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...
(The entire section contains 1368 words.)
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