Brideshead Revisited is perhaps one of my favourite novels written in the post-modern era, written around the opulent, decadent epoch of high society, which, similarly to The Great Gatsby, is one of excess. Excess of religion, alcohol, and finance. Excess for the sake of excess is an idea we can all sympathise with, because we’ve all wished for it in some form or another. There is no way of escaping our very human need to completely saturate ourselves with things we enjoy; we want to fill ourselves with pleasure, and for some people, the cost is irrelevant. This is certainly the case with Sebastian Flyte, the enigmatic best friend of our beloved protagonist, Charles Ryder. This idea can also be related to Plato’s Symposium and our need to occupy and improve ourselves.
Flyte represents an era of escapism, and the need to escape the control of his devoutly Catholic mother, and the restraints of university and the boundaries that society dealt him. It is almost as if he is a being reserved for the more liberal 1960s, and throughout the novel, there is the inescapable feeling that he somehow doesn’t quite belong, even though by birth, he represents the heritage of an ancient family, one well established in society. Again, we can all sympathise with the feeling of alienation; at some point, we all feel alienated from ourselves and our families, even if it is in a minute way, or in a way that creates an abyss between obligation and desire.
As members of humanity, we continually need to reconcile ourselves with reality and dreams and for some people, the only way to do this is to create an alternate reality for themselves; people enter a drug fuelled dream world and never succeed in emerging, usually because they don’t want to re-enter. Sebastian Flyte is one of these people; alcoholism allows him to inhabit a world that he feels as though he can control, even though the control is unreal, and superficial.
It is possible to consider the novel from a post-modern perspective, because many of the themes are based around superficiality, and the reality of religion. Roman Catholicism is perhaps, alongside Flyte, the most important element of the novel, controlling almost every event. In postmodernism, religion is proposed by Jean-François Lyotard as being a meta-narrative or a story that we use to justify our existence and add order to the chaos of the world in which we live. The need to impose order on the absolute chaos of the universe is again, a very human wish. The rejection of these meta-narratives under postmodernism leads us to question the true influence of Roman Catholicism within Brideshead Revisited. Sebastian could be considered as a very post-modern figure, because he rejects this meta-narrative, and instead finds a different kind of meta-narrative for himself to understand and belong to. The ending of the novel, whereby the Marchmain house has been damaged by the army, but the Roman Catholic chapel that belonged to Lady Marchmain is intact, represents a disparity between religion and the practicality of the army It suggests that whilst the meta-narrative of Roman Catholicism appeared to have failed to regulate the actions of her family, the chapel itself is still a form of relative truth and comfort for the soldiers. Therefore Lady Marchmain’s efforts to preserve the heritage of her family was not a futile one; it was simply ineffective in relation to her direct family, but was found to be effective on a much bigger scale, and provided comfort; even if there is a relativism of truth to be considered.
The novel is one of the important ones in the modern world, I think. It stretches far beyond the physical content of the text and moves even a modern-day reader, because the themes are so very common. I wonder what everyone else thinks of Waugh’s masterpiece?