A Handful of Dust

by Evelyn Waugh

Start Free Trial


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 765

Tony Last is deeply devoted to his home, a huge, old-fashioned mansion. After introducing Tony’s passionate attachment, the third-person narrator lays out the details in a single sentence more than a page long, concluding with his “delight” and pride in his “possession” of this admittedly unfashionable house, including its nineteenth-century Gothic alterations.

But there was not a glazed brick or encaustic tile that was not dear to Tony’s heart In some ways, he knew, it was not convenient to run, but what big house was? It was not altogether amenable to modern ideas of comfort, he had many small improvements in mind, which would be put into effect as soon as the death duties were paid off . . . —all these things with which he had grown up were a source of constant delight and exultation to Tony; things of tender memory and proud possession.

Tony is also committed to keeping up his deceased parents’ traditional way of life, including regular attendance at Sunday services in the village church. He understands that he is largely going through the motions, but he draws comfort in the ritual, as his mind wanders back to daily concerns, such as the house renovation, while the elderly vicar delivers his sermons. The vicar is lost in the past, when he served in India, and repeats old sermons more appropriate to those days. The parishioners are happy not to have to pay attention.

He had done nothing to adapt [his sermons] . . . to the changed conditions of his ministry and they mostly concluded with some reference to homes and dear ones far away. The villagers did not find this in any way surprising. Few of the things said in church seemed to have any particular relevance to themselves.

Brenda, after six years of marriage, has grown bored with the countryside and complains that they never invite a houseful of guests. Eager as well to update some of the gloomy old house, she becomes friendly with a stylish decorator, Mrs. Beaver, and her son. Missing the glamor and gossip from her former single life, Brenda starts going to London and attending exciting parties. Eventually, she takes an apartment there, ostensibly so she can attend university classes, and begins an affair with John Beaver. The affair puts her back into the center of London gossip and elevates his social status, as she is of a higher class.

The morning telephone buzzed with news of her; even people with whom she had the barest acquaintance were delighted to relate that they had seen her and Beaver the evening before at a restaurant or cinema. It had been an autumn of very sparse and meagre romance; only the most obvious people had parted or come together, and Brenda was filling a want long felt by those whose simple, vicarious pleasure it was to discuss the subject . . . . Her very choice of partner gave the affair an appropriate touch of fantasy; Beaver, the joke figure they had all known and despised, suddenly caught up to her among the luminous clouds of deity.

The story takes a serious turn when then Lasts’ son, John Andrew, is killed when another horse kicks him off the horse he is riding. This is the blow that finishes off their marriage. Brenda leaves for good. Tony, distressed by the constant reminds of his son, takes off on a South American adventure with Dr. Messinger, an explorer searching for a mythical ancient city in the jungle. This part of the novel, however improbable, is modeled on the true story of Percy...

(This entire section contains 765 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Fawcett’s search for what he called the Lost City of Z. In Guiana, after a series of disasters, including Messinger’s death, Tony gets lost alone in the jungle; delirious, he is rescued by Mr. Todd, a trader who claims to be English. He later explains that his mother was an Indian and his father was Barbadian. After Tony, thanks to Todd’s herbal medicines, gets better, Todd insists that he read to him. Charles Dickens is his favorite. After Todd drugs him so that he misses two English visitors, Tony realizes that he is Todd’s prisoner, probably forever, doomed endlessly to read Dickens.

“I do not suppose we shall ever have visitors again . . . I will get you some medicine to make you feel better. Your head aches, does it not? . . . We will not have any Dickens today, but tomorrow, and the day after that, and the day after that. Let us read Little Dorritt again. There are passages in that book I can never hear without the temptation to weep.”