Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 463

Waugh’s novel, subtitled “An Anglo-American Tragedy,” may not appear tragic to most readers. Nevertheless, Waugh wrote the book in a despondent rather than humorous frame of mind. For his diary entry of October 28, 1947, he wrote:

  My 44th birthday I am a very much older man than this time...

(The entire section contains 463 words.)

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Waugh’s novel, subtitled “An Anglo-American Tragedy,” may not appear tragic to most readers. Nevertheless, Waugh wrote the book in a despondent rather than humorous frame of mind. For his diary entry of October 28, 1947, he wrote:

  My 44th birthday I am a very much older man than this time last year, physically infirm & lethargic. Mentally I have reached a stage of non-attachment which if combined with a high state of prayer—as it is not—would be edifying.... I have vast reasons for gratitude but am seldom conscious of them.

One of the reasons for gratitude, he goes on to note, is that he has written in the past year two good stories, Scott-King’s Modern Europe (1947) and The Loved One, and has “decided to remain in England.”

Most readers, fortunately, will not detect Waugh’s gloomy tone when they read the novel. Instead, The Loved One will strike them as a spirited romp of the macabre, with delicious portraits that remain long in the memory. In spite of these amusing portraits, some critics have judged the book as a whole a work of “black comedy.” The year of its publication places The Loved One very early in the absurdist movement that became popular, especially in the theater, during the 1950’s. Yet Waugh’s novel is not true black comedy, because the writer’s attitude is not absurdist. Waugh does not believe that the universe lacks a moral purpose or direction, that human inactions are meaningless or are motivated simply by chance or accident. Instead, Waugh places an ideal standard of Christian morality against which his characters measure themselves, only to fall ridiculously short. Dennis Barlow’s actions are not absurd but foolish. He is not doomed to live a meaningless life because of the ineluctable forces of cosmic absurdity; rather, he chooses to be indolent, to be mean and grubby.

From the point of view of Christian absolutism, the humor of the novel springs not from exaggeration but realism. For example, Dennis’ elegy on the death of Sir Francis Hinsley is shocking and amusing because his description is so accurate:

They told me, Francis Hinsley, they told me you were hungWith red protruding eye-balls and black protruding tongue.

In death, Hinsley in fact looked that way, although Dennis’ phrasing is plagiarized from the epitaph on the Spartan dead, a quotation found in many anthologies. So realistic is the general theme of The Loved One—that the funeral industry of Southern California makes a mockery of reverence for the dead—that Jessica Mitford agreed with Waugh’s thesis in her sociocultural study, The American Way of Death (1963). The evidence she derives from scholarly research does not markedly differ from the speculations of Waugh’s novel, derived from religious conviction, fancy, and bile.

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