Study Guide

Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited

Advertisement - Guide continues below

Charles Ryder

Charles and Sebastian

Talk about an enigmatic relationship. These two meet when Sebastian pukes into Charles’s bedroom window. Charles is vehemently warned against him and in fact the entire Flyte family. And Sebastian has got to be the oddest duck in the Oxford pond. So what draws our protagonist to him?

Charles was admittedly on the look-out for something or someone at the time he met Sebastian. In his first few weeks at school he "felt at heart that this was not all that Oxford had to offer." It seems he was harboring romantic illusions about a world of intellect, aesthetics, and youthful verve that he just couldn’t find among the majority of his peers. Check this out:

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.

It is Sebastian who leads Charles into this enchanted garden, inhabited by his slew of equally eccentric but contagiously enthusiastic friends.

Sebastian also provides two things Charles didn’t have on his own: a childhood, and a full family. As Charles says: "That summer term with Sebastian, it seemed as though I was being given a brief spell of what I had never known, a happy childhood" (1.2.18). He also claims that he’s "rather curious about people’s families" as "it’s not a thing [he] know[s] about" because there’s "only [his] father and [him]self." Can you start to see the appeal for him in a person like Sebastian? (For oodles more on Sebastian’s obsession with youth and of course his impossible family, read his own "Character Analysis.")

Of course, some would argue that Charles’s attraction to Sebastian is just that – physical attraction. There’s been plenty of speculation on the possibly gay relationship between these two. It’s mostly based on Charles’s comment that he and Sebastian took part in "naughtiness high in the catalogue of grave sins." Sure, this could be talking about sodomy…but then again maybe not. Charles and Sebastian were constantly drunk and, as we know from the Old Hundredth incident, probably not strangers to brothels. The "naughtiness" Charles mentions could just as easily refer to either (or both) of these. The other commentary to consider is Cara’s, later in the novel. Of Charles and Sebastian she says: "I know of these romantic friendships of the English and the Germans. They are not Latin. I think they are very good if they do not go on too long." The important thing to remember here is that "romantic" doesn’t necessarily mean "sexual." The other thing to take into consideration is Anthony, who is definitely gay (see his "Character Analysis" for more) and the way Charles reacts to and judges him for it.

We think the take-home lesson is this: it doesn’t really matter whether Charles and Sebastian are sexually involved. Either way, we know that they love each other fiercely, and the possibility of sexual relationship doesn’t really change the significance of their relationship in the novel. It’s not about sex. (And it’s not about money either. Charles comes from wealth himself, so isn’t a "poor kid meets rich guy" story.) Rather, their relationship is about beauty.

That’s right – Sebastian is Charles’s instructor in aesthetics. Notice that the first thing these two do alone is visit the Botanical Gardens – at Sebastian’s suggestion, or course. Sebastian’s comment is: "Oh, Charles, what a lot you have to learn!" as he leads the way. When he returns to his rooms, Charles has the first inkling of dislike for his wall decorations (which in retrospect he knows to be in poor taste). He turns away the screen of daffodils, his first step in shedding his immature ideas about what makes good art. Charles also explicitly credits Sebastian with this sort of aesthetic instruction when he says, "Collins had exposed the fallacy of modern aesthetics to me, […] but it was not until Sebastian, idly turning the pages of Clive Bell’s Art, read ‘"Does anyone feel the same kind of emotion for a butterfly or a flower that he feels for a cathedral or a picture?" Yes, I do,’ that my eyes were opened" (1.1.27). Sebastian himself possesses an "epicene beauty" and so fits well into the world to which he lures Charles. Brideshead Castle, of course, is at the center of this new world of art and beauty, and our narrator even deems it "an aesthetic education to live within those walls." You can see why Charles, a burgeoning artist, would be so attracted to a ‘teacher’ like Sebastian and the "glittering world," as Waugh calls it, in which he lives.

Once they are good friends, Charles defends Sebastian with unwavering loyalty. Their friendship seems to flourish only in self-imposed isolation from the rest of the world – contra mundum, as Charles says it. Sebastian certainly tests this loyalty again and again. Will Charles side with the Flytes against his friend? Will he be swayed by Lady Marchmain’s pleas? Will he listen to Anthony’s warnings about Sebastian? Will he help fight Sebastian’s alcoholism? Charles answers "no" to all of these, placing Sebastian’s happiness above all else, even his health. How is it, then, that their friendship crumbles by the second half of the novel? Sebastian’s Character Analysis is up next, so stay tuned. Meanwhile, let’s talk about Julia.

Charles, Julia, and Love

The big question regarding Charles and Julia is this: does he love her because she’s the female equivalent of Sebastian? When Charles first meets Julia, what strikes him about her is her uncanny resemblance to her brother; "She so much resemble[s] Sebastian that, sitting beside her in the gathering dusk, [he is] confused by the double illusion of familiarity and strangeness" (1.3.108). In fact, "her sex [is] the [only] palpable difference between the familiar and the strange." Shortly after, Sebastian comments that "she’s so like [him]," but only "in looks" and in "the way she talks." But the big honking tip-off comes towards the end of the novel, when Charles for the second time refers to his friendship with Sebastian as "the forerunner" to his relationship with Julia. Then he says that "Sebastian is with [him] daily in Julia," which really makes you wonder whether he isn’t just using her to recapture the one relationship which shaped his days as a younger man.

The answer to this question lies in the way that Charles understands love. When you read the novel with this question in mind, you start to see that Brideshead Revisited is the story not only of Charles’s aesthetic education, but also his journey to define this difficult emotion. He comes to Oxford "in search of love" and thinks he finds it in Sebastian. Cara is his next instructor, explaining to him the nature of his love for Sebastian and the difference between a man’s first love – the love boys have when they are "almost men" – and his second, mature love. We can assume that Julia is this second love of Charles, but things get complicated when she asks the difficult question: what if she is just a forerunner, too?

Now Charles devises a new theory for himself: "Perhaps all our loves are merely hints and symbols; a hill of many invisible crests; doors that open as in a dream to reveal only a further stretch of carpet and another door […], the shadow which turns the corner always a pace or two ahead of us." Julia is correct to worry that Charles’s love will find a new object after her, and we know from the prologue that it is in fact the army. Of course, Charles says in the novel’s opening: "Here, love died between me and the army" and in its closing refers to himself as "loveless." Oops. First Sebastian, then Julia, then the army – is there any hope for another object of love for Charles? Is this what his journey has brought him to – a loveless middle-aged Captain in the army?

Before you get too depressed, jump all the way back to Charles’s second conversation with Jasper, in Book One, Chapter Two, when Charles muses that "to know and love one other human being is the root of all wisdom." Wise words for a man just beginning his education in art and love, right? This is where we have to wonder WHO is responsible for this little platitude – Charles the twenty-something at Oxford, or Charles the middle-aged narrator? (Check out "Point of View" for a full discussion of this ever-present uncertainty in the novel.) It’s very possible that this line is the culmination of everything Charles has learned about love over the course of his life. And how funny that it comes in at the start of his recollection.

Charles, Art, and God

Does anyone else think art is basically a religion for the agnostic Charles? Here are a few passages to consider:

I held back from painting, like a diver on the water's edge; once in I found myself buoyed and exhilarated. I was normally a slow and deliberate painter; that afternoon and all next day, and the day after, I worked fast. I could do nothing wrong. At the end of each passage I paused, tense, afraid to start, the next, fearing, like a gambler, that luck must turn and the pile be lost. Bit by bit, minute by minute, the thing came into being. There were no difficulties; the intricate multiplicity of light and colour became a whole; the right colour was where I wanted it on the palette; each brush stroke, as soon as it was complete, seemed to have been there always.

Dos this sound like divine inspiration to you? Because Charles certainly thinks so:

I had felt the brush take life in my hand that afternoon; I had had my finger in the great, succulent pie of creation. I was a man of the Renaissance that evening – of Browning's Renaissance. I, who had walked the streets of Rome in Genoa velvet and had seen the stars through Galileo's tube, spurned the friars with their dusty tomes and their sunken, jealous eyes and their crabbed hair-splitting speech.

And later he adds: "I began to mourn the loss of something I had known in the drawing-room of Marchmain House and once or twice since, the intensity and singleness and the belief that it was not all done by hand – in a word, the inspiration" (2.1.7). Others recognize this connection, too, particularly Brideshead: "You take art as a means not an end. That is strict theology, but it’s unusual to find an agnostic believing it" (1.4.154).

Indeed, aesthetics are Charles’s theology. (He might have learned this from Sebastian, who believes in things because they are lovely.) As such, his whole life is devoted to art. Or, as Celia says, "Charles lives for one thing – Beauty." That’s why he’s a painter, and it’s certainly one possible basis for his love for Julia, a "flawless Florentine Quattrocento beauty." Read Book Two, Chapter One again (when Charles begins his affair with Julia) and notice how obsessed he is with her looks and the recent "completion of her beauty." Celia claims that Charles went to South America because he "got bored" with finding beauty in England. Now that he’s come back, he needs a new artistic pursuit– and Julia is his next aesthetic conquest.

If Charles has such a sound personal theology through his pursuit of art and beauty, how is it that he ends up a Catholic by the time he’s a middle-aged Captain in the army? Go read "What’s Up With the Ending?" and find out.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...