Brideshead Revisited

By Evelyn Waugh

In what is by now, I'm sure, a familiar pattern to readers of this blog, Brideshead Revisited made its way onto my reading list via the community forum here. A then-regular poster described it as "one of the greatest works of twentieth century Christian fiction," and the surrounding discussion piqued my interest. Unfortunately, though I can appreciate the craft that went into the novel, I found that its viewpoint was simply too far removed from my own for me to be able to connect with it.

The bulk of the story is presented as a memory of the narrator's. Charles Ryder, an English Army captain during WWII, finds himself and his unit unexpectedly brought to a new station that turns out to be the former home of the aristocratic (and eccentric and deeply dysfunctional) Flyte family, which he knew and befriended in his younger days. Wandering the grounds and halls of his new billet, Ryder remembers to himself (and, thus, to us) the story of his friendship with Sebastian, the younger son, his increasing involvement over the years with the family, and his eventual estrangement from them.

It's hard for me to know exactly how to interpret this book. On the one hand, it seemed a bit like a deconstruction of English upper-class society and values, since more or less all of the characters that inhabit that social stratum are depicted as shallow, self-absorbed, and boorish. The problem for me was that the contrasting figures--mainly Ryder and Sebastian's sister, Julia--are largely unsympathetic themselves, managing to be just as shallow and unpleasant as the people they sneer at. Additionally, I couldn't help but feel that the author, despite portraying it in what seemed such a negative light, nonetheless had a strong attraction to the upper-class lifestyle.

Most likely, the unpleasantness of the principal characters is meant to give more weight to the religious theme that ultimately is the central focus of the novel. But, here again, I didn't feel as though I had the right context or viewpoint to connect with that focus, especially as it's only fully realized in the closing pages with the conversion of the two main agnostic characters of the story. And even at that, given my own religious leanings, it was hard for me to feel that the payoff as a reader was worth having to endure what was basically an entire novel of awful people being awful to each other. In the end, it simply felt empty to me.

Still, I have to admit that my feelings on this book are largely informed by my own spiritual viewpoint, and I suspect that many Christian readers--especially those with an appreciation for subtlety--will come away with the same feeling of beauty and admiration for the book that the forum poster I mentioned felt. And even though I didn't connect on a religious level with Brideshead Revisited, I have to appreciate just how subtle Waugh's depiction of "the operation of Grace" (as he put it) was. So often writers seem to want to beat the reader over the head with a religious message, where in this book, I suspect that many people might miss it entirely. That may not sound like a virtue to everyone, but for me, all of the most profound experiences I've had with fiction have come from books that made me feel like I discovered something on my own.

Started: 9/13/2010 | Finished: 9/20/2010

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