Evelyn Waugh | Critical Essay by James W. Nichols

This literature criticism consists of approximately 14 pages of analysis & critique of Evelyn Waugh.
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Critical Essay by James W. Nichols

SOURCE: "Romantic and Realistic: The Tone of Evelyn Waugh's Early Novels," in College English, Vol. 24, No. 1, October 1962, pp. 46-56.

In the following essay, Nichols discusses Waugh's use of satire in his early novels, focusing on what he considers Waugh's often contradictory ideals of romanticism and realism.

Evelyn Waugh has been asked, "Are your books meant to be satirical?" He replied, "No. Satire is a matter of period. It flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous moral standards—the early Roman Empire and 18th Century Europe. It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue" ["Fan-Fare," Life, April 8, 1946].

The article from which the quotation is taken appeared in Life in 1946, not long after the publication of Brideshead Revisited, the first of Waugh's novels to win him a wide transatlantic public. The tone of the article suggests that he was not entirely serious. A "satire," as far as the novel is concerned, is a novel so constructed and so written as to embody a point of view which adversely criticizes the manners and morals of its characters—and often the society to which they belong, as well. Even a casual reading will make plain that most of Waugh's early novels are intended to be satiric, as well as comic.

But he raises an issue which concerns all contemporary writers of satire. Most great satire has been written at times when there was general agreement about what constituted right moral standards. The modern satirist cannot count upon homogeneous moral standards in his audience. Therefore he has to establish within the satire a moral norm which his audience will accept. One way of doing this is to let the reader know that a character is intended to represent the author's point of view. His actions or comments, then, can embody or focus the satiric attack. Waugh seldom did this in the early novels. Instead, he chose to let the tone—his implied attitude toward characters, events, social scene—bear the burden of, first, establishing a standard by which his characters, and the incidents in which they figure, may be measured, and, second, of embodying the adverse judgment upon these characters and incidents which is essential to satire.

An understanding of how satiric tone is created and employed, then, is crucial to an understanding of the satire in Waugh's early novels. Seven had been published when the quotation above was printed: Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scoop (1938), Put Out More Flags (1942), and Brideshead Revisited (1945). The latter has satiric elements, but is really a straight novel, rather than a "satire." Put Out More Flags has some brilliant satiric, as well as comic, passages, but the novel as a whole never rises above its glittering fragments. Scoop and Black Mischief are better as satires, but a good deal of the satire is directed against foreign customs and institutions. Waugh is best, as satirist, when his targets are domestic ones. Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust form a relatively homogeneous group. All three have similar backgrounds; all satirize the English upper classes during a crucial period in their history and that of their country, the late 1920's and early 1930's. All are informed with a tone which is distinctively Waugh's. It sharpens the edge of the comedy and provides the moral standard which is essential to satire.

Decline and Fall is a remarkably funny book which, unlike many another comic novel, improves upon re-reading. It is an apprenticeship novel and, like the heroes of other apprenticeship novels, its hero is thrust into a world for which he is ill-prepared. Paul Pennyfeather, a meek and proper Oxford undergraduate, is catapulted into an outrageously topsyturvey world outside the university walls. Stripped of his trousers by a group of drunken, aristocratic undergraduates, he is sent down for "indecent exposure," and takes a post at a prep school-in North Wales which is run by a confidenceman and staffed by criminals, misfits, and unfrocked clergymen. Paul's own meek innocence proves attractive to the mother of one of his pupils and he is taken on as a tutor at her country home, a modern showplace frequented by degenerates and eccentrics. Paul and Margot Beste-Chetwynde, his employer, are about to be married when he is arrested for white slavery, the consequence of an errand he had innocently performed for his bride-to-be. Paul is sentenced and jailed at Blackstone Gaol, a prison run along absurdly "liberal" lines. From there he is transferred to a prison on the heath from which Margot's agents arrange his escape and feign his death so that he is free to return, disguised, to his college at Oxford and resume his studies undisturbed.

The world which Paul passes through between the time he leaves and the time he returns to Oxford is an outrageous one in which the moral scheme he has been taught at home and in school is neither observed nor respected. Mere energy and effrontery are heavily rewarded, not only by the world's goods, but by the world's esteem. Modesty and virtue, what there is exhibited of them, are everywhere shown to be feckless and despicable. Margot Beste-Chetwynde, for example, is a soulless degenerate, yet is almost everywhere triumphant and is all but universally esteemed.

As I have summarized it above, Decline and Fall is likely to seem more overtly satirical than it appears on a first reading. A reader, particularly an American reader, is likely to recognize a satiric tone in much of what he reads, and yet wonder uneasily where Waugh himself stands in relation to the brilliant, chaotic world he has created. One real difficulty is that the author takes no narrow, "moralistic" view of his world. He seems to despise the methods by which the esteem of the world and the world's goods are gained, but he does not despise either the esteem or the goods themselves. Margot, for example, is completely amoral, yet is everywhere successful, and there is no indication, either explicitly or implicitly, that the way in which she has achieved her success has spoiled it. In other words, Waugh is at once a moralist and a realist.

Since Waugh does not make an explicit comment or establish unmistakably a point of view, the novel seems to lack a clearly defined center. Consider some of the things which the tone in Decline and Fall suggests are to be considered objects of satire, as well as of comedy: that is, to imply a reproof, as well as to raise a laugh. He seems to satirize the beastliness of undergraduate societies and the leniency of college authorities toward wealthy and aristocratic members of such societies. He satirizes private preparatory schools, "modern" religion, and "enlightened" prison reform. There are enough Welsh jokes to suggest that he means to impugn utterly the national character and culture of Wales. Most of all, perhaps, he seems to satirize the morals and outlook of "smart" society.

Sometimes he seems to be working both sides of the street at the same time. He satirizes "Chokey," the half-educated but pretentious Negro, but seems at the same time to be satirizing those who criticize him. The impression the novel as a whole gives is kaleidoscopic. What Aldous Huxley says of his own Antic Hay fits Decline and Fall as well: "One has, in his post-adolescence, a burst of astonishment at life. Everything seems amusing and extraordinary and amazing" [quoted in Harvey Breit, The Writer Observed, 1956]. This is just how Decline and Fall strikes the reader—it is an inspired record of the absurdity of the world outside the gates of Hertford College, Oxford, as it appeared to an undergraduate in the late 1920's. It is an outrageous, amazing world that he doesn't quite understand.

But there are a couple of passages which suggest the existence of a standard of values and point forward to the more clearly marked-out position of the later novels. When Paul is being driven to his new post at Margot's house he thinks:

"English spring…. In the dreaming ancestral beauty of the English country." Surely, he thought, those great chestnuts in the morning sun stood for something enduring and serene in a world that had lost its reason and would so stand when the chaos and confusion were forgotten? And surely it was the spirit of William Morris that whispered to him in Margot Beste-Chetwynde's motor car about seed-time and harvest, the superb succession of the seasons, the harmonious interdependence of rich and poor, of dignity, innocence and tradition? But at a turn in the drive the cadence of his thoughts was abruptly transected. They had come into sight of the house.

Later, when Paul is being transferred from one prison to another, he thinks back upon his relationship with Margot:

He had "done the right thing" in shielding the woman: so much was clear, but Margot had not quite filled the place assigned to her, for in this case she was grossly culpable, and he was shielding her, not from misfortune nor injustice, but from the consequences of her crimes; he felt a flush about his knees as Boy Scout honour whispered that Margot had got him into a row and ought jolly well to own up and face the music. As he sat over his post-bags he had wrestled with this argument without achieving any satisfactory result except a growing conviction that there was something radically inapplicable about this whole code of ready-made honour that is the still small voice, trained to command, of the Englishman all the world over.

Decline and Fall is satiric, rather than a "satire," if by satire we mean a novel organized to imply a consistent and well-developed point of view differing from that of its main characters. But Paul's realization that the world has lost its reason and that traditional codes of ready-made honor no longer apply points forward to the standard of judgment which is to be developed in the later novels.

Despite the putative inferiority of second to first novels, Vile Bodies (1930) is very nearly up to the standard set by Decline and Fall. The hero, Adam Fenwick-Symes, is more substantial and active than Paul Pennyfeather. Adam's adventures in clearing customs, as a society reporter, his attempts to raise enough money to marry Nina Blount, and so on, are the main plot, but the action includes the whole Mayfair set to which Nina and Adam belong, and the novel as a whole is a satiric picture of fashionable London society midway between two world wars.

Waugh's own point of view is much more clearly revealed in Vile Bodies than in Decline and Fall. The ways in which he manages to do this without commenting explicitly himself can be conveniently grouped under three general, although not mutually exclusive, headings. First, he stakes out points of reference to guide the reader. The Armistice and the First World War are both mentioned, a coming war is predicted, and the novel ends on "the biggest battlefield in the history of the world." Waugh's gay Mayfair set is haunted by the memory of one world war and apprehensive of the approach of another. This helps to explain, and in some measure to justify, the furious round of pleasure upon which the Bright Young Things are embarked. Other points of reference are provided by occasional comments by both the conservative aristocracy and the lower-middle-class. Often these comments have no direct bearing upon the gyrations of the Bright Young Things, but they do serve to indicate a more conservative system of values.

A second way Waugh establishes the point of view is to order the structure of the novel itself to imply it. A point of view is implicit, for instance, in a pair of contrasting scenes near the center of the book. The fantastic party in a captive dirigible given by the Bright Young Things is immediately followed by a description of a party given at Anchorage House attended by:

a great concourse of pious and honourable people … people who had represented their country in foreign places and sent their sons to die for her in battle, people of decent and temperate life, uncultured, unaffected, unembarrassed, unassuming, unambitious people, of independent judgment and marked eccentricities, kind people who cared for animals and the deserving poor, brave and rather unreasonable people, that fine phalanx of the passing order….

The most important of these devices, however, is the explicit commentary of the characters themselves. For instance, Father Rothschild attempts to explain the rationale of the Bright Young Things:

"Don't you think … that perhaps it is all in some way historical? I don't think people ever want to lose their faith either in religion or anything else. I know very few young people, but it seems to me that they are all possessed with an almost fatal hunger for permanence. I think all these divorces show that. People aren't content just to muddle along nowadays…. And this word "bogus" they all use … They won't make the best of a bad job nowadays…. They say, 'If a thing's not worth doing well, it's not worth doing at all.' It makes every thing very difficult for them."

The subject of the war which seems to be approaching is brought up:

"Anyhow," said Lord Metroland, "I don't see how all that explains why my stepson should drink like a fish and go about everywhere with a negress."

"I think they're connected, you know," said Father Rothschild. "But it's all very difficult."

However, it is clear that while Waugh believes he understands the Bright Young Things, he does not excuse them for the way they act. The small attendance at Agatha Runcible's funeral is an implicit comment upon the heartlessness of her set.

A Handful of Dust (1934) is Waugh's masterpiece. In it his wonderfully fertile comic imagination, his ability to set, and to modulate, satiric tone, and his feeling for the macabre fuse; the result is an unforgettable picture of a brilliant, but sick, society whose decadence he emphasizes not only by choosing both his title and his motto from The Waste Land but also by echoing Proust in two of his chapter titles.

Each of his chief characters, Tony Last and his wife Brenda, epitomizes one of the things that is wrong with their society. Brenda can find no real satisfaction in being a wife and mother. Bored by her marriage to Tony, who is decent and honourable, but dull, she begins an affair with John Beaver, a half-man who lives beside his telephone on the fringes of the fashionable world. Though she is well aware of Beaver's worthlessness, Brenda insists upon a divorce and, to support her Mr. Beaver, makes such demands for a settlement upon Tony that he breaks off divorce proceedings and goes abroad. Beaver leaves her, too, but things end happily for Brenda. Tony is reported dead in the Amazon jungle and she promptly marries an old friend of his.

A good deal of the satire in the novel is aimed at Brenda and her friends, a group of aging Bright Young Things. All of the satire is indirect; Waugh doesn't tell us what kind of people his characters are, their own actions and conversation do. Thus when Tony Last, who has acted decently towards Brenda, refuses to sacrifice Hetton, his beloved home, to buy John Beaver for Brenda:

"Who on earth would have expected the old boy to turn up like that?" asked Polly Cockpurse.

"Now I understand why they keep going on in the papers about divorce law reform," said Veronica. "It's too monstrous that he should be allowed to get away with it."

"The mistake they made was in telling him first," said Souki.

"It's so like Brenda to trust everyone," said Jenny Abdul Akbar.

Although Brenda epitomizes certain qualities which Waugh detests, she is not merely a caricature—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that she is more subtly drawn than most caricatures. Despite her general bitchiness, she has an oddly appealing quality even in the depths of her affair with Beaver, and Waugh so nicely tempers Tony Last's decency with dullness that the reader is not entirely out of patience with Brenda when she wants a freer life in London. What does kill the reader's sympathy for her is her reception of the news of the death of her son, John Andrew. She is in London, visiting friends, while John Beaver flies over to France with his mother. Jock Menzies, Tony's best friend, brings the news to her:

"What is it, Jock? Tell me quickly, I'm scared. It's nothing awful is it?"

"I'm afraid it is. There's been a very serious accident."




He nodded.

She sat down on a hard little Empire chair against the wall, perfectly still with her hands folded in her lap, like a small well-brought-up child introduced into a room full of grown-ups. She said, "Tell me what happened. What do you know about it first?"

"I've been down at Hetton since the week-end."


"Don't you remember? John was going hunting today."

She frowned, not at once taking in what he was saying. "John … John Andrew … I … oh, thank God…." Then she burst into tears.

At first it seems that Tony, who is dull, but a decent sort, is to embody the standards by which the Bright Young Things are judged. He is an innocent who lives amid dreams of Victorian Gothic stability and morality at Hetton Abbey, the family seat, which, slowly, he is trying to modernize and restore to its former glory. He has gotten into the habit of loving and trusting Brenda and does not suspect her affair with Beaver until she announces she wants a divorce. Even then he wants to do the traditional gentlemanly thing—to give her a generous settlement and to take all the blame for the divorce action. It is only when she demands so much that he will have to give up Hetton to satisfy her that he balks, refuses to go through with the divorce action, and leaves England.

But it is evident throughout that Tony is not only an innocent, but an adolescent as well. His room at Hetton, called Morgan le Fay, is a "gallery representative of every phase of his adolescence," and his conduct bears out the impression his room gives of his character. When Brenda takes to staying in London to be near her Mr. Beaver, Tony comes up for the night and when he can't see her gets drunk and pesters her by telephone. The whole sequence is one of the funniest things Waugh has ever done, but it is basically the record of an extended series of undergraduate pranks. Tony acts like a Victorian romantic hero during the divorce proceedings, and his leaving England when the divorce falls through is the action of a romantic juvenile.

Tony's fate in the Amazon jungle, although grotesquely out of proportion to whatever his just deserts may be, has a certain macabre appropriateness. He is seeking the city of his romantic dreams, "a transfigured Hetton, pennons and banners floating on the sweet breeze." What he finds is the distorted, but still recognizable, underside of the Victorian world. Mr. Todd is a Victorian father, monstrously selfish, despotically strict, but he provides sustenance and protection. The reading aloud from Dickens to which Tony is condemned is not only an ironic repayment for the agony he had caused Brenda by reading aloud at Hetton, but a grimly amusing suggestion of the boredom which must have made many a Victorian family evening a horror. The cream of the jest is that he should be condemned to read novels about the Victorian commercial classes, whose world and whose values overwhelmed the Victorian Gothic world Tony had dreamed of.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Tony as well as Brenda is being satirized. I make the point at some length because it is a crucial one and because Waugh has been criticized on the ground that he approves of, and sympathizes with, Tony. Quite the contrary. Neither Tony nor Brenda and her group represent values which he admires. Brenda and her circle are heartless; Tony is incapable of coping with the modern world.

A distinctive point of view is embodied in the tone of Waugh's early novels. The title of the first novel echoes Gibbon, an indication that Waugh considers English smart society, despite its surface brilliance, corrupt and decadent. Something is wrong—the traditional standards of value no longer seem to apply. Not morality, but immorality pays. In Vile Bodies he extends his portrait of English society. The values he prizes most are those of order, of selfless devotion to the service of God and country. But he is well aware that these values no longer receive even lip service. The First World War, he implies, caused or accelerated the decay of moral values, and another war, one which will destroy all civilization, is in progress as the novel ends.

A Handful of Dust complements the two earlier novels, but the main focus is upon marriage, the family, the individual. It contains some of Waugh's finest tonal effects. In the scenes at Brighton, for example, the farcical tone of the incidents in which "evidence" for the divorce action is gathered is tempered by Waugh's compassion for Tony Last's very real anguish. Thus he is able to imply a point of view—that modern marriage is hollow and farcical, although capable of causing deep distress to one who takes it seriously—which is never stated directly. Presumably, he had scenes like this in mind when he said that the novel "contained all I had to say about humanism."

Earlier I suggested that in Waugh's early novels the tone establishes the standard of values which is necessary to the satiric attack. Tone is essentially the projection of an attitude toward, a point of view about, the characters of his novels and the world they inhabit. The basis of this attitude is a conflict between what I should call "realistic" and "romantic" ideas and feelings. Waugh understands that the modern world is one in which the traditional standards—ones which he cherishes—no longer apply: "vice no longer pays lip service to virtue." But he recognizes that the rewards of vice—the world's esteem and the world's goods—are not despised, and recognizes, too, that the way in which goods and esteem are gained may not spoil the enjoyment of them.

Thus far his point of view is a good deal like that of the satirists of the past. But these satirists tempered attacks upon their times by at least implying that there was an alternative set of values, or an alternate course of action, which could rectify the evils they portrayed. Waugh too has an alternative, one which he examines in his early novels. The alternative is a romantic one—a hope that a return to the traditions and values of the past offers a way of ameliorating the beastliness of the modern world. But when this idea is put to test, it is found wanting.

Waugh's attitude toward Tony Last is a good example of this. Tony belongs to, and to some extent represents, a tradition to which Waugh is strongly attached. D. S. Savage calls Tony's outlook "adolescent romanticism" ["The Innocence of Evelyn Waugh," in The Novelist as Thinker, 1947] and infers that this represents Waugh's own way of looking at the world. This is only part of the truth, I think. While Waugh can sympathize with Tony, he satirizes him as well. He comes to the conclusion that a man armed only with a traditional code of values is helpless in the modern world. He is no philosopher; he has no alternative to propose. But he wishes that Tony's values were not so completely outdated. The tension between Waugh's realistic appraisal of what the modern world is like and his romantic yearning for a system of values that he knows no longer works informs the tone and provides the satiric standard in his early novels.

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