Study Guide

Brideshead Revisited Themes

By Evelyn Waugh

  • Friendship

    Brideshead Revisited revolves around a close friendship between two young men who meet in college. Loyalty is tested when friendship comes in conflict with family, and a territorial sense of ownership means tensions run high. The relationship between these young men or may not be sexual in nature, but it is undeniably one of unconditional love. Friendship is an isolating force in this novel; the closer the two young men become, the less they care to interact with the rest of the world. And the more the world impinges on their time together, the further they are driven apart.

    Questions About Friendship

    1. Sebastian declares that he is friends with Kurt because "it’s a rather pleasant change when all your life you’ve had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself." Does this also explain his affinity for Charles?
    2. You’ve heard our two cents on the matter, but how do you interpret Charles and Sebastian’s relationship? Do you think there is romantic love involved? Sexual love? Specifically, what passages in the text help to interpret this?
    3. Does Charles abandon Sebastian, or does Sebastian abandon Charles?

    Chew on This

    Charles and Sebastian’s friendship is only possible in isolation from the rest of the world.

    Charles and Sebastian’s friendship is predicated upon mutual deception.

  • Religion

    Catholicism is a main focus of Brideshead Revisited. From hurried pre-wedding conversions to dinner-table debates on dogma, religion dominates the novel’s thematic focus. Every character struggles with religion in one way or another, even the agnostic central character. The one concept everyone seems to agree on is that to be holy is to suffer. In accordance with this principle, the most religious characters in the novel choose to suffer to be closer to God. Waugh explained that his intention was for every character to accept divine grace in his own way, though critics disagree on whether the novel ultimately reads for or against Catholicism.

    Questions About Religion

    1. Sebastian claims he believes in religion because it is "a lovely idea." Why does Julia base her faith on?
    2. Why is Charles so adamantly against Lord Marchmain having a priest at his death? He says that the answer to this question is "unformed" but laying "in a pocket of [his] mind"…what is this getting at? Does he ever answer it for Julia? For himself?
    3. Julia believes one has to sacrifice happiness to be close to God. Sebastian seems to have done the same thing. But what does Charles willingly do in the way of sacrifice? What explains his apparent piety at the end of the novel?
    4. Charles tells Brideshead that, without religion, Sebastian might have had a chance to be happy. Cordelia in a way affirms this when she says that Sebastian is very holy, and no one is ever holy without suffering. If Cordelia is right, and one does need to suffer to be close to God, why do the characters in this novel choose to be religious? What’s the up side?

    Chew on This

    Religion tore Sebastian and Charles apart, yet drove Julia and Charles together.

    Religion prevents Charles from ever being close to any of the Flyte children.

  • Family

    Family is a huge source of conflict in Brideshead Revisited. The novel takes place in England over the course of the 1920s and '30s, when rank and titles among the aristocracy meant that expectations were high and obligations strict; men were expected to act as the head of estates and women to marry a suitable match. Family is also the source of much of the religious conflict in the novel, since children are raised according to their mother’s religion. More than one essentially forced conversion goes down within the course of the narrative, and always in the name of marriage and family.

    Questions About Family

    1. It seems that Charles’s father and Sebastian’s father could not be more different, especially when it comes to their relationships with their sons. So what do you make of the fact that the word "poppet" is used to describe both men?
    2. Charles wonders at how "the same ingredients" could produce Julia, Sebastian, Brideshead, and Cordelia. Besides their shared religious, aristocratic upbringing, what do these siblings have in common?
    3. Why didn’t Lord Marchmain come back to England right after his wife died? Why does he choose (eventually) to die at Brideshead?

    Chew on This

    Family is a purely negative influence in Brideshead Revisited.

    Charles seeks a replacement family by becoming part of the Flytes.

  • Memory and The Past

    Brideshead Revisited is told as a first-person narrative by a middle-aged man recalling what, for him, were much better days: his college years at Oxford and the decade that followed. While his memories are laced with the bitter melancholy of nostalgia, the act of remembering is ultimately a positive one. The narrator learns from his recollection and, despite the sad and destructive end to his story, is enlightened and buoyed by the process.

    Questions About Memory and The Past

    1. How honest is narrator Charles about the actions and feelings of his younger self?
    2. How does Charles view the past? With bitterness? Nostalgia? Regret?
    3. Does it seem from his narration that Charles has forgiven Julia for leaving him?

    Chew on This

    It is only through the process of recollection – through revisiting Brideshead and everything it represents to him – that Charles is able come to peace with his past and end the novel on an optimistic note.

  • Youth

    Youth is repeatedly referred to as "Arcadia," or heaven, in Brideshead Revisited. The novel is told as the recollection of a middle-aged man, so it may well be that a pair of rose-colored glasses is tainting the vision. Nevertheless, youth is presented in all the hazy splendor of a lovely, eternal dream. From lazy days drinking champagne to long strolls in gardens to narrator’s first, eye-opening introduction to a world of art and architecture, there’s little to dislike in this Arcadian paradise.

    Questions About Youth

    1. Is "Arcadia" the right term for Charles’s summer at Brideshead with Sebastian? Or is this a rose-colored glasses thing for the middle-aged Captain of infantry, as he calls himself?
    2. Speaking of, Charles again refers to his age in the novel’s epilogue, when he calls himself "homeless, child-less, middle-aged, loveless." Is it his age that upsets him so much, or his circumstance?
    3. While Charles is in South America, he claims that he "remained unchanged, still a small part of [him] pretending to be whole." What makes him feel incomplete? What is he missing and what does he need in order to be whole?

    Chew on This

    Charles and Sebastian’s friendship was dependent on youth and could not exist once they both became adults.

  • Art and Culture

    Brideshead Revisited is the story of a young man’s aesthetic education as he discovers a world of architectural beauty and struggles to build a life as an artist. Nearly all the novel’s main relationships revolve around aesthetics, from love affairs based on beauty to friendships based on friendships built solely around artistic instruction. One idea explored in the novel is the threat of charm to artistic sensibilities. British charm in particular, claims one aesthete, is deadly, as it will strangle artistic passion by keeping it all neat and orderly.

    Questions About Art and Culture

    1. Trace Charles’s aesthetic growth throughout the novel. What does he learn, when, and from whom?
    2. Who is the greater influence on Charles’s artistry – Sebastian or Anthony? What do they each do for Charles? What about Celia – does she encourage or stifle his abilities?
    3. How much of Charles’s love for Julia has to do with her beauty? For that matter, how much of his friendship with Sebastian is based on his "epicene beauty"?
    4. Charles finds Julia’s sadness to be "the completion of her beauty." What kind of connection is THAT? Why would being sad and wondering if her life holds any value make her more beautiful? Weird

    Chew on This

    In Brideshead Revisited, Charles finds God through art.

    Through his novel, Waugh condemns Charles’s attempt to replace God with art.

  • Drugs and Alcohol

    Alcoholism is at the center of Brideshead Revisited and essentially destroys a beautiful, charming young man. Of course, the alcoholism itself is driven by a slew of other problems, namely family and religion. The young man in question turns to the substance as a means of escaping, retreating further and further into self-imposed isolation by means of intense bouts of drinking. As is said many times in the novel, alcohol is used primarily as an escape.

    Questions About Drugs and Alcohol

    1. Which is the greater cause of Sebastian’s drinking problem – his family, or his religion? Does Charles identify it as one or the other?
    2. According to the Flytes’ Catholicism, can Sebastian be holy and an alcoholic? What about the whole "to be holy is to suffer" thing – how does that factor in here?
    3. In "Character Analysis," we theorize that Cordelia and Charles are the only two characters to really love Sebastian. If we’re right, why is it that these are the only two to sneak Sebastian booze while everyone else is trying to cure him of his alcoholism?

    Chew on This

    Each character’s love for Sebastian is tested – and either proved or disproved – through his or her reaction to his alcoholism.

  • Society and Class

    Brideshead Revisited offers a view into the world of British aristocracy in the 1920s and '30s. Titles, rank, and the obligations that go with them threaten to determine the course of each character’s life. Wealth in particular is a focus of the novel, especially the vulgar extravagance of the British upper class which is repeatedly compared to the natural beauty of places like Morocco, Tunis, or South America.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. What does Charles learn when he goes off into the jungles of South America? About art? About British aristocracy?
    2. Anthony warns Charles that British charm will ruin him and his artistry. Does it? What do you think of Anthony’s assessment of Charles’s work – the work which everyone else finds so "virile" and "passionate?" Does Charles agree with Anthony’s criticism?
    3. How is British aristocracy portrayed in this novel? Waugh certainly pokes fun at it – think about the diamond-studded tortoise or the life-size swan carving filled with caviar – but does that mean he’s egalitarian? (Most critics say "no," and in fact claim it’s just the opposite; how can you use the text to justify this common interpretation?)

    Chew on This

    Lady Marchmain uses religion to mask her classist discriminations.

  • Love

    The narrator of Brideshead Revisited struggles to understand and define love over the course of two decades. The novel explores many different kinds of love, from the "romantic" but not necessarily sexual love between young men to sexual relationships between men to stilted marriages to sibling relationships. One unique perspective the novel offers is the idea of a first and second love: boys experience this first love shortly before they become men. It is an immature forerunner to the mature, complete love he will experience next. By the end of the novel, however, even this has been called into question, as the narrator wonders if perhaps all loves are simply a forerunner to the next, ad infinitum…

    Questions About Love

    1. It’s pretty clear that Charles in no way loves his wife once he gets back from South America. (See "Character Analysis" for more detail.) Has he fallen victim to the same problem of a first love that Cara claimed plagued Lord Marchmain’s marriage? Or was Sebastian Charles’s problematic first love?
    2. After Charles and Julia have finalized their divorces and are planning to marry, Cordelia describes their relationship with the words "thwarted passion." What does she mean by this? IS their relationship thwarted? If so, what is responsible for the thwarting – religion? Family? How could Cordelia, who has seen them for about two minutes after many absent years, conclude this so quickly?
    3. Charles tells Julia that Sebastian was the forerunner to their love. He wonders if Sebastian is with him, through Julia, or if Julia was with him through Sebastian. Whom does he actually love, and who is just his way of getting closer to the other?

    Chew on This

    Charles loves Julia as a piece of beautiful art, not as a person.

    In Brideshead Revisited, love is essentially the ability to communicate honestly.