In his fourth novel, A Handful of Dust, Evelyn Waugh introduced a new style. He showed that, in addition to the satiric romp, he could write a “straight” novel that was realistic rather than stylized. Despite the differences between A Handful of Dust and its three predecessors, the story goes back to Waugh’s recurrent theme of the victim as hero. This theme of the civilized person’s helpless plight among “savages” had previously been developed through a tone of wry indifference. However, while A Handful of Dust is on the surface a comedy of manners, it is a very dark comedy in which, for the first time, Waugh forces his readers to identify with the victim as hero.
The protagonists of Waugh’s earlier novels are cardboard figures, whose passivity is thoroughly appropriate to the world of the novels—a world in which there is a crazy inconsequence to everything, even including infidelity, financial ruin, and violent death. Tony Last of A Handful of Dust has much in common with the earlier protagonists, and the things that happen to him will not be unfamiliar to readers of Waugh’s first three novels. However, whereas these earlier protagonists are farcical figures, Tony is a tragic one.
The novel’s motifs are familiar as well. The first motif is the great house. In the earlier novels, the once proud houses are either being thoughtlessly debased or consciously demolished. Tony Last loves his ancestral home, Hetton Abbey, which was once one of the notable houses of the county. It was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style, and the county guide book now declares it “devoid of interest.” However, Tony delights in every aspect of Hetton. Each bedroom 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 adulterer she is to become).
In each of the early novels, the protagonist loses the woman he really wants (indeed, it can be asserted that this occurs in most of Waugh’s novels). Tony’s cuckolding by the despicable John Beaver, however, is comparable only in the most superficial way to earlier romantic misadventures. His loss of Brenda is not amusing but poignant, because he is neither merely witness to an unusual series of events nor merely the narrator’s point of reference; he is a man. Tony engages the reader in a way that his predecessors never do.
Precisely because Tony Last (the metaphorical “last” remnant of a festive England) engages the reader’s sympathy, the motif of lost religious faith that adheres to him throughout the novel symbolizes no less than the doom of Western civilization. Waugh’s early novels certainly suggest something is amiss in the contemporary practice of Christianity. Tony’s predicament is another matter entirely; he is the first literally lost soul in Waugh’s fiction.
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 part of the venerable Hetton tradition, a refuge within a refuge from the modern world. He is humane, not Christian. The liturgy is simply one part of the ambiance of gentle living to which Tony alone, of all the characters in the novel, instinctively responds. As he performs the familiar motions of the ritual, his thoughts drift from subject to subject, returning usually to the question of how more bathrooms and lavatories could be introduced at Hetton...
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without disturbing the character of the house.
The Reverend Tendril adds his own eccentric touch of fantasy to the services. He had 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 gracious queen empress, “in whose services we are here” and to “homes and dear ones far away.” This in no way troubles his parishioners, who seldom associate things said in church with their own lives.
The vicar attempts to act as spiritual counselor on the day Tony’s son, John Andrew, is kicked to death by a horse. Tony remarks that the vicar tried to be comforting, but “the last thing one wants to talk about at a time like this is religion.” Still later, when the mad Mr. Todd contemplates putting up a cross to commemorate the death of a former captive and the arrival of a new one, he asks if Tony believes in God. Tony replies that he supposes so; he has never really thought about it much. Tony is secular at his best: kindly, loving, selfless. Yet none of these qualities can save him (in fact, they make the task of the predator much easier), and he has no faith with which to save himself.
The reader’s identification with Tony provides a basis for understanding Waugh’s intent. Earlier, Waugh had led the reader merrily through a chaotic world in which sudden violent death is just another absurdity. Prior to A Handful of Dust, he had been accused of writing satire without a moral center. Because Tony is a real man in the real world, however, he may not walk away from the disasters of his life as do his predecessors. He must be called to account. In fact, Tony’s weaknesses incur the most awful punishment Waugh ever meted out to any of his characters.
The action in A Handful of Dust is much less broad and much more realistic than in any of the three preceding novels. In truth, it could be argued that the novel is really naturalistic, for Tony and his way of life are doomed. From the outset, Waugh shows him being drawn inexorably toward disaster.