(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Adam Fenwick-Symes, the protagonist of Vile Bodies, is, in a sense, a man of the world: a novelist, recently returned from Paris, and one of the “bright young people.” Yet he is passive, an antihero like so many other Waugh protagonists. Things simply happen to him as he drifts through the novel.

When the young novelist disembarks following a perfectly awful Channel crossing, an overzealous British customs officer leafs through the just-completed manuscript of his autobiography, determines it is too lubricious for native consumption, and seizes it on the spot. His action causes Adam to breach his contract with his publisher. Adam is then forced to sign a new one that commits him to virtual bondage. Because he has no money, he is unable to marry his fiancé, Nina Blount. The remainder of the novel is highly episodic; what plot movement there is emanates from two rather mild conflicts: establishment disapproval of the younger generation and Adam’s desultory quest for the means to marry Nina.

In Vile Bodies the narrator frequently becomes a sort of camera’s eye that cuts from scene to scene, revealing dialogue and external behavior only. Since the narrator, during these montage passages, does not go inside the minds of any of the characters, he appears more distant than does the narrator of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall. Two themes that appeared in the first novel—and which would be addressed with increasing seriousness in the novels to follow—are treated in a broadly comic fashion. These are the modern perversion of Christianity and the destruction of the stately homes of England.


(The entire section is 682 words.)


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

During the rough English Channel crossing, almost everyone is in some stage of seasickness. Some become tipsy and take to their berths. The Bright Young People, led by Agatha Runcible and effeminate Miles Malpractice, strap themselves with sticking plaster and hope for the best. A few hardy souls gather in the smoking room where Mrs. Melrose Ape, a famous female evangelist traveling with her troupe of singing angels, bullies them into singing hymns. Father Rothschild, S.J., contemplates the sufferings of the saints.

Adam Fenwick-Symes, a young writer, is hurrying home to marry Nina Blount. To his dismay, the Dover customs authorities confiscate and burn the manuscript of the autobiography he wrote while in Paris. Almost as bad is the case of Agatha, who is stripped and searched after being mistaken for a notorious jewel smuggler.

In London, Adam’s publisher offers him a contract to write a novel, but with no advance in royalties. With only ten shillings to his name, Adam wonders how he is going to get married. Luckily, he is staying at Shepheard’s Hotel. Lottie Crump, the proprietress, who bullies kings and advises members of Parliament, is careless about bills if she likes her guests. Most of her guests are drunk. One young man makes a foolish bet with Adam and loses a thousand pounds. Adam calls Nina and tells her they can get married immediately, but before he leaves the hotel a drunken major persuades him to put the money on the horse, Indian Runner, in the November Handicap. Then the major disappears, and Adam is forced to call Nina again and tell her that their marriage will be postponed.

Adam and Nina go to Archie Schwert’s costume party. Finding the affair dull, some of the Bright Young People go off to Lottie’s for a drink. Judge Skimp, an American guest, is entertaining. One young woman, who fell while swinging on a chandelier, dies, despite the champagne used to bathe her forehead.

The party is about to break up when Miss Brown invites the group to her house, which happens to be No. 10 Downing Street, for her father is Sir James Brown, the prime minister. Agatha stays all night because she had forgotten the key to her own house. The next morning, still in her Hawaiian grass skirt, she finds reporters and photographers waiting when she goes out the front door. Reports of midnight orgies at No. 10 Downing Street cause a change of government, and Mr. Outrage, whose dreams are filled with visions of nude Japanese ladies, becomes the new prime minister.

On Nina’s advice, Adam calls on Colonel Blount to ask if the eccentric gentleman can finance his daughter’s wedding. The colonel generously gives him a check for a thousand pounds. Adam is jubilant and takes Nina to a country hotel where they stay overnight. He is so happy that she waits until the next morning to tell him that her father, an absentminded movie fan, signed Charlie Chaplin’s...

(The entire section is 1191 words.)