About the author
Evelyn Waugh was a first class snob who writes about the upper echelons of the British Upper Class. While he is often deeply satirical, he writes with a warmth for the traditional, highly structured society that his characters inhabit.
Oddly, you can view this story through a Marxist lens and see a clear criticism of the upper class and how they misuse their power, are often hypocritical and how they idealise country life, appropriating its culture without ever really understanding it. Remember ‘death of the author’ — it doesn’t matter if this was not what Waugh intended.
Arthur Evelyn St. John Waugh was an English writer of novels, biographies and travel books. He was also a prolific journalist and reviewer of books. His most famous works include the early satires Decline and Fall (1928) and A Handful of Dust (1934), the novel Brideshead Revisited (1945) and the Second World War trilogy Sword of Honour (1952–61). As a writer, Waugh is recognised as one of the great prose stylists of the English language in the 20th century, although many critics, uneasy with its cast and its creed, excoriated it for its stylistic excess, its snobbery, and its abandonment of the cool satire they associated with his work.
Get together (2-3 people) and choose 5 questions to explore in detail. Write the answers in your blog.
1) Compile a list of lexis about social hierarchy. What does this tell the reader about the characters, the setting and the ideas?
2) Later on, when conflict between the characters becomes more obvious, Waugh uses semantic fields of war and battle. Find examples and comment on what this conveys about the changing characters, their relationships and the ideas behind the story.
3) Find examples of how Waugh conveys the importance of maintaining status through appearance and how we can see social hypocrisy through this
4) Look at the binary oppositio between the dialogue of Metcalfe and Boggett. Comment on how this is both comedic and how we are manipulated to view the characters in certain ways as a result. Why is this important? How are the rural working people described throughout the story? What is interesting or unusual and how does Waugh therefore use them as a device?
5) Waugh sometimes builds long descriptions which seem to lead to a climax but in fact end anticlimatically. For instance, look at the over romanticised ideal of the rural life of a ‘landowner’ on p135 and Metcalfe’s ‘sudden change’ into the ‘Lion of the Rotarians’ on p142. Explore how Waugh builds up his initial crescendo of feeling and what this leads us to expect. Then consider the anticlimactic end and what the effect of the irony is. How can this reflect further ideas about the text?
6) Consider how architectural and other landscape features (of buildings and fields etc) are used to convey the ideas of the text. Compare the rural and industrial imagery.
7) How are the characters shown as outsiders compared to the rural working people? What is the effect of this? How does Waugh show that they view each other as outsiders and what is implied by this? To what extent are the newcomers accepted into society by the end of the story?
8) Explore how Waugh uses language to change the tone when the threat of building development is discovered. What is implied through this use of language? In addition to considering this from the character’s viewpoints, look at this from a societal viewpoint. Why is the difference important and what does the reader therefore feel about the characters as a result? What can this tell us about British society?
9) To what effect are the letters used in terms of character, narrative and reader response? What is interesting about these letters and why is that important in terms of the overall message of the story?
10) What is the effect of the coda (Webster’s says: Coda – an ending part of a work of literature or drama that is separate from the earlier parts)? How does Waugh manipulate the reader through the way he structures the events and reveals the motives behind Hargood-Hood’s actions? What is deeply ironic about what has been revealed, given the characters and events of the main narrative? What can Waugh be telling us about British society and the Upper Class? If viewed through Marxism, what can we believe about the Upper Classes?