Critical Evaluation

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

The element of roman à clef is much stronger in Evelyn Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), than in his second, Vile Bodies. A few characters reappear in the second novel but very briefly, and none is crucial to the plot or theme. The supposed similarity of Vile Bodies to Decline and Fall is, upon close examination, found to be somewhat superficial and based mostly on the reappearance of the victim as hero.

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 during much of the novel he is a passive figure, an antihero, a man to whom things happen. Because the world in which he moves is one lacking order and stability, the things that happen to him often make no sense. Before the novel ends, however, Adam changes from victim to trickster and turns Ginger into the clown of the piece. When Adam sells Nina to Ginger and carries off the Great Christmas Imposture at Doubting Hall, some critics see him as a precursor to Basil Seal, the rogue of later novels.

In Vile Bodies, the narrator frequently becomes a sort of camera’s eye, which cuts from scene to scene, revealing dialogue and external behavior only, and often leaving Adam to wander about. The result is a collection of many short scenes, snatches of conversation, and bits of farce, all of which combine to create a pastiche effect. Since the narrator, during these montage passages, does not go inside the minds of any of the characters, he seems very distant from them. Events that should strike the reader as horrible are thus rendered merely funny.

There are three deaths in the novel. During a drunken party at Shepheard’s Hotel, Miss Florence (Flossie) Ducane is killed when she falls from a chandelier, which, as the Evening Standard delicately puts it, “she was attempting to mend.” Simon Balcairn, who is both the last Earl of Balcairn and Mr. Chatterbox of the Daily Excess, sticks his head in the oven after Margot Metroland blackballs him from society. Agatha Runcible never comes out of shock following a misadventure in a runaway racing car; from her bed in the nursing home to which she has been taken, she says portentously, “How people are disappearing, Adam.”

These deaths elicit no sympathy from the reader, not because the reader (or Waugh) is a monster but because the characters are. They are grotesqueries. Cruel and terrible things do indeed happen to them, yet they are like circus performers called out by the ringmaster, Evelyn Waugh, to run through their paces. Their various acts may contain a latent tragedy, but it is well disguised behind the gaudy costumes and painted faces.

Waugh is always interested in religion, and the religious element is prominent in Vile Bodies , although it serves to furnish the subject matter for burlesque. The action of the novel occurs primarily during a Christmas season (between November 10 and Christmas Day) in the “near future,” as the author is at some pains to point out in his foreword. The first character to appear is Father Rothschild, S.J. This ubiquitous Jesuit possesses in profusion those qualities that most excite British prejudice: He is a plotter in international affairs; he knows everything about everybody, even the location of the prime minister’s love nest in Shepheard’s Hotel; and he is of the fabulously wealthy banking family, thus exuding the double menace of wily Jesuit and crafty Jewish financier. Another ecclesiastic,...

(This entire section contains 963 words.)

See This Study Guide Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this study guide. You'll also get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a rector, plays a small comic role as Colonel Blount’s neighbor and reluctant chauffeur. The second half of the novel features the making of a bogus film of the life of John Wesley at Doubting Hall, known to the locals as “Doubting ’All.”

The embodiment of “modern” religion in the novel is the rum-drinking revivalist, Mrs. Melrose Ape. She is clearly a caricature of Aimee Semple McPherson and is one of only two characters in the novel whose models can be definitely identified (the other being Lottie Crump, the champagne-swigging proprietor of Shepheard’s Hotel in Dover Street, who is the famous Mrs. Lewis of the Cavendish Hotel in Jermyn Street). The lesbianic Mrs. Ape is accompanied by a band of angels, who carry their wings in violin cases and sing her famous hymn “There Ain’t No Flies on the Lamb of God.” The irrepressible Margot Metroland proselytizes two of the proselytizer’s angels, Chastity and Divine Discontent, for her Latin American Entertainment Company, a white slavery ring.

The slippery Mr. Isaacs and the Wonderfilm Company of Great Britain demean Doubting Hall at the behest of the dotty Colonel Blount. In the film, Wesley is wounded in a duel, nursed back to health by his lover, Selina, Countess of Huntingdon (played by Effie La Touche), and later, in America, rescued from Red Indians by the same Lady Huntingdon disguised as a cowboy.

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. The plot is both less fantastic and less skillfully constructed than that of Waugh’s first novel, Decline and Fall, an opinion with which Waugh himself agreed.

Some critics have compared Waugh’s early novels, especially Vile Bodies, to the work of the American novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald. After all, Waugh was writing about the Bright Young People not long after Fitzgerald wrote about the flappers of the Jazz Age. However, when an American cinema agent suggested in 1946 that Waugh must have been greatly influenced by Fitzgerald, Waugh responded that he “had not then read a word of his.”