What’s Up With the Ending?
Surprise! Charles is now a Catholic. Did you notice? If not, don’t worry, because we only get two small clues that Charles has converted by the time he’s in the army in the 1940s. The first hint actually comes in the prologue, when an army man named Hooper tells Charles of their new lodgings at Brideshead: "There's a sort of R.C. church attached. I looked in and there was a kind of service going on – just a padre and one old man. I felt very awkward. More in your line than mine." "R.C." means "Roman Catholic," and Hooper’s comment that it’s "more in [Charles’s] line than [his]" is the clue we’re talking about. (We know, it’s subtle, but it’s there.) The second comes in the epilogue, and is part of this big ending we’re trying to talk about here. Charles enters the chapel and "sa[ys] a prayer, an ancient, newly learned form of words." The "newly learned" bit is our second clue and confirms that Charles has in fact recently converted. This is the twitch upon the thread we’ve been waiting for. We know that Charles was raised in religion ("I was taken to church weekly as a child" he earlier confessed), so his newfound Catholicism is actually a return to God.
Despite appearances, this conversion doesn’t come out of the clear blue sky. It has its roots in Lord Marchmain’s death scene, when Charles watches the old man and "suddenly [feels] the longing for a sign, if only of courtesy, if only for the sake of the woman [he] love[s], who [kneels] […] praying […] for a sign." To Charles, "it seem[s] so small a thing that was asked, the bare acknowledgment of a present, a nod in the crowd." This is where Charles first drops his anti-religion stance and begins to suspect the presence of a God.
It’s also the first place where this odd "actors in a universal tragedy" motif comes up. Charles comments that "all over the world people were on their knees before innumerable crosses, and here the drama was being played again by two men – by one man, rather, and he nearer death than life; the universal drama in which there is only one actor."
Fortunately for you, this leads right into the last big important passage in Brideshead Revisited, at the heart of the novel’s conclusion:
Something quite remote from anything the builders intended has come out of their work, and out of the fierce little human tragedy in which I played; something none of us thought about at the time: a small red flame – a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design, relit before the beaten-copper doors of a tabernacle; the flame which the old knights saw from their tombs, which they saw put out; that flame burns again for other soldiers, far from home, farther, in heart, than Acre or Jerusalem. It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.
The flame to which Charles refers is the candle that is kept lit at the tabernacle on Catholic altars. In the Catholic tradition, the bread and wine consumed during mass represent the body and blood of Christ. This bread is kept in a special place on the altar and always accompanied by a burning flame signifying the presence of Christ. Charles finds solace in this ever-presence and walks away from the chapel newly buoyed by his visit.
Remember when we talked in "The Book" about Brideshead’s stance on religion? Some believe that the novel negatively portrays Catholicism, while others are convinced that the novel shows how everyone – even an agnostic like Charles – finds his way to the grace of God. And remember how in Charles’s "Character Analysis" we talk about the way that Charles makes art his own secular religion? Right, well those who think that Brideshead is pro-Catholicism argue that Charles’s attempt to substitute art for God was wrong and in fact impossible. He comes to learn the error of his ways, leaves art behind, and instead becomes a Catholic. That’s why in this passage he is so rejuvenated by the presence of Christ at the altar.
Sounds reasonable, right? Sure, but take a look at that long final passage one more time. Notice anything? "…a beaten-copper lamp of deplorable design…" Wait a minute…is Charles talking about art here? Why yes, yes he is. In fact, he’s talking about the ugly modern art he sees in the chapel at Brideshead. Remember that a big part of Charles’s aesthetic education was leaving behind the modern art he first embraced in his young days at Oxford and concluding that it was "bosh" later in his narrative. He might be a Catholic by the end of the novel, but he is definitely still an artist.
What does this mean? If Charles tried to replace God with art, doesn’t he have to give up art to truly embrace God? One possible answer is this: Charles doesn’t reject art in favor of God; he finds God through art. Go back to that passage we talk about in Charles’s "Character Analysis," when he says of his painting, "I had felt the brush take life in my hand that afternoon; I had had my finger in the great, succulent pie of creation." That’s not blasphemy – that’s divine inspiration! Charles experiences God through his work. He may have given up his profession, but he hasn’t at all given up the strongest connection he has to God: beauty.