Waugh uses the comedy of manners to depict the sterile lives of well-bred Londoners. Through terse dialogue and pointed description Waugh shows a world devoid of passion and commitment. Matters of live and death barely ripple the placidity of this smug society.
Tony Last, owner of ancient Hetton Abbey, loves his quiet estate. His wife, Brenda, does not. Pretending to study economics, she rents an apartment in London. Actually, she begins an affair with John Beaver.
Beaver is a witless youth more useful than romantic. He escorts Brenda to parties and can be shown off. Although Brenda’s friends know of her infidelity, Tony remains blissfully ignorant. Then their son dies in a fall during a foxhunt.
After the funeral, Brenda requests a divorce. Tony at first agrees, until Brenda demands a financial settlement that would require Hetton to be sold. Giving Brenda a skimpy allowance, Tony leaves England.
Accompanied by the eccentric Dr. Messinger, Tony searches South American jungles for the legendary Shining City. Disease, mutinous natives, and a boat accident maroon Tony, who is nursed by an illiterate trader named Todd. Wanting Tony to read Dickens to him, Todd hides Tony from rescuers. Back in London, Brenda, deserted by Beaver, marries Tony’s best friend.
The novel’s minor characters are largely caricatures. The affluent Londoners fawn upon the manipulative Brenda; they blame the injured Tony for all unpleasantness. The reader comes to despise their inability to distinguish sincerity from pretense, morality from manners. Though the reader may sympathize with Tony, the man is infuriatingly feckless, an accomplice, a helpless cooperator in his own destruction.
Greenblatt, Stephen J. Three Modern Satirists: Waugh, Orwell, and Huxley. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1965. Includes an extended discussion of A Handful of Dust in the Waugh section of the book. Greenblatt declares the novel to be “the culmination of [Waugh’s] art.”
Nardin, Jane. “The Myth of Decline in A Handful of Dust.” Midwest Quarterly 18 (1977): 119-130. Offers an interpretation that runs counter to most other criticism, in which the author sympathizes with the adulterous wife and casts most of the blame on the victim-hero. One of the few examples of feminist criticism applied to Waugh’s fiction.
Phillips, Gene D. Evelyn Waugh’s Officers, Gentlemen, and Rogues: The Fact Behind His Fiction. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1975. Documents some of the sources for much of Waugh’s fictional worlds. Chapter 3, “Change and Decay: Further Satires,” discusses A Handful of Dust, Scoop (1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942). Reveals that the faithless wife and tawdry divorce proceedings of the novel mirror details of Waugh’s own painful first marriage.
Sykes, Christopher. Evelyn Waugh: A Biography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975. This critical study by a personal friend and the official biographer of Waugh includes a discussion of A Handful of Dust.
Wasson, Richard. “A Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism.” Modern Fiction Studies 7 (1961-1962): 327-337. Emphasizes Waugh’s use of Victorian art and artifacts in the novel and discusses his critical stand toward many aspects of the era.