grace and the designs of Divine Providence in contemporary British life. In handling these various subjects and, in effect, tracing many of the primary and prominent aspects of English social life from the 1920's to the post-World War II years Waugh has actually written a novel sequence…. In accurately re-creating an important segment of British life in the twentieth century, Waugh has produced what can be called "The Divine Tragicomedy of Existence" sequence…. Critics should not view Waugh as two different authors—a writer of comic novels and a writer of serious novels. This dichotomy is invalid. Waugh can be understood fully and enjoyed most completely only when he is viewed as a writer of tragicomedy…. Waugh realized that comedy can snare truth just as neatly as seriousness can, and he mixed his ingredients accordingly. (pp. 43-4)

Paul A. Doyle, in his Evelyn Waugh ("Contemporary Writers in Christian Perspective"), Eerdmans, 1969.


Waugh, Evelyn (Arthur St. John)


Waugh, Evelyn (Vol. 107)