The Characters

Evelyn Waugh’s characters may seem a collection of zanies to the reader but not to themselves, at least not within the context of the story. Waugh makes his characters all the more comic because they act their ridiculous roles with dignity, at times with high moral sentiment. They are amusing (or to some readers, repulsive) precisely because they do not imagine themselves as objects of amusement (or of revulsion).

Like most of Waugh’s feckless heroes in other novels (Paul Pennyfeather, Tony Last, Gilbert Pinfold, Basil Seal), Dennis Barlow, the protagonist, is an innocent thrust into a world he cannot fully comprehend. A failure at nearly everything—poetry, screenwriting, his love life—he is, nevertheless, a sympathetic victim because he lacks malice. His romantic counterpart, Aimee Thanatogenos (her name, a grotesque mixture of words derived from French and Greek, may be roughly translated into English as “beloved of the race of death”), is a simpleton even more innocent, if that is possible, than Dennis. Waugh imagines her as a typical American woman: feeble in intellect, indecisive, sentimental, perpetually immature.

None of the other characters, whose activities revolve around those of the star-crossed lovers, are evil; they are, simply, bores, both the snobs and the vulgarians. Among the snobs are the Englishmen, especially Sir Ambrose Abercrombie (who may have been modeled, according to Waugh’s biographer Christopher Sykes, upon the dignified actor Sir C. Aubrey Smith) and Sir Francis Hinsley. In this group also is Mr. Joyboy, a Californian whose claim to be an artist rests mainly on his cosmetic ability to transform hideous corpses into smiling replicas of human beings. Mr. Joyboy complements Aimee, because he is similarly immature, a perpetual child under the domination of his mother.

Other characters are, in different degrees, crassly materialistic (Mr. Schultz and the tycoons at Megalo) or dissipated (Mr. Slump) or pretentious (Dr. Wilbur Kenworthy). Stripped of their comic masks, these vulgarians represent forces that hasten the decline of Western culture.

Characters Discussed

Dennis Barlow

Dennis Barlow, an English dilettante who has traveled to Southern California. His only book of poetry, written while he was in the British Air Force during World War II, received strong reviews and several awards, but the paper shortage took the book out of print. Curious, pragmatic, and a “man of sensibility rather than sentiment,” the twenty-eight-year-old Barlow goes to Hollywood to help write the life of Percy Shelley for films. Unable to write the sort of script required by Megalopolitan Studios, he is dismissed from his job, moves in with Sir Francis Hinsley, and begins work at The Happier Hunting Ground, a pet mortuary, where his new employer, Mr. Schultz, finds him congenial and reverent. Barlow, fascinated by the American way of death at The Happier Hunting Ground and at Whispering Glades, courts Aimee Thanatogenos, an employee at Whispering Glades, with poetry plagiarized from the Oxford Book of English Verse. Aimee, unlike Mr. Schultz, finds Dennis irreverent of things that should be sacred, such as citizenship and social conscience. After Aimee’s suicide, Mr. Joyboy prompts Barlow to cremate the corpse at The Happier Hunting Ground before Barlow returns to England. At the conclusion of the novel, Barlow is waiting for Aimee’s corpse to burn.

Aimee Thanatogenos

Aimee Thanatogenos (ay-MAY tha-na-TO-geh-nohs), the fiancée of both Barlow and Mr. Joyboy and assistant to Mr. Joyboy at Whispering Glades, a cemetery in the Hollywood Hills. Aimee, who was graduated from the university in 1943 with beauticraft as her first subject, has no family and few friends, lives alone, and loves her work at Whispering Glades, “her true home.” She has dark, straight hair and eyes that are “greenish and remote, with a rich glint of lunacy.” Considering herself an artist of sorts and a “handmaid to the morticians,” Aimee works “like a nun, intently, serenely, methodically.” She presents herself to the world dressed and scented in obedience to advertisements. When Aimee cannot resolve her dilemma of being engaged simultaneously to Barlow and Mr. Joyboy, she takes an elevator to the top story of Whispering Glades, goes to Mr. Joyboy’s workroom, injects herself with cyanide, and covers herself with a sheet, thus leading to Mr. Joyboy’s discovery of her corpse.

Mr. Joyboy

Mr. Joyboy, the chief cosmetician and embalmer at Whispering Glades. An expert on facial expressions on corpses, Mr. Joyboy enjoys great popularity at Whispering Glades and in the funeral industry. He is unmarried and is regarded by every female employee at Whispering Glades as debonnaire and as a figure of romance. In addition to being a Rotarian and a Knight of Pythias, Mr. Joyboy is a regular contributor to The Casket, a mortuary publication. He is an intimate of Dr. Kenworthy. By the standards of motion-picture studios, Mr. Joyboy is not handsome. Tall but unathletic, he has scant eyebrows and invisible eyelashes. His hair, though neat, is sparse, and his hands are fleshy. His best feature is his teeth, and even they are not perfect: They seem too large for his mouth. Mr. Joyboy lives with his mother in a shabby home. He is saving his money for a house and children,...

(The entire section is 1355 words.)