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,...
(The entire section is 963 words.)