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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

Waugh once explained to Sykes that he had in mind five ideas when writing The Loved One : to render from his memories of Hollywood a scene with “over-excitement”—that is to say, with macabre exaggeration; to prove that English and American personalities are so incompatible that “never the twain shall...

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Waugh once explained to Sykes that he had in mind five ideas when writing The Loved One: to render from his memories of Hollywood a scene with “over-excitement”—that is to say, with macabre exaggeration; to prove that English and American personalities are so incompatible that “never the twain shall meet”; to show that Americans are all “exiles uprooted, transplanted and doomed to sterility”; and to warn “European raiders who come for the spoils” of America, among them English writers who venture to make a fortune in Mollywood, that they will be lucky if they reach home with their loot. The final idea—one not so obvious—is mememto mori, remember death (or, “remember that you must die”).

This sober theme may be overlooked by readers who regard The Loved One merely as an antic satire on Southern Californian absurdities, especially those concerning funerary practices at Forest Lawn. Yet Waugh, a convert to Catholicism, is indeed serious in asserting that one purpose of the novel is to thrust before his readers the death’s-head, the grim reminder of their mortality. In his preface, he calls the novel “a nightmare and in parts, perhaps, somewhat gruesome.” He goes on to advise: “The squeamish should return their copies to the library or the bookstore unread.” Contemporary readers are unlikely to be as “squeamish” as those of 1948, because they have since been inured by more graphic examples of the macabre through television and motion pictures. Nevertheless, Waugh’s intention is not simply to titillate his audience with nightmares but also to startle the more complacent of them into thinking about reverence for life.

The two cemeteries treated in The Loved One—Whispering Glades, for humans, and The Happier Hunting Ground, for animals—are, paradoxically, alike inasmuch as both are commercial establishments that make a travesty of death by glamorizing (or concealing) its true evidence. In The Happier Hunting Ground, Mr. Schultz runs a prosperous business maintaining sentimental monuments to deceased animals, not because he has reverence for life but because he has greed for money. Similarly, the whole physical structure at Whispering Glades is an enormous deception, with fake or reconstructed edifices such as the “Wee Kirk o’ Auld Lang Syne” (in Forest Lawn, “The Wee Kirk o’ the Heather”), imitation statues, piped-in music, piped-in recordings of murmuring bees. Nothing is real. For Waugh, the greatest indignity involving artifice over reality is the cosmetic fakery in which corpses are manipulated to appear, for the sake of mourners, glorious in smiling or sedate poses of death. By ignoring the realities of death, the California funeral industries—according to Waugh—fail to revere life.

A second object of satire in the novel is the Hollywood motion-picture studio, an industry which (like Forest Lawn) functions on the principle of make-believe. In Megalopolitan Studios, the deception is complete from top to bottom—from moguls who are self-idolaters, to actors who play absurdly miscast roles that have nothing to do with their private lives, to writers who create fantasies while laboring under the constant fear of being fired. In this world, Dennis Barlow is a misfit, not because he stands for integrity or possesses authentic talent (he has none), but because he lacks the assertiveness to impose his deception on others. He can deceive only the fatuous Aimee.

A third object of satire in The Loved One is Southern California itself, a languorous fantasyland (as Waugh imagines the region) in which deception is a way of life. Houses are insubstantial, with fake fronts and artificial interior decorations. People who live in this “barbarous” land lose their grasp of reality. To Waugh, the enervating California climate of dry sunny days reduces the natives to mindless hedonists. Early in the novel, an English writer petulantly asks Dennis what he knows about Soren Kierkegaard, Franz Kafka, Cyril Connolly, Ivy Compton-Burnett, Jean-Paul Sartre. “Who are they?” he demands. “What do they want?” In the faraway reaches of Hollywood, the question is asked in vain. Culture does not proceed upriver to the poolsides of these expatriates. Waugh is as trenchant in his indictment of displaced Englishmen abroad as he is of indigenous Americans. If Americans are sappy, never having acquired culture, the English pseudointellectuals are more culpable, because they once could think, before their faces were “blurred somewhat by soft living and long boredom.” It is boredom, finally, that Waugh ridicules: boredom that turns once-productive people into pool zombies, funeral directors into showmen, human beings into “Waiting Ones,” waiting for death.

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