Analysis

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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 306

Evelyn Waugh's 1934 novel makes the transition from his earlier, satirical works into realism. The breakdown of his own marriage is reflected in the domestic drama in A Handful of Dust. Tony Last's wife, Brenda, leaves him for another man, not unlike Waugh's desertion by his wife, also named Evelyn, for a family friend.

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The novel is thought to be an expression of Waugh's conversion to Catholicism in 1930 after the failure of his marriage. The immorality of Brenda Last and her lover, John Beaver, and Brenda's indifference to her son's death are meant to represent Waugh's disillusionment with modern attitudes that rejected traditional values and lacked faith in God. When Brenda does not receive the divorce settlement she expects, Beaver moves on. Tony Last finds himself purposeless and undertakes a journey to Brazil. The jungle chaos that Last finds himself lost in is meant to represent the meaninglessness and darkness of a life lived without God. He falls into obscurity, and his loss is neither mourned nor remembered by those in his former, civilized life.

Waugh wanted the novel to expose the futility of a life lived without faith. It is the absence of Last's faith that makes his existence meaningless, and since the novel has some autobiographical elements, Waugh scholars suggest that Tony Last represents Waugh before his embrace of Catholicism. Critics of the novel find fault with the development of the Lasts, but that is Waugh's point: Tony, Brenda, and John Beaver are all meant to be unsympathetic characters because they are shallow, self-serving, and without purpose in their lives. Though he was transitioning away from social satire, the novel retains elements of it, as Waugh moved more confidently in later works to stronger statements of faith. The moral vacuum in which the novel's characters exist represents what Waugh found lacking in a secular society.

Places Discussed

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1054

Hetton

Hetton. Estate of the Last family, located between the villages of Hetton and Compton Last in the English countryside. Although the novel begins at a house in Sussex Gardens in London, where the man who will cuckold the central character lives, its most important place is Hetton. In this story of the disintegration of a marriage, Waugh uses Hetton, whose owner, Tony Last, is trying to rehabilitate and renovate it, to symbolize Last’s anachronism, since he, like his beloved estate, fits neither in medieval nor in modern England. In the Middle Ages the estate had been an abbey, where monks prayed, practiced penance, and sought God, but with England’s abandonment of Roman Catholicism Hetton’s religious character withered, and in the nineteenth century, during a revival of Gothic architecture, the ancient buildings were demolished and replaced by a Victorian edifice with battlements and towers, stained-glass windows, a massive clock with booming chimes, and bedrooms named after characters from Arthurian myth. In the twentieth century Hetton had become uncomfortable and unfashionable, somewhat like its proprietor, a naif who values his inheritance and wants to pass it on to his son but whose ignorance of the evil forces in both modern and savage societies leads to his and his estate’s horrendous fate.

From the perspective of Brenda, Tony Last’s wife, Hetton is big, ugly, and expensive. Brenda wants to refurbish its rooms with chromium plating and sheepskin, following the suggestion of Mrs. Beaver, with whose son John she is having an affair. At Hetton, Brenda and Tony sleep in separate bedrooms, and Brenda’s room is named Guinevere after a woman in Arthurian legend notorious for her infidelity. Brenda begins to spend more and more time away from Hetton, whereas Tony, who spent time...

(The entire section contains 1593 words.)

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