Evelyn Waugh: Contribution as Modern Novelist

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      Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) became the outstanding satirist of the thirties. Educated at Lancing and Oxford, he was very much a man of intellect who could stand aside and castigate a world which had no values except the need to make money and have fun; his main characters were snobs, and one of the cardinal sins was vulgarity. His heroes were virtuous but naive young men who suffered embarrassment and hardship because they failed to understand or defeat the many exponents of vice.

Evelyn Waugh
Evelyn Waugh

      Quite impersonally, Waugh treated everything with a lack of seriousness; he did not even show any indignation at the unfairness which beset his characters. The novels were strings of hilarious incidents and effervescent dialogue by which he poked fun even at the class to which he belonged. Examples are Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930), Black Mischief (1932), Scoop (1938), and Put Out More Flags (1942). A sign of his growing Seriousness and disillusion was The Loved One (1948), a savage satire, on American funeral customs and the two-faced affluent society of that country. Partly as a result of his Armny experiences and partly because of his conversion to Roman Catholicism.

      Waugh's later novels, beginning with Brideshead Revisited (1945), had a new feeling of concern, though still illuminated by wit and sardonic comment; in them was a nostalgic sympathy with a world that had ended, and which, for all its foolishness, had been more joyous and less harmful than the present. The characters were drawn with warm understanding and developed in depth; the structure too showed careful planning and far greater complexity. The later style was seen at its best in the Sword of Honour trilogy - Men at Arms (1952), Officers and Gentlemen (1955), and Unconditional Surrender (1961) - which treated of the loss of ideals as men faced war with its savagery, muddle, cynicism, inefficiency, and incongruousness. He gradually ceased to believe in all that the central figure stood for, as if he no longer believed in himself or his class in post-War society. The mood became sombre and resigned, but to the end there was a vein of rich comedy which lit up the enveloping darkness.

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