Last Updated on September 5, 2023, 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.
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.