Evelyn Waugh | Critical Essay by Richard P. Lynch

This literature criticism consists of approximately 17 pages of analysis & critique of Evelyn Waugh.
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Critical Essay by Richard P. Lynch

SOURCE: "Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels: The Limits of Fiction," in Papers on Language & Literature: A Journal for Scholars and Critics of Language and Literature, Vol. 30, No. 4, Fall 1994, pp. 373-86.

In the following essay, Lynch contends that Waugh's lack of didacticism in his early novels points to his view of the limited ability of fiction to express permanent, meaningful ideas.

Apart from his own willingness to classify himself as an entertainer, one of the major reasons for the general view of Evelyn Waugh's early novels as frivolous is that they betray little in the way of overt philosophical content. While it is true that the didactic novel has fallen into disfavor and we tire of the Rupert Birkins more easily than we used to, we still demand a message from fiction, and Waugh seems to deny us one. The problem raised here is one of subject matter. If Waugh's subject is merely the foibles of English society between the wars, then he is a sort of humorous chronicler of the period, and of limited interest to later generations, who will find him funny but will not perhaps understand allusions to the Oxford aesthetes. But English society is not Waugh's only subject. In his first six novels, in fact, he was writing to a considerable extent about fiction, particularly its limited ability either to imitate "reality" in the sense that conventional realistic and naturalistic narratives attempt to do, or to present the ideal suggested by Dr. Johnson's "just representations of general nature." Nor, in spite of his fascination with fantasy, did he aspire to Sidney's poetic world, which offers not an insight into reality, but a superior alternative to it: Nature's world is "brazen, the poets only deliver a golden." Although he contradicts himself on the matter in his statements on fiction, Waugh clearly rejects escape and mere entertainment in his own novels; as D. H. Lawrence said, trust the tale, not the teller.

Further, while he did not anticipate the alternatives to traditional novel form offered by later writers, Waugh shared post-modern ideas about the novel's limitations, especially the objections to the conventions of the realistic novel raised by Alain Robbe-Grillet and the other proponents of the nouveau roman in France and their followers in England and America. The majority of these writers would agree, I think, that a message on the limits of fiction, on what art cannot do, is not trifling with the novel or with art, but bears its own importance as a subject. It is here that Waugh's permanent value as a novelist (as opposed to his value as a satirist) lies.

Waugh's attitude toward realism in fiction is clear. He avoided both Victorian attempts at verisimilitude through causal plot structures and modern experiments in realistic character representation, particularly stream of consciousness techniques: he did not believe the novel should be an attempt to represent life directly. Waugh admired writers like Ivy Compton-Burnett, creators, as he says, of "a timeless wonderland directed by its own interior logic, not distorting, because not reflecting, the material world" (Robert M. Davis, "Evelyn Waugh on the Art of Fiction," in Papers on Language and Literature, Vol. 2, 1966). He insisted on the separation between the artistically created and the actual world. Thus in his first novel, Decline and Fall, he presents us with Paul Pennyfeather, a fictional character based on another fictional character. The whole book, the narrator explains, "is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather," and we have actually been reading about the adventures of his shadow, for, "as the reader will probably have discerned already, Paul Pennyfeather would never have made a hero, and the only interest about him arises from the unusual series of events of which his shadow was witness." Waugh is not merely defining the picaresque hero, who is, indeed, less important than his surroundings; he is making a statement about fiction as mimesis, and he puts the artist's imitation in much the same position Plato did—at two removes from reality.

Far from the position of Henry James, then, who wrote that at times his characters seemed to have lives of their own, or, to take a more recent example, of John Fowles, whose double ending in The French Lieutenant's Woman is supposedly caused by a character's decision to do something other than what the author had planned, Waugh insisted that his characters remain fictional. His treatment of Paul Pennyfeather reminds one of Max Beerbohm's "Enoch Soames," a parody on the Faust theme. Sure of his ability as an artist but ignored by the critics and the public, Enoch Soames makes a bargain with the devil which allows him, in exchange for his life and soul, to travel one hundred years into the future and spend the afternoon reading all the references to himself and his work in the British Museum. When he arrives there, however, the only place he can find his name is as a character in a story by Max Beerbohm. Soames, who at first desires only to be recognized as an artist, eventually finds himself trying desperately to prove that he is real, but, as another character in the story puts it, Enoch Soames is not just "dim"; he is non-existent; and Beerbohm, who has inserted himself in the story as a character, is a "treacherous ass" for having given Soames the illusion of being real.

In his treatment of Pennyfeather and elsewhere, Waugh anticipates some of the objections to the traditional novel voiced by Robbe-Grillet, who argues that the universe in which entire films and novels occur is a "perpetual present" which "obliterates itself as it proceeds": "This man, this woman begin existing only when they appear on the screen and in the novel the first time; before that they are nothing; and once the projection is over, they are again nothing. Their existence lasts only as long as the film lasts."

The "disappearance" of the hero in Decline and Fall has a further implication. Although some of Waugh's protagonists aspire to heroic status, they invariably fail. Neither these, however, nor any of the other protagonists in the early novels may quite be tagged as anti-heroes; it is more as if, as in Pennyfeather's case, they did not really exist, or were so unimportant that the issue of their existence was not worth resolving. This condition is a result of Waugh's refusal to accept one of the primary assumptions on which the novel of realism is based—the importance of the individual. The personality of a character in a realistic novel, Ian Watt notes, "is defined in the interpenetration of its past and present self-awareness. "The individual is "in touch with his own continuing identity through memory of his past thoughts and actions," and through this contact achieves personal identity [The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding, 1957].

It should strike a reader as odd that Waugh, who makes considerable use of film techniques in his early novels, does not use flashback to portray a character in the sense that Watt describes. Indeed, what is peculiar about his early characters is that they do not seem to have a sense of the past, or of what they have done or thought in their own past. Critics have marvelled at Pennyfeather's ability to adapt to any situation (though in fact it is not so much that he adapts as that others make what they want of him), but he has no need to adapt, for he comes to each situation in the novel as though he had not existed before it. Adam Fenwick-Symes, in Vile Bodies, behaves in much the same way. The thin plot of this novel consists of Adam's attempts to make enough money to marry his fiancée, Nina Blount. Several times he reaches the required amount (two thousand pounds) only to lose it through carelessness, naiveté, or sheer coincidence. Each time he has the money in his pocket, he calls Nina and announces his willingness to marry her immediately. Each time he loses it, he again calls her and tells her the wedding is off. None of his disappointments impinges on the succeeding hopes and happy telephone calls. Even after he has "sold" Nina to a character named Ginger Littlejohn and she has married, Adam believes that he can buy her back. The traditional expectations of a romantic plot demand that marriage end the matter, and Waugh demonstrates throughout the novel that Adam is something of a romantic. But Nina's marriage to another man has no effect on him; given another chance at the money, he persists in his expectations of a happy ending to a traditional love plot.

Tony Last, in A Handful of Dust, is perhaps Waugh's most realistic character among the early heroes, and his pathetic attempt to discover what has gone wrong in his marriage to Brenda is representative of the whole problem of personal identity and the past in Waugh: "He could not prevent himself, when alone, from rehearsing over and over in his mind all that had happened since Beaver's visit to Hetton; searching for clues he had missed at the time; wondering where something he had said or done might have changed the course of events; going back further to his earliest acquaintance with Brenda to find indications that should have made him more ready to understand the change that had come over her; reliving scene after scene in the last eight years of his life." But Tony's struggle to find a causal chain leading to and explaining his present situation is fruitless, for the causal relationships are not there. In denying Tony and the other early heroes logical connections with the past, Waugh objectifies his characters, makes them like so many well-made chessmen, to be examined curiously, but not probed or humanized. Michel Butor describes the effect of this loss of the past: "A rigorous effort to follow strict chronological order, not allowing any flashback, leads to surprising discoveries: all reference to universal history becomes impossible, all reference to the past of the characters encountered, to memory, and consequently all interiority. Thus the characters are necessarily transformed into things" ["Research on the Technique of the Novel," in Inventory, 1968]. Waugh's ideal was exactly this: to make his characters "things," to prevent even the more fully developed figures like Tony from appearing to be more than they were. Tony Last has a memory, it is true, but he cannot establish the necessary relationship between past and present and so the past no longer belongs to him; it too has become an object, without signification.

Tony is, in fact, rather like Enoch Soames; he is a fictional character desperately attempting to be "real." Instead of relying, as Soames and Penny feather do, on what other people make or say of him, Tony, in effect, becomes a literary critic: he tries to make sense of the narrative. But Waugh is no more disposed to provide motivation for action than he is for character. The source of the trouble between Brenda and Tony is a deus ex machina named Mrs. Beaver, who sends her son off to visit the Lasts at Hetton. Every narrative must have a device to begin the action, but most novelists attempt to disguise this force as some natural event in a causal chain, or the inevitable consequence of a particular character trait. Waugh makes it as obvious as possible that the action of his novel begins at the writer's whim, and he uses such arbitrary plot movers to that end throughout the early novels.

Waugh's carefree treatment of motive forces in plot and his ridicule of other traditional techniques of the novel (at the end of Scoop he parcels out futures for the main characters much in the Victorian manner) places him, again, in a more avant-garde position than most critics have given him credit for. He confuses the matter by describing himself in the admittedly autobiographical Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold as a sort of 18th century craftsman, a refiner of what has been established rather than an innovator. He is, however, nothing of the kind; his plots are nearly as unconventionally constructed as those of Raymond Roussel, probably the earliest writer to influence the practitioners of the nouveau roman in their choice of arbitrary structure. Vivian Mercier reports that Roussel wrote stories by first choosing two similar words, then adding them to identical sentences, in which, however, the same words took on different shades of meaning: "The two sentences once found, it was a matter of writing a story that could begin with the first sentence and end with the second" [A Reader's Guide to the New Novel: From Queneau to Pinget, 1971]. Waugh did not, perhaps, go this far toward arbitrariness in the writing process, but he did, for instance, write A Handful of Dust by beginning at the end. The episode with Mr. Todd in Brazil began as a short story, and Waugh wrote the novel, he claimed, because he wanted to see how it began. Beginning at the end might serve as a means of building a more logical plot, but there is no evidence of such logic in A Handful of Dust. What is more, such a beginning sweeps aside the illusion of free characters whose actions and personalities will determine their fate. Waugh accepted, in any case, none of the conventions of 19th century realism without modifying them for his own purposes, and one of his purposes was to deny the assumptions which underlay 19th and early 20th century novel structure.

He refused, to put it in Robbe-Grillet's terms, to reassure his readers about their prefabricated schemes of reality. The 19th century novelists, as Frank Kermode has remarked, wrote "protective fictions": "They created artificial beginning and end, a duration minute but human in which all, between those points, is ordered, and so in a fiction challenges and negates the pure being of the world" [The Sense of an Ending. Studies in the Theory of Fiction, 1967]. But the fictions were also protective because their structures reflected a solid and eminently reasonable world view. David Goldknopf, in The Life of the Novel, traces the plotted novel and its machine metaphor to the influences of the Industrial Revolution and its cosmic model, Deism. This novel of reason culminates in the detective fiction of the last half of the 19th century, in which, as Goldknopf says, "plot assumed frank control over all other narrative elements" [The Life of the Novel, 1972]. Waugh himself took an oddly rationalist view of religion, but he would have no part of such a structure for the novel.

It is true that he expressed admiration for certain mystery writers, as Harvey Breit records in an interview: "What he'd like to write, Mr. Waugh confessed, would be a detective story. 'Not like Graham Greene, but rather like the story of the Agatha Christie or Erle Stanley Gardner sort, where the clues are given and an actual solution takes place. I admire very much books of pure action'" [The Writer Observed, 1956]. But Waugh did not see these books as imitative of life or of any particular world view, and his own works, far from being the models of logic he admired, are travesties of the melodramatic simplifications, probable occurrences, and happy endings of many Victorian novels. To come to the conclusion, as he did in an article titled "Fan-Fare," that there is "no such thing as normality" and that the artist's sole task is to "create little independent systems of order of his own" denies the very basis of mimetic fiction.

This refusal to reaffirm a systematic view of the world by mirroring it in the structure of his novels indicates that Waugh was as reluctant to imitate or present general truths as he was to follow the conventions of realism and naturalism. Here again he anticipates the nouveau roman, especially in its rejection of "significantion" and "depth." Traditional views, according to Robbe-Grillet, "reduce the novel to a signification external to it, make the novel a means of achieving some value which transcends it, some spiritual or terrestrial 'beyond,' future Happiness or eternal Truth" [For a New Novel: Essays on Fiction, 1965]. Further, such views spawned and perpetuated the myth of depth in the novel: "The writer's traditional role consisted in excavating Nature, in burrowing deeper and deeper to reach some ever more intimate strata, in finally unearthing some fragment of a disconcerting secret."

Waugh not only avoids such discoveries and illuminations—he parodies them. He guides the ridiculous Pennyfeather, for instance, through a whole series of mock-epiphanies, the most preposterous of which occurs as Paul accepts his imprisonment in place of the guilty Margot Beste-Chetwynde on the theory that, as her son Peter reasons, "You can't see Mamma in prison, can you?": "The more Paul considered this, the more he perceived it to be the statement of a natural law … he was strengthened in his belief that there was, in fact, and should be, one law for her and another for himself" (Decline and Fall). It was precisely Waugh's point that the artist is incapable of revealing any "natural laws" through his work. To do so would be to fall back on the protective fictions of earlier novelists and to claim for the artist the status of prophet.

Waugh's most effective parody of depth and signification also occurs in Decline and Fall: it is Professor Silenus's speech on the big wheel at Luna Park. Silenus's question to Pennyfeather warns us that the whole tradition of philosophical truths delivered by fictional characters who serve primarily as mouthpieces for their authors is about to be debunked:

"Shall I tell you about life?"

"Yes, do," said Paul politely.

"Well, it's like the big wheel at Luna Park…. You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all round, and in the center the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly … the nearer you can get to the hub of the wheel the slower it is moving and the easier it is to stay on…. Of course at the very center there's a point completely at rest, if one could only find it. I'm not sure I am not very near that point myself…. Lots of people just enjoy scrambling on and being whisked off and scrambling on again. How they all shrink and giggle! Then there are others, like Margot, who sit as far out as they can and hold on for dear life and enjoy that. But the whole point about the wheel is that you needn't get on it at all, if you don't want to. People get hold of ideas about life, and that makes them think they've got to join in the game, even if they don't enjoy it. It doesn't suit everyone."

"Now you're a person who was clearly meant to stay in the seats and sit still and if you get bored watch the others. Somehow you got onto the wheel, and you got thrown off again at once with a hard bump. It's all right for Margot, who can cling on, and for me, at the center, but you're static. Instead of this absurd division into sexes they ought to class people as static and dynamic."

Critics have largely accepted Silenus's speech without sensing its irony, arguing only over the question of whether Waugh was merely providing an explanation of the difference between Margot's world and Pennyfeather's world, or attempting to justify moral confusion in the novel. But there is nothing in the novel to support the contention that Waugh agrees with either Paul or Silenus. Indeed, he has Silenus dismiss his own lecture immediately after delivering it: "I know of no more utterly boring and futile occupation than generalizing about life." Probably the most telling comment on the speech is Paul's reaction to it: just as he accepts the double standard of morality and honor on the question of Margot, so he adopts Professor Silenus's definition of life, which also assumes separate standards for different kinds of people.

To accept Silenus's judgment on matters of character is to accept not only the double standard, but the idea that humans are inferior to machines: "The problem of architecture as I see it … is the problem of all art—the elimination of the human element from the consideration of form. The only perfect building must be the factory, because that is built to house machines, not men." Silenus's fascination with machinery leads naturally to his use of a machine image to explain life to Paul. The explanation reduces people to static and dynamic (or kinetic) and simplifies them in predetermined, unalterable states. Such a view of human character is merely an extension of the machine-like plot which Goldknopf finds in the Victorian novel. Waugh's point was exactly the opposite—that real people are too complex to be crowded into such neat patterns.

A further reason for rejecting the classification of characters into static and dynamic is that it is uncomfortably close to the traditional distinction between "flat" and "round" characters, a distinction that Waugh, when interviewed by Julian Jebb for the Paris Review, would not admit: "All fictional characters are flat. A writer can give an illusion of depth by giving an apparently stereoscopic view of a character—seeing him from two vantage points; all a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order" ["The Art of Fiction XXX: Evelyn Waugh," Vol. 30, 1963]. Like Robbe-Grillet, Waugh objected to the fictional character who was supposed to represent a human type, complete with concrete qualities, associations, and predetermined patterns of action. Such a character is only another way of achieving signification, of rising to the level of a category or universal. Static and dynamic also call up suspicious echoes of Joyce, whom Waugh criticized for attempting to reveal the whole human mind and soul in his fiction. Stephen Dedalus divides art into "static" and "kinetic," and it is quite possible that Pennyfeather's discovery of the division of human character types into these two classes is a parody of the earlier revelation.

This view of Silenus's speech is also supported by the fact that it is almost alone of its kind in the early novels. The only other thematic and philosophical discourse of anything like the same length appears in Vile Bodies, when Father Rothschild analyzes the behavior of the Bright Young People. Rothschild himself, as Neil D. Isaacs points out, is a caricature of the intriguing Jesuit and not to be taken seriously. His speech, Christopher Sykes recalls, later bothered Waugh as a "silly" artistic flaw in the novel.

To a point, as I have suggested, Waugh keeps pace with the advocates of the nouveau roman in his objections to the power of the novel to imitate reality or to discover general truths and permanent human types. But he was less optimistic about the future uses of fiction and its ultimate value. When he presents the pastoral—the fictional world within fiction—in his novels, it does not fare well. In Scoop, William Boot retreats from London and the modern world into the aging Boot Magna, an old country house that is slowly falling apart. Several critics have pointed out the images of decay associated with the house and surrounding trees, and the moon-like image of sterility which describes the landscape. But William's escape does not depend so much on what Boot Magna is, as on what he makes of it in his weekly newspaper column, "Lush Places." Here he creates a pastoral paradise, a link with a more peaceful and decorous past. Unfortunately, the escape is enclosed not only by a decaying world, but by a world whose traditional values have been turned upside-down, as evidenced by the stately home in which the family must wait on the servants, who are too old and bed-ridden to take care of themselves. The benefits of the imagination and its creations are shaky at best.

No better illustration of this last point exists than the fate of Tony Last in A Handful of Dust, who also enters an ostensibly pastoral world as a means of escaping modern society and his unfaithful wife, Brenda. The traditional benefit of the pastoral retreat is that it allows the hero to shed the complexities of everyday experience and to glimpse the underlying forces with which he must align himself; it simplifies his vision and enables him to reset his goals and return to the active life with a renewed sense of purpose. But Tony is granted no such vision, and the only simplification of life he is offered is in the melodramatically simple stories of Dickens which he is forced, for the remaining years of his life, to read to Mr. Todd in the Brazilian jungle. Although Waugh was not given to messages in his novels, the implication is clear: art will not save us.

The point is not that art is worthless; Waugh certainly did not believe that. But it may well be that he shared the aesthete's view that art is useless. He was, after all, primarily a thirties writer, surrounded by those who were absorbed in writing for political and moral ends. Not involved in the didactic Left, he had time to think about fiction itself, and to write about it. While he did not share the hope that the novel might be used eventually to disabuse humans of their misconceptions about the world, Waugh would have agreed with Robbe-Grillet's analysis of the artist's true concern; "Whatever his attachment to his party or to generous ideas, the moment of creation can bring him back to the problems of his art, and to them alone."

Although Waugh maintained some of the same views on the limits of fiction in interviews as late as 1962, there is no question that his actual practice as a novelist changed substantially in the later works. With the exception of The Loved One, which is pure satire, from Brideshead Revisited on, Waugh's characters and plots become more conventional, and he appears to take expressions of "truth" on the part of his characters more seriously. In short, his later novels are more reassuring to readers of conventional romance, and what he reassures them about is, among other things, the value of a fictional account of things.

Brideshead, though it is atypical among Waugh's novels in its triumph of sentiment over satire, demonstrates the shift in attitude toward what fiction can do. Unlike earlier characters who lacked a past or even a fixed identity, Charles Ryder constructs the entire novel out of his memories. Julia, as James F. Carens points out, is as empty as earlier heroines, but Waugh tries to present her as a substantial human being by adding "Roman Catholicism and great wealth, now viewed through the mists of sentiment" [The Satirical Art of Evelyn Waugh, 1966]. Further, although the structure of Brideshead has been criticized, there is no playing with the conventions of plot, and while the novel makes no claims for the discovery of universal values, it asserts the value and importance to individuals of Catholicism and tradition. In the Prologue in particular, there is a longing for "stately old England" which would never have escaped ironic treatment in the earlier novels. So, while there is no reassuring systematic view of the world (the modern world is too corrupted for that), there are "pockets of value" offered in much the same way Dickens offered "pockets of goodness" in some of his characters.

As for the Crouchback novels which make up the war trilogy Sword of Honour and are generally considered Waugh's best later work, sentiment is controlled but the emphasis is on traditional structure and serious theme. In these three novels, Waugh "adjusts," as Carens says, "to the conventions of the novel," and in the process creates "meaningful positive values." The source of Guy Crouchback's religious inspiration in the trilogy is his father. Frederick J. Stopp reports Waugh as having said to him in a conversation that Mr. Crouchback's function in the novel was "to keep audible a steady undertone of the decencies and true purpose of life behind the chaos of events and fantastic characters" [Evelyn Waugh: Portrait of an Artist, 1958]. Even in A Handful of Dust, the most mature of the early novels, there is no such undertone. The very writing of a trilogy with the same main character suggests a continuity of being and concerns not present in the early novels, and if Carens is right in his description of the story line as "Guy's return to life after disillusionment, descent into hell, and discovery of self," Waugh has used, quite seriously, a plot at least as old as the Aeneid.

Carens and others may be justified in valuing Waugh's later development as a maturing of expression and broadening of sympathies, but the fact remains that his reputation rests on the early novels. Many better conventional novels have been written in the twentieth century, but few have matched the early works in satirical humor and in comic treatment of the conventional novel form, when Waugh was skeptical not only about the targets of his satire, but about the power of fiction itself.

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