A Handful of Dust

by Evelyn Waugh

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Anthony (Tony) and Brenda Last are a married couple whose crumbling relationship is at the heart of the novel. Tony, arguably the most sympathetic character in the novel, is an English country gentleman whose ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, is a source of tremendous pride for him. Tony loves his life in the country and is unfailingly generous and good-natured—perhaps too much so, for when Brenda, bored and idle in the country, begins having an affair with John Beaver, a guest at Hetton Abbey, Tony remains completely oblivious. In fact, Brenda has to inform her husband of her affair in order to initiate divorce proceedings. Tony is easily manipulated and deceived; only when he realizes the truth about Brenda’s greed and selfishness does he finally learn the word “no” and refuse to grant her the divorce she seeks.

Seeking respite from the dramas and complications of his life, Tony meets up with an explorer, Dr. Messinger, who takes him on an expedition to the Amazon rainforest in search of a lost ancient city. Messinger’s incompetence results in Tony’s falling ill and wandering aimlessly through the rainforest when suddenly Tony is miraculously saved by Mr. Todd, a man who at first seems to be a savior but eventually becomes a kidnapper. At the end of the novel, Tony is officially declared dead in England, and Hetton Abbey is passed on to his cousins. Tony’s misfortunes are often the result of chance and fate, not Tony’s own doing, and so he becomes a victim of cruel people, an ambivalent world, and the ruthless hierarchy of British class status.

Brenda Last finds country life unbearably dull and longs to be in exciting London, where John Beaver, unemployed and purposeless, floats about, mooching off the generosity of his friends. Brenda is demanding about what she wants and unfeeling about what her actions do to Tony. In fact, when Tony and Brenda’s son, John, dies, Brenda is “relieved” to learn that it’s not John Beaver who’s dead, but rather her own child; she then tells her bereaved and mourning husband that she wants to leave him for Beaver. At the end of the novel, Tony’s alleged death allows Brenda the freedom to marry again, which of course she does for money and social status.

John Beaver is the agent the causes much of the novel’s action. His presence at Hetton Abbey and his affair with Brenda are responsible for the falling apart of Tony and Brenda’s marriage. He is a superficial hedonist; he feels no guilt about his affair with Brenda, nor is he worried about his unemployment and his lack of purpose. That he causes misfortune for those around him does not trouble him in the slightest.

Other characters include Jock Grant-Menzies, Tony’s friend and the man whom Brenda marries at the end of the novel; John Andrew Last, Tony and Brenda’s son who dies; Mrs. Beaver, John’s mother, who bemoans the person John is but enables his behavior nonetheless; Dr. Messinger, the inept explorer who leads Tony into the Amazon jungle and then dies as he is swept down a waterfall; and Mr. Todd, the man who initially saves Tony from the Amazon but then becomes Tony’s kidnapper.

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