Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Understanding Brideshead Revisited

A friend of mine recently asked her contacts on facebook for a few recommendations of books to read over summer break. I recommended to her one of the best books I have read over the past year, British author Evelyn Waugh's novel Brideshead Revisited. Her boyfriend (a philosophy major) responded that, while he had also read this novel, its meaning had escaped him. I sympathized, as I did not really begin to understand it until the very end.


 When I had picked up the book, I had been told it was the most Catholic novel of the 20th century. However, I had a difficult time understanding. Many of the characters are Catholic, but they are hardly models of holiness. None of them are excellent examples of their religion. Some are fallen away Catholics living as self professed semi-heathens, others are law-abiding albeit seemingly heartless, while others are perhaps overly compassionate, lacking integration of the intellect and will.

Diana Quick as Julia Flyte, Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder
So what is the reader to make of all of this? It does not fully come clear until the end of the book, which contains the final conflicts. The first conflict: Julia Flyte and Charles Ryder are having an affair with the intent of eventually marrying once both have settled their divorces with their former partners. Julia is somewhat torn about the marriage due to her Catholic faith. Although she was able to boldly cast her beliefs aside when she married Rex Mortram, she has never been fully able to leave them behind. Guilt and regret continue to gnaw at the back of her mind, resulting in bouts of temper. For almost the entire novel she has been torn in two pieces: her knowledge of the faith and its teachings, and her ambition when she married Rex, which has given way to her love for Charles. She is trapped in the middle, uncertain of what she truly believes. This first conflict is tied up with the second.

The second conflict comes about through the failing health of Lord Marchmain, who has come to Brideshead to die. Lord Marchmain became Catholic when he married Julia's mother, but abandoned the faith when he left her to live abroad with his mistress. Lord Marchmain is slowly slipping away, but he is afraid of death, clinging on to life with an unspoken terror. Meanwhile the members of the family (Julia, Cordelia, Bridey -- his children) debate with Charles over whether or not they ought to send for a priest so that Lord Marchmain might receive the sacrament of last rites. If a priest is sent for, on the one hand, they fear it may frighten Lord Marchmain and worsen his condition; on the other hand, it may bring him considerable peace of mind, thus easing his passing. The problem is that since Lord Marchmain is largely unconscious, it is uncertain whether he desires reconciliation with the church. Charles doesn't want the man tricked into anything he wouldn't desire were he in his right mind. This debate is a source of tension between Charles and Julia, for there is more at stake here than what is readily apparent. It's really about whether or not Catholicism is true. If it isn't true, than sending for a priest and receiving the last rites is stupid, futile, pointless. If it is true, then Charles and Julia's future together is jeopardized. By acknowledging the truth of the faith in the situation of her father, Julia must confront the truth about her relationship with Charles. She must acknowledge the sinfulness of entering into a marriage with Charles, in spite of their love for each other.

The conflict within Julia, her desire to be faithful to her religion and her longing to be united with Charles, are similar to the conflict that occurs within each human person. Every person has a desire for the true, the good, and the beautiful, but he is divided against himself through concupiscence. He deceives himself into the desire for lesser goods, or is blinded by his passions, by avarice, pride, and selfishness. Yet, the beauty of this novel lies in the truth it displays about Catholicism. No matter how far one strays from the Catholic faith, the Mother Church is always waiting to welcome back her children. The Church hates the sin, not the sinner. Like the parable of the prodigal son, he is always welcome home regardless of how far he has strayed. This imagery can also be seen in the house after which the novel is named: Brideshead, home of Julia, Sebastian, Cordelia, and Lady Marchmain. Although the characters come and go, although they may stay away for years, they always return to Brideshead.

 There is a wonderful quote near the end of the story that beautifully sums up this theme:

“I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. ... Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end.”

I think that this quote is brilliant. It is difficult to not sound preachy when writing this kind of material. Yet Waugh pulls it off with honesty, authenticity, and elegance. 

This book is packed with themes about love, beauty, and the human soul, and there is so much more to uncover and discuss. However, I think this is one of the most significant points of the story: the lesson of sin and grace, the lesson of redemption.

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