Poor Sebastian. He goes from a beautiful, youthful, happy, and oblivious lad of nineteen to a depressed, alcoholic, self-loathing would-be caretaker of dying lepers. What happened? Let’s start at the beginning, with three big aspects of Sebastian’s very quirky character.
Cara says it best: "Sebastian is in love with his own childhood." He carries around a teddy-bear named Aloysius (named after Saint Aloysius, the patron of youth, by the way). The only positive relationship in his life – besides Charles – is with his Nanny, who for some reason still lives at Brideshead. Sebastian, like a child, is incessantly concerned with possession, even of people – Samgrass is "someone of Mummy’s"; Rex is "someone of Julia’s", etc. He gets so territorial about Charles because he applies these same childish rules of possession to their friendship. In his mind, Charles belongs to him, and his family can’t intrude. (More on this in a bit.) And even Charles remarks that Sebastian provides him with the childhood he never had. Where did this all come from?
As a very wise group of Oompa Loompas once said, it’s all the fault of the parents. Sebastian’s family – or at least his mother – has babied him to death. Sebastian isn’t even allowed the responsibility of his own allowance; "Mummy likes everything to be a present," he says. His relationship with Kurt is his shoddy attempt at finally taking care of someone else for once (more on that in Kurt’s "Character Analysis"), which means he’s starved for adult responsibility. For better or (more likely) for worse, Sebastian is stuck with youth. In fact, that’s probably why we never see him grow old; he does so offstage, so to speak. In this novel, in Charles’s recollection, Sebastian literally isn’t allowed to grow up.
We talked a lot about the role art plays in Charles’s life and in his friendship with Sebastian in Charles’s "Character Analysis." We claim that Sebastian is Charles’s aesthetic instructor, and the more we look at Sebastian’s character, the more we’re convinced that…we’re right. Right from the get-go Sebastian surrounds himself with beautiful things. He fills Charles’s room with flowers as way of an apology. He takes him to the Botanical Gardens the first time they hang out together. The first scene Charles remembers at the very beginning of the novel is a picnic of wine and strawberries he shares outdoors with Sebastian. He even believes in Catholicism because the stories are lovely. And of course Sebastian himself is "magically beautiful, with that epicene quality that sings aloud for love and withers at the first cold wind." His wealth doesn’t hurt either; it ensures that he is always steeped in opulent luxury, from the plover’s eggs of his first lunch with Charles (a rare delicacy) to the expensive, fancy-shmancy Whatman H.P. Drawing paper he uses to scribble a quick note (in crayon!) in Charles’s rooms. Sebastian exists in a world of wine, art, architectural splendor, and "the languor of youth," as Charles calls it.
You know, besides the teddy bear. Sebastian has his own way of talking, acting, moving, and relating to others. For one, he is always working in imperatives and exaggerations, as Charles notices: "I must have pillar-box red pajamas," "I have to stay in bed until the sun works round to the windows," "I’ve absolutely got to drink champagne tonight," etc. (Even the subject matter of these imperatives is luxurious and impulsive.) When he breaks a tiny bone in his foot, he writes Charles to say he’s dying. He surrounds himself with characters as colorful as he (think Anthony Blanche). Charles notes that Sebastian writes letters "in a style of remote fantasy," but more importantly, this is how Sebastian lives.
Somehow, through all his peculiarities, Sebastian manages to charm everyone he meets. As Cordelia comments late in the novel of the monks in Tunisia, "They loved him there. He’s still loved, you see, wherever he goes, whatever condition he’s in. It’s a thing about him he’ll never lose." Charles realizes the same thing when he visits Sebastian in Morocco and finds that he’s completely duped the "poor monk, poor booby" who believes the young man is all good intentions. The fact is, Sebastian is incredibly magnetic – or "charming," as Anthony calls him. (In fact, Anthony is the only one to see through the charm and pronounce Sebastian simply "insipid" if not completely boring. This has to do with Anthony’s insight on "charm" and its dangers – but we’ll talk about that in Anthony’s "Character Analysis.") This magnetism means that those who love Sebastian – who truly love him – do so unconditionally. Think in particular about Cordelia and Charles. They love the whole package: the alcoholism, the insipidness, the immaturity, the selfishness. As Charles notes, "there [is] no past tense in Cordelia’s verb ‘to love.’" Despite the mess he’s gotten himself into, she still loves her brother wholeheartedly. And so does Charles – notice that these two are the only characters to sneak him booze during the family’s attempt at an intervention. They simply love him too much to see him suffer. This is, however, more than we can say for the rest of Sebastian’s family. (See "Tools of Characterization"; the way Sebastian’s various siblings react to his alcoholism – carelessness or mild annoyance – is proof enough.)
Sadly, the three character points we just covered – obsession with youth, preoccupation with beauty, and an eccentric magnetism – all set Sebastian up to fall, hard. And fall he does. Love of youth is an obvious one, since this is no Never Never Land. (Or, as our favorite analysis chick Cara says, "Sebastian is in love with his own youth. That will make him very unhappy.") Sebastian’s world of aesthetics is an extremely delicate one, threatening to shatter at any point, as evidenced by Charles’s description of his beauty: "…with that epicene quality which […] withers at the first cold wind." ("Withers at the first cold wind" is the important part of this sentence.) And Sebastian’s eccentric personality, while it is magnetic, means that he demands a very special sort of loyalty from those around him – a devotion that, as we’ve just seen, many can not give. So Sebastian spends the first quarter of the novel poised delicately at the cliff of depression, and the next three-quarters careening wildly down into it.
Of course Sebastian doesn’t just fall – he’s pushed by two majorly antagonistic forces: his family and his family’s religion. These have been a problem from the start. Notice that Sebastian refers to Brideshead as the place "where [his] family live," NOT as his home. He even refers to his family in the same passage as "ravening beasts." He goes to great lengths to keep Charles away from them, for what turns out to be fairly good reason – they want to have him for themselves. "I'm not going to have you get mixed up with my family," he tells Charles. "All my life they've been taking things away from me. If they once got hold of you […] they'd make you their friend, not mine, and I won't let them."
As it turns out, Sebastian’s suspicions are very much warranted. Lady Marchmain indeed does try to get Charles to help her control her son, and Charles inevitably feels guilty at any part he plays in her game. He recalls Sebastian weeping and asking, "Why do you take their side against me? I knew you would if I let you meet them. Why do you spy on me?" Charles adds in his narration that Sebastian "said more than [he] can bear to remember, even at twenty years' distance." Though he does agree to side with Sebastian against the world, Charles still recognizes that "as [his] intimacy with [Sebastian’s] family [grows], [he] [becomes] part of the world which [Sebastian] sought to escape; […] one of the bonds which held him."
So that covers family. What about religion? This, too, gets in the way of Charles and Sebastian’s friendship. Notice that it is only after a series of conversations about religion that Charles says, "I began to realize how little I really knew of Sebastian, and to understand why he had always sought to keep me apart from the rest of his life. He was like a friend made on board ship, on the high seas; now we had come to his home port" (1.4.156). Charles doesn’t understand religion – at all – which means there is a fundamental part of Sebastian’s character that he can never access.
And it is exactly this part of Sebastian that drives him over the edge. Sebastian is tortured by the conflict between his desire to be happy and his need to be holy (a.k.a. to suffer). As Cordelia later says, he fits neither into the secular nor monastic world. At first, Sebastian isn’t all together aware of this predicament. "Julia and I are half-heathen," he says. "I am happy, I rather think Julia isn't; […] Anyway, however you look at it, happiness doesn't seem to have much to do with it, and that's all I want." Au contraire, Sebastian. Or as Charles later says, "Without […] religion, Sebastian would have the chance to be a happy and healthy man" (1.4.85). Sebastian gradually comes to understand this conflict, stating that "it’s very difficult being a Catholic" and praying, "Oh God, make me good, but not yet." As Sebastian’s obligation to be holy overcomes his desire to be happy, he alienates himself from others ("count[ing] among the intruders his own conscience and all claims of human affection") and heads for a leper colony in Northern Africa.
What? A leper colony? At this point, the novel turns to Cordelia for a little explanation. (Brideshead Revisited has a habit of getting important information across through these minor female characters.) Cordelia narrates what’s been happening with Sebastian in the last few years and describes his current situation in Tunis. There are any number of reasons Sebastian has gone to Northern Africa to live out the rest of his days. It could be that he still desperately wants to take care of someone or something, like he did with Kurt. This would explain his desire to live with lepers or "some small church by a river," since he "always wanted a river […] which he could look after when the priest was away." It could be that he’s desperately trying to abandon British aristocracy and the strain that wealth places on holiness (Lady Marchmain discusses this with Charles in Book One). Or, very possibly, Sebastian is living up to the words he spoke in Book One: "I couldn’t care less, and I shall go on running away, as far and as fast as I can." (After all, Cordelia refers to his travels as "escaping to the savages," "escape" being the important word here…)
Most importantly, Cordelia makes it clear to Charles just how very holy Sebastian really is. "I’ve seen others like him," she says, "and I believe they are very near and dear to God." She then proceeds to describe Sebastian’s death for us. We never see what happens to Sebastian, and even when Charles gets last-minute, concluding updates about the other characters from Nanny Hawkins in the epilogue, Sebastian is never mentioned. This is the last we hear of him. Cordelia envisions her brother as "a great favorite with the old fathers," "disappear[ing] for two or three days every month or so" and then returning "disheveled and shamefaced and […] more devout for a day or two and of course still "completely charming." "One morning," she predicts, "he’ll be picked up at the gate dying." This passage feels like a conclusion, doesn’t it? So while Sebastian doesn’t actually die in the course of the novel, as readers we’re content left with the image of Sebastian as this holy, tortured, dying soul or, as Charles earlier said, a harmless and isolated man "cough[ing] his heart out among the rum bottles."