Visiting the Marchmain House

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?





6 thoughts on “Visiting the Marchmain House

  1. Yikes! I need to read this one.

    Part of what I love about “Gatsby” is the fact that they’re all chasing after some sort of dream, and it doesn’t turn out well for any of them. They miss out on the best parts of life for foolish pursuits, and none of it leads to fulfillment.

    • Brideshead Revisited is more about obligation as opposed to foolish pursuits, which is the major difference with The Great Gatsby really, but also the pursuit of happiness. Its a really good novel, easily devoured in one sitting. 🙂 I find post-modern literature rather interesting because it is so focussed on the idea of what it is to be a person, a problem really brought to a wider consciousness by the effects of the two world wars, and the huge loss of life that resulted. The fragility of being “you” is probably the most engaging, especially if you have a penchant for psychoanalysis too! This one seems to have made quite a good essay title in relation to Brideshead Revisited.
      Thank you for reading 🙂

  2. Obligation is a less relevant topic for many Westerners, I think. It’s gone out of fashion a bit! I find it fascinating, however. If we feel we have cast off obligations and are “free” to do what we want, I think we’re fooling ourselves. Whether we’d like to admit it, they will always be there.

    Yes, post-modern literature is excellent! Are you a fan of Hemingway or Kafka? I think the reason that it’s so appealing to me is it’s often about identity after The Great War. So many were disillusioned (“Dulce Et Decorum Est”), and that’s when old-world values started disintegrating rapidly. Religion, in its legalistic, Victorian guise, made no sense, and they were struggling to find a solid foundation. These writers lived such tragic lives.

    Of course! I’m enjoying stretching my mind a bit. It’s been too long since I’ve been in the classroom. 🙂

    • Yes. I do like Kafka, and I think he is a good example of the essentially disillusioned masses. The writers of the period I do think led tragic lives, but I think in a certain sense, they were also the greatest lives as well; they witnessed a turning point in history, and probably in the nature of humanity. It’s a shame however that they had to suffer to be such a huge part of it.

      Obligation I think is a dying idea in the Western world, however I think it’s more dependant on class background and social values now than it once was. It’s almost as though you can opt-in to be a moral person, or opt out if you do not wish to be one. In some ways this is reminiscent of Sebastian, a man who rather wished to be bound to nothing, and in the end, rather ironically I think, joins a monastery, and is a ghost of the man we met at the beginning of the novel. The monastery is perhaps the highest form of obligation.

      I’m glad you’re enjoying stretching… I’m certainly enjoying the mental gymnastics too.

      • Very much so. I think it’s tragic that people feel like they can opt-out of morality. Think of the butterfly effect…everything we do, negative or positive, has an effect, even if we don’t see it. Ultimately, any crime or small offense toward humanity comes back around.

        Would you say that Sebastian’s personality was portrayed as diminished by his commitment?


      • I think in the beginning it certainly is, however as the novel progresses I think he moves away from commitment, detaching himself from the constraints of Roman Catholicism and instead there is a simpler kind of obligation towards his failing body. In some ways, he creates his own psychological imprisonment later in the novel through his excessive drinking and to a certain extent, I think Waugh is attempting to show that obligation tends to be created by the individual, and not just by the circumstance of society. He lives in a kind of gilded cage, that he releases himself from, only to become a part of something less luxurious and coveted and altogether more dangerous.

        The idea of the butterfly effect is fascinating. I like to think of society on postmodern terms; the abandonment of absolute anything would essentially create a place whereby morality is replaced by desire, and it would be entirely unnecessary to justify one’s actions because if there is no depth, or truth, then everything is about the surface; there is nothing higher than the self (a concept that whilst encouraged under humanism is very much destroyed in post modernity), and so we are ultimately in control of it. Too much power, and a lack of meta-narrative removes our idea of control over the world, and so everything is chaotic. Society in practice could therefore only be anarchic under these postmodern conditions.

So, what did you think?

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