Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1000

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.

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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 without disturbing the character of the house.

The Reverend Tendril adds his own eccentric touch of fantasy to the services. He had...

(The entire section contains 1000 words.)

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A Handful of Dust