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Varieties of Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme


Source: Criticism, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter 1972), pp. 65-77
Published by: Wayne State University Press
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Varietiesof Death Wish:

Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme

. . Father, I wish to die."

"Yes. How many times?
"Almost all the time."
The obscure figure behind the [confessional] grill leant
" "
nearer. What was it you wished to do?
"To die."
"Yes. You have attempted suicide?
Of what, then, are you accusing yourself? To wish to
die is quite usual today. It may even be a very good dis
position. You do not accuse yourself of despair?
"No, Father; presumption. I am not fit to die."
There is no sin there. This is a mere scruple. Make an act
of contrition for all the unrepented sins of your past life."
After the Absolution he said: "You are a foreigner?
Can you spare a few cigarettes?

This passage from Evelyn Waugh's last novelthe final volume

of the Guy Crouchback war trilogy 1plainly separates death wish
from despair, demonstrates Waugh's typical balancing of serious-tragic
and serious-comic, and serves to what has often
suggest gone wrong
in the criticism of Waugh's fiction, especially since 1945, when Bride
shead Revisited appeared. I would like to consider my overlapping

Joseph Hynes, who teaches at the University of Oregon, has written about
Dickens, James, Greene, and other figures.
1The three novels are collected in one volume as Sword of Honor (London
1965). Originally and separately the novels were called Men at Arms (19S2),
Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961). This third
novel appeared in the United States
as The End of the Battle. At the outset, I
should like to emphasize that the
term "death wish" to have meant,
for Waugh, "
very loosely and simply the wish to die "rather than the
technical and complex Freudian "death instinct" which Norman O. Brown,
among others, studies at length. I would prefer to avoid the term, because of the
confusion it may cause, but Waugh's own use of it, especially in the trilogy,
obliges one to deal with it.


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66 Joseph Hynes

assertions, in order to clarify the continuity of Waugh's fictional

To begin with, I am reminded by Guy Crouchback's confessionor
attempted confessionthat novels are always concerned
with death wish and despair. And yet, what happens among Waugh's
central figures is that, with the possible exception of Tony Last in A
Handful of Dust, whose final state of mind we cannot know because
the narrator has no need to it to us, none of central
give Waugh's

figures' death wishes are intense enough to lead to suicide, the presum
able sign of despair. Simon Balcairn, Aimee Thanatogenos, and Briga
dier Ritchie-Hook may commit suicide, but they are not central char
acters and their attitudes do not finally control ours. In addition to
A Handful of Dust, an exception might be made of Vile Bodies, whose
tone is indeed hopeless; but this is an anomaly among Waugh's books
in that, despite Adam and Nina, it has no central character. At
any rate, whatever distinctions we may make, and whatever con
nections we may see, between a given book's tone and its characters'
attitudes, the death wish dominates Waugh's novels, while that inten
sity of death wish amounting to despair or hopelessness is rare.
Something usually sustains Waugh's central figures, if only in a
sort of living death. For instance, Paul Pennyfeather of Decline and
Fall retires into the past. That it is the theological past is probably
irrelevant; what matters is that theological study supports his seclusion
from time present. Again, the younger Basil Seal (of Black Mischief)
survives because (unlike Paul Pennyfeather) he is privileged, bright,
cynically irrepressible in his self-defensive commitment to impulse,
and never inclined to expect much good from the modern world; and
the older Basil Seal (like the early Guy Crouchback) avoids despair by
joining the army for the patriotic novelty of slaughtering Germans
(Put Out More Flags). William Boot (Scoop) runs from the outside
world back to his private flora and fauna; the title-figure of Scott
King's Modern Europe returns with his dyspepsia to the classroom and
his minor Latin authors; Dennis Barlow (of The Loved One, a book
soaked in death wish) turns from hideous modern American death

worship to a vitality oddly regarded as particularly British; and

Gilbert Pinfold settles for himself after an ordeal which proves to
him that everyone else is, as he had always supposed, dreadful. Saint
Helena finds the True Cross to be the one fact that sustains hope;
Charles Ryder comes to share that conviction in Brideshead Revisited-,

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme 67

and Guy Crouchback becomes his father in moving to a career of

unobtrusive Christian charity at Broome Hall.
The point is that, regardless of whether Waugh's tone is funny,
sad, light, cynical, heavy, grim, whimsical, ironic, hilarious, or pathetic,
his main characters are filled with loathing for others' ideas of life. In
opting out, Waugh's protagonists manifest their death wish; but the
death wish, as I say, is not conclusive or ultimate. They wish to die
to, or out of, what they find all around them, but they avoid despair
by gripping something other than the present. The real differences
among these protagonists lie in the kinds of alternatives they grasp;
in their various means of coping with the moment even as they resist
trusting or becoming one with it.
Basil Seal survives by throwing himself completely into impulses;
that is, he comes through by taking each moment's whim so strenu
ously that his days pass even while his sustained frenzy reduces all his
activities in the present to the same indistinct grey that colors his
idea of the past and his view of the future. In short, he resists plac
ing any value on the present, by hurling himself indiscriminately at
all of it (including people) that he can zanily imagine, confront, and
use. And this of course is why Black Mischief and Put Out More
Flags, like Vile Bodies and other early books, are memorable for their
artful unpredictability, a trait that makes the books remarkably funny
and that perhaps therefore conceals the fact that irresponsibility is
rooted in the characters' near-desperation. Basil Seal's refusal to behave

seriously is a measure of how seriously his trouble, and that of all the
must be taken, and is a measure likewise of the
Bright Young People,
serious artist that Waugh
comic always was, as distinct from the
funny-frivolous entertainer whom so many seem to find (and prefer)
in the earlier novels.2

2See, for example, these: Steven Marcus, "Evelyn Waugh and the Art of
Entertainment," Partisan Review, XXIII (Summer 1956), 348-57; Peter Green,
"Du Cote de Chez Waugh," Review of English Literature (Leeds), II (April
1961), 89-100; Edmund Wilson, "'Never Apologize, Never Explain': The
Art of Evelyn Waugh," in Classics and Commercials (London, 1951), pp. 140-46;
Frederick R. Karl, The Contemporary English Novel (New York, 1962), pp.
167-82; Martin Green, "British Comedy and the British Sense of Humour: Shaw,
Waugh, and Amis," Texas Quarterly, IV (Autumn 1961), 217-27; Sean O'Faolain,
The Vanishing Hero: Studies in Novelists of the Twenties (London, 1956),
pp. 50-69; Conor Cruise O'Brien, Maria Cross: Imaginative Patterns in a Group
of Catholic Writers (Fresno, Calif., 1963), pp. vii, 109-23; A. E. Dyson, "Evelyn
Waugh and the Mysteriously Disappearing Hero," Critical Quarterly, II (Spring

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68 Joseph Hynes

A few months reflection should in fact show anyone that Waughs

career cannot
split into (a) early-funny-secular-good,
be and (b)
later-sober-religious-not so good. As usual, what turns out to be crit
cally fruitful is the consideration, not of what kind of book we in
dividually prefer, but of what kind of book we are challenged to
understand before registering preferences. And when we work toward
understanding, we find the kind of thematic consistency I have been
discussing. We find, for instance, that whereas Basil Seal resists both
the present and despair by giving himself to the moment (and herein
he may be seen to stand for most young party-goers of the early
books), Paul Pennyfeather resists present and suicide by "disappear
3 or
ing," legally and almost literally dying out of the present. He
buries himself in theology, not out of any discernible religious zeal,
but apparently out of an interest in what theological history can teach
him of fixed values and laws laid down in the past. Decline and Fall
ends here, where Paul has faded into the past. One can hardly imagine
his actually taking Holy Orders and ministering to the present, despite
his avowed intention. William Boot and Scott-King also make with
drawals and, like Paul, become cranksif cranks are those who culti
vate their solitary corners while remaining as detached as possible
from what we are fond of calling the real" world and what I have
been calling time present.
Between such resolutions as we have been and the
resolutions offered in most of Waugh's later books, comes religion.
Earlier protagonists have only raw psychological means to avoid the
and to survive outside it. Later (Dennis Barlow
present protagonists
is an exception) are usually furnished with religious interests and pos

1960), 72-79. James Hall, in The Tragic Comedians: Seven Modern British
Novelists (Bloomington, Ind., 1963), pp. 45-65, writes a most perceptive essay
on the earlier Waugh books, but leaves unexplained his reasons for thinking
" "
these his good novels," indeed his best novels." Although my essay and others
to which I shall refer should serve to counteract views of these writers, the
antidotally inclined might in the meantime see Leo Hines, "Waugh and His
Critics," Commonweal, LXXVI (April 13, 1962), 60-63, and Robert
Davis, "Evelyn Waugh on the Art of Fiction," Papers on Language and Litera
ture, II (Summer 1966), 243-52. This last retreats from a
implicitly dangerous
flirtation with the Early-vs.-Late School, in Mr. Davis's otherwise commendable
"Evelyn Waugh's Early Work: The Formation of a Method," Texas Studies
in Literature and Language, VII (Spring 1965), 97-108.
"The term is the narrator's, in Decline and Fall; but see also Dyson, op. cit.

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme 69

sibilities that complicate their psychological endeavors in the direction

of their fictional predecessors.
A kind of limbo-dweller, from the viewpoint of this essay, is Gilbert
Pinfold. He is a Catholic, but his religion enters neither into the nature
of his aberrations nor into his cure. Thus he is like Basil Seal in draw
ing upon his own
resources, who, at the
rather than like Helena,
opposite end of the religio-psychological teeter-totter, manages uncon
sciously to become a saint. The books are of course basically different
kinds of fiction. Helena, like the Golden Legend, is fictionalized
hagiography with the psychological development of character mini
mized, whereas Pinfold is almost exclusively a novel of one character's
psychological condition. Helena and Pinfold are like their predecessors
in finding the present inadequate, in setting out upon quests for satis
factory alternatives, and in staying despair by ending their quests as
they do. And again, given the kinds of books we have here, it is
quite credible that Helena should
be treated as the willing, unques
tioning, unstayable instrument of God, and Pinfold as the self-doubt
ing, emotionally shaken, latter-day Basil Seal typeone who inevitably
suffers from paranoia after years of thriving almost solely on himself,
but whose quest ends in reconfirming his life-long convictions and
in enabling him to write the novel we have just finished reading.
Religion figures, then, in these two books, but quite differently;
in Helena's case it eventually and properly swamps all else, while in
Pinfold's it is nearly beside the psychological point. Both characters
thus fit our discussion; but for the clearest signs of late Waugh, within
this thematic we must turn to Brideshead Revisited and the
war trilogy.
Brideshead has famously turned a great many readers from Waugh
since 1945, as he remarked in prefacing a slightly revised version of
the novel in 1960. Some of the criticism, in drawing attention to clash
ing styles, is properly adverseand indeed in the same Preface Waugh
implicitly agrees with it4; but much of the criticism, notoriously that

4 more of
For some of the validi.e., literarycriticism Brideshead, see:
Bernard Bergonzi, "Evelyn Waugh's Gentleman," Critical Quarterly, V (Spring

1963), 23-36; Frank Kermode, "Mr. Waugh's Cities," Encounter, XV (Nov.

1960), 63-70; Stephen Spender, The Creative Element-.
Study A of Vision, Des

pair and Orthodoxy Among Some Modern Writers (London, 1953), pp. 159-74;
A. A DeVitis, Roman Holiday: The Catholic Novels of Evelyn Waugh (New
York, 1956), pp. 40-53. Less reliably focused are: Rodney Delasanta and Mario
L. D'Avanzo, "Truth and Beauty in Brideshead Revisited," Modern Fiction

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70 Joseph Hynes

of Edmund Wilson,5 is embarrassing (though nonetheless influential)

in its attempt to rationalize irrelevant hostility to religious subject mat
ter. Though there is no point in lingering over misdirected Brideshead
criticism, which continues,6 I have mentioned it to the

general critical inability to see or at least aesthetically accept the means

by which Charles Ryder and the Flyte family avoid despair and adopt
an attitude toward the
What seems to me a proper understanding of Brideshead depends,
first, upon remembering that the novel is a first-person narrative
account of a conversion; that is, the book is neither a third-person
fiction nor Waugh's personal apologia, in spite of some critics' assump
tions. The narrator, though he has become a Catholic prior to telling
his story, is doing his best both to portray himself and his situation
before conversion and to account for his change in some way that
will be intelligible psychologicallythat is, secularly, or without re
lying upon God's grace as complete explanation, though in his present
condition it is, for him, explanation final and enough.
Charles s narrative is once the story of a quest,
Ryder again though
he was himself doubtfully aware of it in the process. Brideshead, as

Studies, XI (Summer 1965), 140-52; Frederick J. Stopp, Evelyn Waugh: Por

trait of an Artist (London 1958), pp. 108-23; Malcolm Bradbury, Evelyn Waugh,
Writers and Cririco Series (Edinburgh and London, 1964), pp. 85-93. While
these writers differ among themselves as well
from asme, sometimes

single them out as

offering the kind of reading which the book requires
reading that tends to steer clear of preconceptions about religion, social classes,
wealth and poverty, and characters and experiences I prefer to read about."
Splendors and Miseries of Evelyn Waugh," in Classics and Commercials,

pp. 298-305. These pages virtually dismiss not only Brideshead, but Scott-King's
Modern Europe and The Loved One, in addition to looking at Edmund
Campion. The essay, of course, ends the Waugh-Wilson
honeymoon signified
by Wilson's earlier article, above.
For samples, consult: O'Faolain, Dyson, O'Brien, and Karl, all cited above;
Marston LaFrance, Context and Structure of Evelyn Brideshead
Revisited," Twentieth Century Literature, X (April 1964), 12-18; John Edward
Hardy, Man in the Modern Novel (Seattle and London, 1964), pp. 159-74;
Thomas Churchill, "The Trouble with Brideshead Revisited," Modern Lan
guage Quarterly, XXVIII (June 1967), 213-28; James F. Carens,
The Satiric Art
of Evelyn Waugh (Seattle and London, 1966), pp. 98-110. This is a convenient
place to note, incidentally, that a critic's position on religion seems
to account for his attitude to Brideshead's matter. A look at
religious subject
my notes 4 and 6 will hardly encourage me to be "really"
anyone's supposing
insisting that only Catholics and their fellow travelers can read the later
or that only others misread him.

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh's Central Theme 71

place, is perhaps Waugh's most memorable evocation of the illusion

of terrestrial fixedness. It stands for the City sought by Tony Last
when the values associated with his own Hetton Abbey begin to
crumble;7 for the still center of the wheel described Professor
Silenus in Decline and Fall
(and by Eliot in Four Quartets)-, for the
life-giving traditions to which Dennis Barlow and Scott-King think
they are reverting; for what Waugh's protagonists always seek. It
satisfies what Father Rothschild, that Groucho Marx in Jesuit's cloth
ing, described in Vile Bodies as a yearning for permanence. And in
fact Charles Ryder attains to a kind of permanence when he takes
possession of Brideshead spiritually, in such a manner as to interest
no real estate agent. Like Waugh's other seekers, Ryder tries to keep
alive beyond the reach of a detestable present. When all else dwindles
family, youthful sex, art, his plans with Julia,
hedonism, Sebastian,
military gloryhe happens again upon Brideshead, only to find (or
only to tell the reader) that the place is not what he had once thought,
because he had formerly seen the permanence of it in its age and solid
ity, whereas all the while permanence was to be found, symbolically,
in the fountain and the sanctuary lamp.
What he derives has depended upon his long familiarity with
Brideshead and his abiding associations with the Flytes; but his depen
dence upon the place and its family turns out to have been the psy
chological medium that prepares him to do without such concrete
ness. His Christian faith is clearly what sustains Ryder between death
wish and despair, though it is no part of the narrator's
intention to consider whether he will now return to his art or do

something else with his days. The novel, then, is the process of a con
version that enables Ryder to defeat despair not by immersing him
self frantically in the present (as does Basil Seal) or by retreating
(in the manner of William Boot or Paul Pennyfeather) to a physical
embodiment of traditional values (Brideshead Castle), but by using
both and to transcend the even as
past present experience present
he keeps a jaundiced eye on Hooper's moment. In religious terms, he
co-operates with God's grace in order to live beyond time, now;
in psychological terms, he is shaped by his life's events to love Julia,

' "
On City" values in Waugh's books, see especially: Richard Wasson, "A
Handful of Dust: Critique of Victorianism," Modern Fiction Studies, VII (Winter
1961-62), 327-37; Kermode, op. citAlvin B. Kernan, "The Wall and the Jungle:
The Early Novels of Evelyn Waugh," Yale Review, LIII (Dec. 1963), 199-220;
Nigel Dennis, "Evelyn Waugh: The Pillar of Anchorage House," Partisan
Review, X (July-Aug. 1943), 350-61.

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72 Joseph Hynes

for whose sake he asks a favor of the God in Whose existence he thinks
he does not believe. When the favor is granted and Lord Marchmain
gives the sign that turns off Edmund Wilson, it is Ryder's love for
Julia (and his respect for her belief) that lets him accept a separation
from Julia which is at this point no requirement of his own belief.
Ryder is a dreadful person in many respects, but his snobbery, cruelty,
and other lapses from charity only emphasize that genuine love for
Julia (and his respect for her belief) that lets him accept a separation
eventual conversioneven though the psychological basis can never
substitute for that complete basis in which the narrator himself has
come to believe, and which must remain finally incomprehensible to
him and any other man.
In the war Lrouchback, as a cradle Catholic, has no
trilogy, Guy
need to learn Ryder's kind of lesson. Guy is a believer who
tices his faith; but the trilogy is Waugh's most extensive handling of
temptations to despair, belief or no belief. Besides being Waugh's
last work, the trilogy fittingly recapitulates much of his earlier work
and constitutes a last effort to credit various kinds of life wish. For
these several relevant reasons, I wish to consider the trilogy in some
Despite the difference of my approach and my emphasis on a single Waugh
theme, I am obviously indebted to the criticism building up around Waugh's
last work. Some of this criticism was written before the trilogy's in
1961, while its authors were therefore at a disadvantage; but I include such
work in gratitude for insights it has See, then, these:and
provided. Bergonzi
Hines, both as cited; Carens, pp. 157-73; Stopp, pp. 46, 158-78, 210; DeVitis,
pp. 68-84; Bradbury, pp. 106-15; Andrew Rutherford, "Waugh's Sword of Hon
our," in Maynard Mack and Ian Gregor (eds.), Imagined Worlds-. on
Some English Novels and Novelists in Honour of John Butt (London, 1968), pp.
441-60; Robert Kiely, "The Craft of DespondencyThe Traditional Novelists,"
Daedalus, XCII (Spring 1963), 220-37; Peter Hinchcliffe, "Fathers and Children
in the Novels of Evelyn Waugh," University of Toronto XXXV
(April 1966), 293-310; Kenneth Parker, 'Quantitative Judgements Don't Apply,"'
English Studies in Africa, IX (Sept. 1966), 192-201; Patricia Corr, "Evelyn
Waugh: Sanity and Catholicism," Studies
(Dublin), LI (Autumn 1962), 388-99;
Richard J. Voorhees, "Evelyn Waugh's War Novels," Queen's LXV
(Spring 1958), 53-63; H. E. Semple, "Evelyn Modern
Waugh's Crusade," Eng
lish Studies in Africa, XI (March 1968), 47-59; George Greene, with
Style: The Status of Evelyn Waugh," Queen's LXXI (Winter 1964
65), 485-95. For my understanding of Waugh's achievement in the and
elsewhere, I am indebted not least to discussions with Carl Wooton, friend and
former doctoral student at the University of Oregon. See his to
the Modern World: A Study of Evelyn "
Waugh's Novels Doc
coral Dissertation. University of Oregon, 1967). See also his
essay "Evelyn

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh s Central Theme 73

Guy Crouchbacks character and background differ from those of

Basil Seal and Charles Ryder, certainly; but Guy resembles these two
in important ways. Like the Basil Seal of Put Out More Flags, he
Enthusiastically joins the army early in the war, to assault his own
colossal sense of boredom and aimlessness, and to redeem the time in
m old-fashioned of honorable patriotism. This is Charles
Ryder's reason, too, for initially relishing military life after his various
failures. For Basil, Ryder, and Guy the enemy is obvious and Britain's
cause is just; and in Guy's case the Russo-German alliance is even

spelled out as "the Modern Age in arms." But while Put Out More
Flags ends on Basil's sword-waving, optimistic note, and Brideshead
ends with Ryder's optimistically folding the temporal into the pocket
of the eternal, Guy begins his quest where these two end theirs:
he begins with faith and patriotism, never loses either of these, and
must therefore find something else to ward off his growing temptation
to despair.
Since the point of view is omniscient, the narrator provides more
detailed reason for despair than even Guy knows about. But the
three volumes nevertheless engage Guy's Christian attention suffi
tried. In the course of Men at Arms
ciently for us to see him sorely
sees army life as adolescent; grows more and more
Guy increasingly
conscious of cutting a middle-aged figure in a young man's business;
feels the justice of his ex-wife's regarding him as a human slug for his
to measure himself con
attempts to use her sexually; is compelled
sistently against the foil-figure Apthorpea ludicrous, pitiable
hard of an age with Guy; is semi-betrayed by his hero Ritchie-Hook;
and eventually learns that his just cause and everyone else's politically
in common. When the
pragmatic reasons for fighting have nothing
first volume ends, Guy returns to England deflated after his single
armed engagementa pointless, irresponsible assault on Dakar, directed,
against orders, by Ritchie-Hook. Apthorpe is dead, inadvertently
killed by Ritchie-Hook's sadism and Guy's carelessness. Ritchie-Hook,
who looks a dangerous ass to the reader, is still Guy's hero, precisely
because (as the third volume will make clear to Guy and the reader)
he closes his mind and charges with his death wish into whatever
fray happens to hand.
In Officers and Gentlemen, therefore, matters and motives are obvi
less simple for Guy. So much has been pulled from under
Brideshead Revisited: War and Limited Hope," The Midwest Quarterly,
X (Summer 1969), 359-75.

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74 Joseph Hynes

Guy's feet that he has only his surviving admiration for the reportedly
dead Ritchie-Hook, and the present example of Ivor Claire (England's
finest flower, on whom Hitler supposedly has not reckoned), to pull
him through the drudgery of the English humiliation on Crete. These
strengths are inadequate, for as this second volume ends Ritchie-Hook
and his fighting spirit are absent, Major Fido Hound has helped rein
force the disillusionment of Men at Arms, and Ivor Claire and Julia
Stitch have combined to betray Guy's innocent faith in traditional
aristocratic British honor. Guy drags himself back again to England
and glumly hangs on by the tips of his militarily disciplined fingers.
The third volume finishes the narrator's comments on Guy's war
long quest: pragmatism and cynicism control both sides of what
Guy had naively supposed to be a black and white opposition. All
good times of the Basil Seal variety die with Virginia; Major Ludovic
is brought forward from volume two, to exude his guiltily oppor
tunistic maliceunnecessarily joined to vague communistic and homo
sexual tendenciesand to unite with the figures of Lieutenant Padfield
and Trimmer (the Hoopers of the trilogy) in establishing what forces
have survived the war; Guy is even compelled, in the line of duty that
he has volunteered for, to cooperate with the British and Americans
in establishing a communist regime in Yugoslavia, and in the process
to bring communistic bureaucratic wrath upon a pair of Jewish dis
placed persons whom he had tried to aid.
Thus, in the public realm all is bureaucratically political and eco
nomic: Guy's war ends with his having done nothing to defeat
and with his Russia a on eastern
Germany helping get grip Europe.
The Modern
Age in arms" had been Guy's idea of the enemy, and
thus Unconditional Surrender refers primarily to the defeat of his
own honorable cause rather than to the historians' view of events in
1945. What Guy surrenders is any lingering possibility that his own
sense of the honorable will anywhere make any public impression
again, if in fact that romantic sense of honor ever prevailed in the
world at large. His attitude here is not one of
superiority, for he
knows his own moral puniness and his friend Madame
Kanyi has
helped him to see that honor, as motive, merely rationalized a death
wish in turn motivated by self-loathing and the compulsion to
privilege and sloth. Moreover, classes and nations no longer impress
him: cowards, fools, charlatans, and bullies range from Claire to
to Trimmer, from the Nazi operators of displaced-person trains to
Lord Ian Kilbannock to American soldiers and journalists. What

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh s Central Theme 75

Guy surrenders is any hope of public or collective action in which

he can conscientiously participate.
Yet he does not despair. Ritchie-Hook may return in this final
volume almost entirely for the purpose of despairing and dashing
gratefully to his death, but Guy's own death wish never rules him.
What saves him from the publicly chaotic is both universal and
intensely personal: God's grace as manifest in the person and man
ner of Guy's father.
The elder Crouchback is an example to
Guy of a just and charitable
Christian, and he performs in the trilogy the same function as Ryder
and Julia's love for each other in Brideshead: his conduct is the major
psychological reason for Guy's somewhat muted changes and final
state of mind. Mr. Crouchback stands in vivid contrast to all the
public vicissitudes I have been recounting. Though he works at a
job, pays rent, eats and sleeps in the present of wartime England, his
real importance in the narrative is his living first and last
by the
liturgical calendar. That is, his career fulfills what is only suggested
at the end of Brideshead about Ryder's living both in the here-and-now
and timelessly. Mr. Crouchback is the
proximate reason, not for Guy's
going through the motions of practicing his faith (as he had during
his years of African and Italian exile from his father), but for
coming alive to Christian possibilities. Except for his father's example,
Guy would very likely not have re-married Virginia, acted forcefully
on behalf of the displaced Jews, made Trimmer's son his own heir,
and seen reason to live at Broome rather than in
When I say, then, that
Guy becomes his father, I mean that the
trilogy prepares Guy to want to live according to the Christian values
evident in his father's life. These values
bring him home to a married
life at Broome 9 from his morbid exile at the Castello Crouchback
(which now appropriately houses that sinister, deranged solitary,
Ludovic). Guy's death wish will throb as strongly as ever, whenever
his private view of honor "
may meet the Modern Age "; but now
he lives, not where this
meeting is likely to occur (he has, after all,
surrendered and seldom comes to London), but at
Broome, where the lessons of his quest enable him to
merge religious
Waugh made a number of revisionsall of them in my opinion minor, and
some of them the original three volumes for
seemingly arbitraryin collecting
publication as a trilogy in 1965. One that may well seem important was
Waugh's allowing Guy and his second wife, Domenica, no children of their own,
instead of the two
boys he had given them in Unconditional Surrender. I think,
however, that this is a for emphasis rather than a substantial
change altering
Ibid. p. 204.

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76 Joseph Hynes

commitment with private charity. He is cut off from the system, but,
thanks to his father, alive at last to God and individual persons more
convincingly than was Ryder, and in a way that only Helena, among
Waugh's other
protagonists, would share. Like all Waugh's pro
tagonists, then, Guy retreats into seclusion and retains his death wish.
But whereas Basil Seal's immersion in the moment and Paul Penny
feather's fading out of the moment both signify survival by cutting
away from other men, Guy's seclusion is his only possible means of
sustaining human relationships. Guy is certainly no saint, as he hardly
needs anyone to remind him; and therefore he is more accurately
described as being in the process of becoming his father. But if he
ever achieves sainthood he will do so by following his death wish
into the practice of private Christian charity.
In therefore, the in the confessional
retrospect, anonymous priest

appears to have put the trilogy and Waugh's recurring central theme
into final form for Waugh; the death wish, far from being a sin, is
normal and perhaps even the sign of a good man. The important
qualification is that one must use the death wish to avoid despair and
to make life possible for oneself and others, on two levels. Give
cigarettes and pensions to the needy, and pray for them too. One
cannot imagine Basil's or Paul's survival inducing activity on either
such level, and of course it is not part of the narrative point to pursue
the consequences of Ryder's conversion. With Helena, then, Guy
remains Waugh's best fictional example of a character balancing his
life-giving commitment to God and man with his equally uncom
promised sense of the loathsome world men make when for
reasons share no such commitment with the What
they protagonist.
was wrong with Guy, as Madame Kanyi movingly tells him, was
that his self-detestation and chauvinism supported a sick and selfish
death wish (see the earlier protagonists); what is right is a death wish
supported by the motives and conduct of Guy's father.
On the way to an appreciation of his father, Guy has occasion
to recall someone's once "
remarking that all differences are theological
differences." Without or otherwise rewriting Waugh's fic
tion, we can see that this generalization lights up all of Waugh's
books, and also that it explains the kind of criticism the later Waugh
has often attracted.

of the since in either version Trimmer is still Guy's heir. Also,

ending, young
in changing the title of the third novel's "
penultimate section from The Death
Wish" to "The Last Battle," made no substantial but merely
Waugh change,
declined to telegraph his theme.

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Death Wish: Evelyn Waugh s Central Theme 77

In the this assertion about underlies such

trilogy, general theology
events as: Arthur Box-Bender's well-intentioned misunderstanding of
his wife, his son Tony, and his brother-in-law Guy; Kerstie Kil
bannock's angry denunciation of Guy for remarrying the pregnant
Virginia; Uncle Peregrine's and Virginia's good-natured differences
about the basis of sexual morality; and Mr. Crouchback's overturning
Guy's generally secular views of his brother's sudden death in World
War I, of the inadvisability of the Lateran Treaty, and of his nephew
Tony's imprisonment. Only our understanding of Mr. Crouchback's
(and gradually Guy's) theological differences from others can possibly
establish the aesthetic rightness of the narrative point in these instances,
as, for another example, in the instance in Brideshead of Lady March
main's explaining (not debating) her insight into the blessings of
poverty and the disadvantages of wealthinsights so foreign to secular
and many religious readers as to mar their perception of the novel.
It is the critic's business to grant any novelist his subject matter
and then to insist only that subject matter become one with form.
Lady Marchmain's behavior, like Mr. Crouchback's, is self-consistent
and, whatever one thinks of how her opinions might be handled in
Hyde Park, her behavior begins to make sense to Ryder as part of
twenty years' (i. e., a novel-long) experience of the Flytes. Her
remarks are in character and aesthetically right and credible, though
Julia's hysterical fountain-side self-denunciation and the equally hyper
dramatic sentimentality of Lord Marchmain's death-bed escutcheon
tracing are not aesthetically compatible with the little we know of
Julia and her father. We have no business, of course, objecting to
confessions and death-bed remembrances of things past, as fictional
materials. The point here is rather that some hostile criticism is
while some is traceable
merely to theological differences. And the
summary point is that if, in Brideshead, Helena, and the trilogy,
"quantitative judgments don't apply"10 (as Mr. Crouchback says),
then the familiar psychological critical habits won't always do, and
reluctance to give oneself to religious subject matter will mean mis
sing out on Waugh's most substantial work and on the thematic
continuity of his fictional career.
This aphorism, seen of course in context, fits aesthetically the shape of
events in the trilogy and in other books as Helena's
welldespite being an empress,
the Marchmains' vast wealth, Mr. Crouchback's com
possessing being quite
Box-Bender's "
fortable, reflection that, materially, things have turned out very
conveniently for Guy," and any number of readers' the wealth and
social position of Waugh's characters to divert attention from reading the novels.

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