The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold

by Evelyn Waugh
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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1478

First published: 1957

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Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Social satire

Time of work: Shortly after World War II

Locale: England and Ceylon

Principal Characters:

Gilbert Pinfold, a middle-aged writer and country squire

Mrs. Pinfold, his wife

Dr. Drake, Pinfold’s physician

Angel, an interviewer for the B.B.C. in real life, but in Pinfold’s dreams his chief antagonist

Goneril, the dream-Angel’s wife and also an antagonist

Margaret, the dream-Angel’s sister, who represents a revolt in Pinfold’s sexual life

Captain Steerforth, the master of the S.S. Caliban and a part-antagonist in Pinfold’s dreams

Mrs. Scarfield, a passenger on the S.S. Caliban


THE ORDEAL OF GILBERT PINFOLD is the interwoven story of three distinct subjects: the protagonist, a fictitious author and country squire; Evelyn Waugh himself, who, the headnote reads, furnished the central experience of the novel from an event in his own life; and England in its uncomfortable recovery from the effects of World War II.

Gilbert Pinfold stands for both Waugh as a person and as an observer of history. He is both man and symbol, a combination of personality and of class. Pinfold is of course intensely English, so much so that he seems at times a mere bundle of peculiarities. He has a traditional English self-regard and a corresponding impermeability to the world at large. Most important, Pinfold represents a class of society and a type of man that were both dated by the mid-century. He is literate, upper class, rural, and Tory. His tastes run to good wine and old furniture. He lives in a network of family, inherited money, and clubs. In short, he displays all the attachments to time and place that are being dissolved by the advent of modernity.

Gilbert Pinfold is a creature of habit and tradition, and he finds it intensely difficult to adjust to the new age of things moneyed and material. His prime interest is the old house he has filled with pictures and books of the kind he admires. He has no concrete interest in politics, only sympathies of a sort dating back some two hundred years. It is important to see that he lives in a decayed and slightly ridiculous version of Imperial England among those whom, once the colonels and governors of an empire, the new way of life has isolated in rural poverty and idiosyncrasy. Before the war, his neighbors maintained a kind of authentic country grandeur; they are now at the mercy of inflation, fixed incomes, and an atmosphere in which their sense of life is seen as increasingly ineffective and, even worse, comical.

Pinfold’s strongest feelings, however, are negative. He hates plastics, Picasso, sunbathing, and jazz—everything characteristic of the life around him. A nominal Catholic, he lives sequestered in the English countryside, writing, disliking modernity with detachment and circumspection, and isolated by his historical sense. Nevertheless, Waugh’s intention is to show that neither man nor nation may live in this way. What begins as a routinely amusing story of the squirearchy in decline suddenly becomes a story of individual madness and cultural alienation. The importance of Pinfold is not that he is a demieccentric but that he is middle-aged, responsible, and a figure of some importance as both man and writer—and that he no longer exerts any force upon his culture. It takes a nightmare, an “ordeal,” to awaken him from his long sleep.

For some time and evidently for no reason at all, Pinfold has sunk increasingly into physical and mental torpor. He cannot sleep, and he uses pills, potions, and concoctions with increasing recklessness. He cannot think at ease, and he is at the point of drinking the same gargantuan amounts of wine, champagne, beer, and brandy that sent many of his eighteenth century ancestors groaning to their graves. He cannot exercise, and he grows fat, arthritic, gouty, and rheumatic. He suffers from the classical discomforts of middle-class Englishmen, the kinds of things utilized for hundreds of years by playwrights to point their comedies and satires. It is revealed quite soon that there is very little that is comic about his condition, for Pinfold unites to these awkward sufferings of the body an authentic mental and spiritual malaise. He is losing his mind.

Gilbert Pinfold’s trauma or nervous breakdown reveals itself in two ways. His body turns useless—a blotched, insensate hulk that is fit only for the nervous ingestion of stimulants. His mind wanders; his memory fails; his writing ability dries up; a full-fledged paranoia embraces his conscious life. In order to regain the humanity he has lost, he tries at first to account for what is happening to him in purely habitual terms, and he engages passage on a liner to Ceylon for a vacation. It is the traditional cure: a cruise in the best ancien style; a residence in the colonial tropics. The cruise on the ship, fittingly named the Caliban, nevertheless turns out to be the crisis of his middle life.

Pinfold is slightly more than fifty years old when he embarks, the same age, roughly, as Dante and Don Quixote. Like them, he seeks a new life, and he makes a desperate affirmation of his need to return to consciousness. Like them, he undergoes a sequence of suffering, enlightenment, and salvation. The suffering or “ordeal” of course comes first. As soon as he comes aboard the Caliban, he begins to suffer attacks of delusion. He imagines that his fellow passengers are tied together in a conspiracy to embarrass him. He tries at first to make some sense of this impression, to find allies and witnesses of his innocence, but he gives up his search when in his disturbed state of mind it seems to him that everyone on board is his secret enemy. He begins to hear secret conversations, to imagine abominable crimes, and, ultimately, he invents three personalities that commune with him at all times and in every conceivable place. Awake or asleep, drunk or sober, comatose or conscious, he becomes involved in a terrifying four-pointed dialogue.

Pinfold holds the most intimate of his imaginary conversations with Margaret, the spirit of a sexuality both corrupting and redemptive. His life has been a retreat from sexual commitment: when he was younger, he was accustomed to visit bordellos in order to taste all the flavors of the exotic. In England, he was rather confined in his affections. He has been faithful to his wife since their marriage. Because of his formal obedience to the church, he has developed what passes for virtuous conduct, without any inclination to commit grave sins. In short, his personality is of the kind to which meaningful errors are not appropriate; he has lived a life of virtue more or less from the motives of a vegetable. Margaret is the sensual nightmare who awakens him to the discovery that the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom. It is perhaps symbolic that even in the misty half-consciousness of his delusions he is unable to play his part. Margaret arrives on the wings of his desires, but he falls asleep to Goneril’s taunt that he is shamming because he is impotent. The connotations are much more than sexual.

Angel, the chief of Pinfold’s tormentors, is an incarnation of the new England. He is a lower-class Mephistopheles—material, joyless, clever, and spiteful. He is resentful without being passionate and ugly without inspiring the slightest awe. As such, he is perfectly calculated to play the counterpart to Pinfold’s aging cultural impotence. His ministrations finally culminate in the attractive advice to end the “ordeal” by suicide. The moment of Pinfold’s enlightenment begins when he rejects Angel and takes on the pain of continuance. He is hounded off the Caliban after that: to Egypt, the Near East, and from there all the way to Ceylon. Nevertheless, he remains obstinate—a kind of combination John Bull and Don Quixote, refusing to hand over the keys of his being. His redemption comes when Angel, on the verge of desperation, offers a mode of coexistence: if Pinfold will simply keep his madness to himself he will never again hear from the demons. The proposition is attractive, but with characteristic tenacity Pinfold refuses, not on a metaphysical basis but simply because blackmail revolts him and acquiescence is not something a gentleman tolerates. He reveals the situation with dull honesty to his wife, and the voices suddenly stop forever. To point a moral may ruin a story, but to ignore one is much more serious and may ruin an idea. Pinfold recovers because he has in him a certain ineradicable residue of life and belief. He shows it, as the book comes to a close, by sitting down to his typewriter to write a story called THE ORDEAL OF GILBERT PINFOLD.

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