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«Moral Decline and the Bankruptcy of Victorian Humanism in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust Malte Biedermann XXX XXX LA Englisch u. Geschichte ...»

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Einführungsseminar: The Power and the Glory – British Catholic Novelists

Frau Dr. Julia Hoydis

Universität zu Köln

WS 2010/2011

Datum der Abgabe: 15.3.2011

Moral Decline and the Bankruptcy of Victorian Humanism

in Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust

Malte Biedermann



LA Englisch u. Geschichte

Fachsemester: 3

Table of Contents

1. Introduction 2

2. Two Types of Barbarism 4

2.1. The Decay of British Society 4

2.2. The Proto-Industrialist Savage 7

3. The Plight of Gothic Man 8

4. Conclusion 9

5. Bibliography 11 1

1. Introduction Asked to judge his literary oeuvre in 1946, Evelyn Waugh replied that A Handful of Dust “was humanist and contained all I had to say about humanism” (LIFE 1946: 60). He then went on to compare it with his later work, the explicitly Catholic novel Brideshead Revisited, which he deemed his favourite and “far more ambitious”. At the time of these statements the author had already implemented a change that found little acclaim with his critics who accused him of turning “from the brilliant satirical novelist to the triumphalist apologist […] from the thoughtful critic to the scorer of worthless debating points” (O’Donoghue 1987: 345). Waugh had indeed become a staunch conservative and fervent defender of Catholicism during the course of his life. In his later years he constantly attacked the Anglican Church for what he considered an uprooted and consequently hollow belief system. Much of this personal development might be based on the author’s reflections on A Handful of Dust whose depiction of societal decay still allows ambiguous interpretations regarding its philosophical implications but whose central message is stated very clearly: humanism – or more precisely what Waugh considered the Victorian brand of it – is a failed project, a “dead end” (Lobb 2003/2004: 143). This term paper will argue that Waugh illustrates the bankruptcy of a certain humanist creed that denies its roots in Christian moral theology and postulates ethics as a man-made construction without religious foundation. A Handful of Dust takes a gloomy view on a society that is valueless and corrupted because it has repressed religion. The novel envisages the ultimate outcome of “an attempt to enjoy the certainties of Christian moral standards without belief in what gave rise to them” (Lobb 2003/2004: 135).

The novel starts as a realist depiction of a crumbling marriage that mirrors the decay in the morally desolate environment of Great Britain in the inter-war period: Tony Last owns a large Gothic mansion in the countryside, Hetton Abbey, and leads a rather dull, antiquated life together with his wife Brenda and his son John Andrew. He spends a large portion of his income on maintaining the property and disregards the interests of his family members who are increasingly bored by their outmoded existence. Due to this marital neglect Brenda begins an affair with an impecunious and ill-mannered acquaintance, John Beaver.

After the tragic death of John Andrew in a horse-riding accident Brenda finally breaks up with her husband. Tony, who initially assumes that the divorce is based on mutual consent, is shocked when Brenda demands a monetary settlement so large that it would force him to sell Hetton.

2 The novel then takes a turn for the unreal as Tony refuses to file for a divorce and tries to escape from this threat to his traditional lifestyle by participating in an expedition to the Brazilian jungle. Inspired by the explorer Dr. Messinger, he embarks on a quest to find an uncharted city which he comes to idealize as a “transfigured Hetton” (Waugh 1934: 164)1.

However, his voyage soon turns out to be a disaster as he is separated from his fellow adventurers and finds himself struck by tropical fever in an isolated tribal village. He is nursed by the illiterate Mr. Todd who subsequently holds him captive and demands that Tony remain in his hut forever while reading the works of Dickens to him. This twist has already been criticised among Waugh’s contemporaries as misplaced in the context of the rest of the novel. Waugh’s friend Henry Yorke2 wrote to him in 1934 complaining that “the end is so fantastic that it throws the rest out of proportion […] It seemed manufactured and not real” (Amory 1980: 88-89). While the change in tone that Yorke refers to is admittedly somewhat disturbing, it is a side-product of a disjunction in the plot that mattered more to Waugh than tonal coherency. Having developed the jungle scenes of A Handful of Dust first3, Waugh wanted to contrast two types of barbarism in his novel: the one displayed by proto-industrialist savages and the one inherent in British moral decay. His argument here is that due to the negligence of religious consciousness and ecclesiastical practices, these worlds seem to fuse once again.

The first chapter deals with these two forms of barbarism and illustrates how Waugh ridicules the humanist approach in his satire of displacement. The next chapter analyses Tony’s allegoric quest for the City and questions whether his humanist longings could possibly be fulfilled by following this path. It also takes a closer look at Tony’s entrapment and its implications. Finally, the discussion focuses on the ambiguous interpretations of the jungle scene, asking if the prospect implied by this part of the book is the ultimate declaration of moral bankruptcy in Tony’s world or if it constitutes a promise of redemption.

1 This term paper refers to the Penguin Modern Classics version of A Handful of Dust (cp. Bibliography), due to various additions in this edition page numbers may differ significantly from the original publication. I will subsequently abbreviate quotations taken from it in the following way: (AHoD: page number).

2 This novelist is better known under his pen name Henry Green.

3 The chapter “A Côté de chez Todd” was originally written as a short story titled “The Man Who Liked Dickens”.


2. Two Types of Barbarism As previously mentioned, one of Waugh’s intentions when writing A Handful of Dust was to contrast two forms of barbarism: the blatantly obvious one of exotic bushmen and the more oblique one in industrialized societies (cp. O’Donoghue 1987: 339). Waugh wrote that “the scheme was a Gothic man in the hand of savages – first Mr. Beaver etc. then the real ones” (Amory (ed.) 1980: 88). Waugh is a satirist turned Catholic, which signifies an interesting combination for his writing: Timms remarks that satire and Catholic sermon “mobilise the resources of language in diametrically opposed ways., […] at the extremes of the spectrum the position of satirist and Christian seem incompatible” (Timms 1995: 111).

Nevertheless, A Handful of Dust manages to achieve both, presenting a clearly intelligible message against cultural decay and societal barbarism while employing a distinctive form of dark satire at the same time. Ann Pasternak Slater labelled this literary form as comedy of displacement explaining that humour is created by putting “the right things in the wrong places” (Pasternak Slater 1982: 49). The characters illustrate the barbarity of an amoral world by acting correctly under the wrong circumstances4: brandy is deceptively served in a champagne bottle (AHoD 74), the overly confident Dr. Messinger converses with the Macushi Indians in another exotic language and is therefore unintelligible (AHoD 177), Tony shows gentlemanly behaviour but his wife loathes his medieval habits and his anachronistic chivalry. This causes certain uneasiness in the reader after he realizes that the concept of displacement is universally true in Waugh’s bleak societal portrayal, it fits to the brutally barbaric jungle as well as to the covertly barbaric people of London. All human societies depicted are ultimately corrupt and give in to their selfish needs as in London or, following the principle that might is right, to the power of the strongest in the Brazilian jungle.

2.1. The Decay of British Society The mood of the first part of the novel, which satirizes the moral decline of British society as Waugh experienced it, is already established within the first sentences. Talking about a fire catastrophe with her son John, Mrs. Beaver answers a question whether anyone was hurt as follows: “No one, I am thankful to say. […] Except two housemaids who lost their heads and jumped […] into the paved court. They were in no danger” (AHoD: 7). This response is evidently despicable on many levels. Mrs. Beaver’s voicing of sympathy for the victims is nothing more than a pose, a fact that becomes painfully obvious as she 4 Interestingly, the author also notes that sometimes the reverse is true: wrong things are in the right places, creating the same type of comedic effect (Pasternak Slater 1983: 57).

4 moves on to talk about the personal gain she could draw from the fire: “One really cannot

complain. […] everything was insured. […] I must get on to them this morning” (AHoD:

7). Furthermore, it is suggested that she apparently does not care much about the housemaids’ fate as she is preoccupied with her own class and only belatedly mentions them as casualties of the event. The blatant exposure of her feigned empathy is so grotesque that it functions as a satirical element. As Greenberg rightly points out, “we laugh at the virtual nakedness of Mrs. Beaver’s greed, or the shabbiness of her effort to cloak this greed in false compassion” (Greenberg 2003: 354). Other characters in Tony’s circle of acquaintances display a similar lack of proper judgement in moral issues: his unfaithful wife, the tasteless hypocrite Mrs. Beaver, or his spoilt child John Andrew. John Beaver is, as Firchow rightly observes, “the archetype of modern man, bored, boring, bestial, […] his life centered on problems of cadging a meal or climbing up a rung on the social ladder” (Firchow 1972: 409).When Brenda reads to Tony from the morning papers it becomes obvious just how indifferent the characters react to atrocities: “There’s such an extraordinary picture of Babe and Jock […] a little girl has been strangled in a cemetery with a bootlace […] that play […] is coming of” (AHoD: 20). Mentions of violent crimes are interspersed with daily gossip and do not provoke any reaction at all. At times they are simply cast aside and ignored, at other times they are answered with a ritualized expression of fake commiseration.

The difference in emotional capability between Tony and his family, let alone his other acquaintances, is frequently hinted at. For instance, his son John relates the story of Peppermint the mule to him, which he, in turn, heard from Ben, the stable manager, as they are on their way to church. Peppermint served as a pack animal in World War I and died after having drunk its company’s entire rum ration. Tony’s reply to this story is one of the few cases of genuinely expressed regret in the novel: “At the end, Tony said, ‘How very sad.’” (AHoD: 33). This brief moment of emotional authenticity is instantly interrupted by John Andrew, though: “Well I thought it was sad too, but it isn’t. Ben said it made him laugh fit to bust his pants.” (AHoD: 33). According to Greenberg, “Ben finds comedy where Tony finds pathos”, but the hierarchical structure that one would normally assume between those two options is reversed since it is the son who appears to be lecturing the

father: in A Handful of Dust “a cruel reaction trumps a sympathetic one” (Greenberg 2003:

352). In this emotionally crippled environment, Tony Last is indeed the last of his kind.

John accepts Ben instead of his father as the authority in judging the tale of Peppermint, 5 which shows not only “a failure to instill in his son the values of his social class – but also the outmoded nature of those very values.” (Greenberg 2003: 352). Tony still adheres to what might be called the Victorian social code. This code stresses the value of sincere emotions and demands virtuous feelings and, accordingly, chivalric behaviour. In this scene, John counters the “fatuous optimism of Victorian humanism” (Stannard 1989: 326), that his father apparently still holds dear, on both ethic and aesthetic grounds as he discloses his lack of proper moral judgement once again and defies the sentimental dimension of the story. Sentimentality is the aspect that Dickens would have stressed in order to evoke an empathic reaction in his readers by enforcing the Victorian value codex.

The rejection of any kind of empathy by the characters in Waugh’s novel, it might be argued, is the antisentimental reflex existent in much of modernist literature as it represents “a shift in the meaning of the word sentimental from positive overtones of sensitivity and compassion toward negative connotations of excess, falseness and laxity” (Greenberg 2003: 353). Tony as the exponent of Victorian sentimentality and the humanist ideals this sentimentality tries to convey faces the outright rejection of this feeling by John Andrew.

His father certainly has an idea of these ideals but only manages to represent them superficially. He is, for instance, talked into faking adultery in order to facilitate the divorce: an act that betrays the Victorian ideal of honesty, even if it is for a good cause.

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