Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Evelyn Waugh

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

The "Et in Arcadia Ego" Skull

We’re referring to the slightly morbid dorm-room décor which Charles has lying around early in Book One. We might have missed it altogether if Waugh hadn’t rather pointedly entitled Book One "Et in Arcadia Ego" and told us to look closer.

The phrase is Latin and literally translates to, "And in Arcadia I am." (The "to be" verb is implied.) But it is most often translated to reflect its meaning and not just its words, in which case it reads, "Even in Arcadia I exist." ("Arcadia" is another word for a pastoral paradise.) The quote is famous as the title of this painting, but Waugh likely had this painting in mind instead. There are different ways to interpret the line. It could be that a dead person is speaking it – "even in Arcadia I existed," as in, "even though I’m dead now, I used to live happily in a paradise of green grasses and such," or it could be that death is speaking it, as in, "I’m around threatening to end your life even when you’re in paradise."

This second one sure makes for an ominous reading of Book One of Brideshead Revisited. Charles is in Arcadia, but the threat of death (and the very tumultuous Book Two) is ever-present. Of course, considering that we get hints of Sebastian’s depression and straight-up prophecies of his impending alcoholism every third page doesn’t exactly help either. On the other hand, the first interpretation fits nicely with the image of Charles the narrator, now essentially ‘dead’ since he is loveless, childless, middle-aged, etc., looking back on the Arcadia in which he once existed.

The word "Arcadia" also has a religious connotation, which sadly we cannot ignore when talking about anything in Brideshead Revisited. Charles says that he "believed [him]self very near heaven during those languid days at Brideshead," so here is yet a third interpretation of the phrase, this time viewing "Arcadia" as a very specific paradise: heaven. Remember how we talked in "Character Analysis" about Charles using art to replace religion? Right, well here he is using youth to replace the Catholic concept of heaven. Lends a little support to that title addendum "the Sacred and Profane Memories," doesn’t it?

The Crock of Gold

Another place to see this paradise/death dichotomy is in two passages from Book One. The first happens at the very start of Charles’s flashback, when Sebastian says while picnicking, "[This is] Just the place to bury a crock of gold. […] I should like to bury something precious in every place where I've been happy and then, when I was old and ugly and miserable, I could come back and dig it up and remember." Later, when Charles leaves Brideshead behind having "disappointed" Lady Marchmain by supplying her alcoholic son booze, he remarks: "As I drove away and turned back in the car to take what promised to be my last view of the house, I felt that I was leaving part of myself behind, and that wherever I went afterwards I should feel the lack of it, and search for it hopelessly, as ghosts are said to do, frequenting the spots where they buried material treasures without which they cannot pay their way to the nether world." This is quite a twist on Sebastian’s original meaning. The "crock of gold" was initially a part of the beautiful Arcadian landscape of Charles’s youth. But then it is the gold used to pay passage to the underworld. It’s a lot like the image of a skull in the midst of a pastoral paradise. Oh, wait…

"That Low Door in the Wall"

Before his first luncheon with Sebastian (a peace offering after the puking incident), Charles pauses to consider whether or not he should go. He was uncertain, he says, "for it was foreign ground and there was a tiny, priggish, warning voice in my ear which […] told me it was seemly to hold back." But look at his eventual reasoning for attending:

But I was in search of love in those days, and I went full of curiosity and the faint, unrecognized apprehension that here, at last, I should find that low door in the wall, which others, I knew, had found before me, which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden, which was somewhere, not overlooked by any window, in the heart of that grey city.

Enchanted garden…sounds a bit like "Arcadia," doesn’t it? Charles certainly gets what he was looking for when he dives headfirst into this friendship with Sebastian. As we talk about in "Character Analysis," Sebastian truly does open up a whole new world for Charles – a world of youth, care-free days, wine, and, most importantly, of art and beauty.

But much later, when Sebastian has become an alcoholic and Lady Marchmain is angry with Charles for supplying him booze, Charles drives away from Brideshead for what he thinks will be the last time and remarks, "A door had shut, the low door in the wall I had sought and found in Oxford; open it now and I should find no enchanted garden." This is more of that paradise/death stuff we’ve talked so much about in regards to the phrase "Et in Arcadia Ego." That ever-present skull tainting the perfect pastoral landscape has brought to an end those "heavenly days at Brideshead."

The Twitch Upon the Thread

This is the title of Book Two and also a phrase we hear twice inside the text. The first occurrence comes at the end of Book One, when Charles is out to dinner with Cordelia at the Ritz:

"D'you know what Papa said when he became a Catholic? […] He said […]: 'You have brought back my family to the faith of their ancestors.' […] The family haven't been very constant [in regards to religion], have they? There's him gone and Sebastian gone and Julia gone. But God won't let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk – I mean the bad evening. Father Brown said something like 'I caught him' (the thief) 'with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.'"

Cordelia paints the image of God with essentially a fishing line tied to every Catholic. A given Catholic – like Julia, for example – might wander away from God, but God can pull on the thread (or give it a "twitch" in this case) and yank him right back at any time.

As the titles of Book One and Two of Brideshead suggest, Book One is the wandering away part and Book Two is when everyone gets yanked bank by the twitch. Sebastian wandered all the way to Northern Africa, but ended up where? At a monastery. Julia abandoned God and the sanctity of her marriage, but returns to her faith at the end of the novel. Lord Marchmain was never much for religion, but accepts the Last Sacrament on his death bed. Notice what Charles says when Lord Marchmain refuses the priest for the first time: "I felt triumphant. I had been right, everyone else had been wrong, truth had prevailed; the thread that I had felt hanging over Julia and me ever since that evening at the fountain had been averted, perhaps dispelled for ever." And notice Julia’s very reason for breaking up with Charles is right in line with Cordelia’s thread metaphor: "The worse I am, the more I need God," she says. "I can't shut myself out from His mercy."

Most surprising of all is the twitch upon the thread which brings Charles to Catholicism. But we talk about that in "What’s Up With the Ending?"

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