Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Evelyn Waugh’s novel simultaneously traces the decline of one couple’s marriage and the decline of a segment of English society. The primary theme is the waning of traditional class privilege in England. Secondary to that is the relationship between love and marriage. Underlying the others is the theme of personal fulfillment as a balance between desire and duty. Another general theme threaded through the novel concerns the negative effects of loss of personal beliefs and of a church that emphasizes appearance over faith. Waugh shows the change in post–World War I England mainly through the story of a married couple, Tony and Brenda Last.
Tony is mired down in his attachment to his ancestral estate, while Brenda is lured by the gilded modernity of London. In part because he feels so secure in his lifestyle, which others see as anachronistic, Tony is unprepared to cope with the dual blows of his young son’s death and his wife’s betrayal with a younger lover. Attempting to become a different type of Englishman, the bold adventurer, Tony loses control not only of his English domain but of his personal freedom. Brenda’s sexual desire and craving for excitement is likewise unsustainable, as she realizes that liberation from marriage also brings the near-impossible burden of supporting herself.
Not only Tony but the other landed gentry in his rural area embody the upper classes’ emptiness and pretense. They are devoted church-goers but do not listen to the sermons that the minister repeats verbatim from his time in the colonies. The absence of faith becomes problematic when Tony cannot find the needed support after his son is tragically killed in an accident. Tony is deeply attached to the family estate, including the huge house with King Arthur–themed rooms. His wife, Brenda, wants to commission a trendy modern makeover for part of the house.
Brenda’s captivation by London’s empty glamor is revealed through her affair with John. Her own shallowness is confirmed when she barely grieves for her son’s death and soon leaves her husband to be with her lover. The ironies start to pile up after Tony goes off on an Amazon expedition. When he disappears and is presumed dead, Brenda is neither divorced nor widowed, and her lover is revealed as caring for her money more than her. After Tony is declared dead, Brenda finally secures another husband, while Tony remains not only lost but also imprisoned. Rather than the ruler of nonwhite peoples, Tony is the captive of a mixed-race man; instead of hearing sermons hollowly praising Empire, he must speak aloud Charles Dickens’s condemnation of class abuses.