Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Drugs and Alcohol

By Evelyn Waugh

Drugs and Alcohol

"No. I like and think good the end to which wine is sometimes the means – the promotion of sympathy between man and man. But in my own case it does not achieve that end, so I neither like it nor think it good for me." (1.4.133)

Brideshead once again exposes his inability to communicate effectively with others.

"Sebastian drinks too much."

"I suppose we both do."

"With you it does not matter. I have watched you together. With Sebastian it is different. He will be a drunkard if someone does not come to stop him. I have known so many. Alex was nearly a drunkard when he met me; it is in the blood. I see it in the way Sebastian drinks. It is not your way." (1.4.239-41)

Cara isn’t just saying that Sebastian drinks differently than Charles – she’s also telling Charles that he is nothing like his friend. Sebastian’s qualities – his eccentricities, his aesthetic awareness – these are unattainable attributes for Charles.

There were two girls there, contemporaries of Julia's; they all seemed involved in the management of the ball. Mulcaster knew them of old and they, without much relish I thought, knew him. Mrs. Champion talked to Rex. Sebastian and I found ourselves drinking alone together as we always did. (1.5.58)

Sebastian and Charles base their friendship on two things: drinking, and isolation from the rest of the world.

I had no mind then for anything except Sebastian, and I saw him already as being threatened, though I did not yet know how black was the threat. His constant, despairing prayer was to be let alone. By the blue waters and rustling palm of his own mind he was happy and harmless as a Polynesian; only when the big ship dropped anchor beyond the coral reef, and the cutter beached in the lagoon, and, up the golden slope that had never known the print of a boot there trod the grim invasion of trader, administrator, missionary and tourist – only then was it time to disinter the archaic weapons of the tribe and sound the drums in the hills; or, more easily, to turn from the sunlit door and lie alone in the darkness, where the impotent, painted deities paraded the walls in vain, and cough his heart out among the rum bottles. (1.5.205)

OK, we admit it: we just put this quote here so you would all read this gorgeous metaphor again. Sigh.

It was during this term that I began to realize that Sebastian was a drunkard in quite a different sense from myself. I got drunk often, but through an excess of high spirits, in the love of the moment, and the wish to prolong and enhance it; Sebastian drank to escape. As we together grew older and more serious I drank less, he more. I found that sometimes after I had gone back to my college, he sat up late and alone, soaking. (1.5.211)

This is precisely what Cara predicted earlier in the novel. Charles and Sebastian’s key differences are marked by the latter’s alcoholism, and their friendship is threatened by it.

Julia used to say, "Poor Sebastian. It's something chemical in him."

That was the cant phrase of the time, derived from heaven knows what misconception of popular science. "There's something chemical between them" was used to explain the overmastering hate or love of any two people. It was the old concept of determinism in a new form. I do not believe there was anything chemical in my friend. (1.5.211-3)

Charles doesn’t want to blame biology for Sebastian’s alcoholism. He (correctly?) identifies Sebastian’s family and religion as the source of his problem.

The Easter party at Brideshead was a bitter time, culminating in a small but unforgettably painful incident. Sebastian got very drunk before dinner in his mother's house, and thus marked the beginning of a new epoch in his melancholy record of deterioration, the first step in the flight from his family which brought him to ruin. (1.5.214)

Charles reveals information about Sebastian’s alcoholism as he slowly becomes aware of its causes. He earlier said that Sebastian drank to escape – now he has clarified his point further: Sebastian drinks to escape his family.

"No," said Brideshead, "I don't suppose you could. I once saw my father drunk, in this room. I wasn't more than about ten at the time. You can't stop people if they want to get drunk. My mother couldn't stop my father, you know." (1.5.268)

We can interpret the common thread here as Lady Marchmain, not as genetic predisposition to alcoholism.

"It's no good, Charles," she said. "All you can mean is that you have not as much influence or knowledge of him as I thought. It is no good either of us trying to believe him. I've known drunkards before. One of the most terrible things about them is their deceit. Love of truth is the first thing that goes." (1.5.375)

Lady Marchmain doesn’t seem to have much knowledge of Sebastian herself. He was always much more interested in beauty and happiness than he was in truth.

"Dear boy," said Lady Marchmain. "How nice to see you looking so well again. Your day in the open has done you good. The drinks are on the table; do help yourself."

There was nothing unusual in her speech but the fact of her saying it. Six months ago it would not have been said.

"Thanks," said Sebastian. "I will." (1.6.188-90)

Lady Marchmain has given up on controlling Sebastian’s drinking – but why? What pushed her over the edge this time?

Next morning I said to Sebastian: "Tell me honestly, do you want me to stay on here?"

"No, Charles, I don't believe I do."

"I'm no help?"

"No help." (1.6.202-5)

Charles is no help…with what? Sebastian’s family? His alcoholism? Religion? Depression? What is he referring to here?