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Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh: an example of British Interwar Literature

Evelyn Waugh was a well-known satirist during his lifetime. With his novel Vile Bodies written in 1930, Waugh displays the qualities of typical interwar literature in which modernism played a large part. Typical British literature in the late 1920’s and the early 1930’s displayed the importance in young people of individualism, the search for amusement and the avoidance of boredom (Bloom iii). Use of new technologies was also popular. Politics, laws, and social rules as well as responsibilities were generally avoided or ignored by youth.

However, Waugh uses satire to show how humorous these efforts to ignore reality were and reveals the hypocrisy of the generations both young and old as the members of this middle class and high middle class society struggle to reach an acceptable sense of autonomy . As a typical British interwar novel, Vile Bodies also focused on the eminence of another war, and the depressed postwar economy in Britain. Other important ideals during the interwar years embraced the idea of change and finding better ways to practice religion, art, science, literature, social rules, and to change economic and political conditions (Melton).

Modernism was prevalent and could be described as “a movement of thought that rejected religious authority and ended up stressing the political freedom allied with scientific knowledge” (Rabate as qtd. in Bradshaw and Dettmar 9). One strong characteristic of modernist literature was that it took the reader from image to image rather than along a timeline (Melton), and this is another method Waugh uses in Vile Bodies. By focusing on the characters and their choices, their actions, and their internal struggles, Waugh displays the individualistic themes of modernism that prevailed in interwar art.

Waugh’s characters take on the personalities of individualism, the search for change, and they tend to display many modernist themes in their ways of life. Most of Waugh’s characters exhibit some form of hypocrisy which serves to insert humor, yet also to explain an underlying belief that this search for complete individualism is a lost cause. One such character is Chastity. Working for a self-proclaimed female evangelist, Mrs. Ape, Chastity sings in Mrs. Ape’s choir group of angels. However, Chastity is far from chaste. In the story she is constantly battling the urges of sexual experimentation.

Chastity is a great example of the new idea of individualism of which sexual experimentation played a big role (Melton). When her fellow angel inquires “don’t you never think of nothing but men, Chastity? ” (Waugh 31), it is clear that she is preoccupied with the opposite sex and far from considering chastity as a way of life. Her actions later lead to her experimentations with a refined socialite, Mrs. Penrast.. This behavior leads to the mockery from the other angles, and later causes Chastity to leave the group altogether for an extremely unchaste life.

With the irony of her name and the opposing behaviors she exhibits, Waugh not only inserts some humor into his novel to keep it lively, but reveals the hypocrisy of the younger generation as the youths search to gain a sense of individuality and self improvement. Mrs. Ape is another example of hypocrisy. As she preaches the sense of hope and salvation through hymns and prayers, she herself is a heavy drinker and a solicitor of money disguised as donations. It is clear that she does not fool everyone as Father Rothschild sees her as “an extremely dangerous and disagreeable woman” (Waugh 8).

Not too many people like her, especially not her very own angels, yet it is ironic that she has a magnetic smile (Waugh 16) that draws people in and has them feeling guilty about their behaviors and seeking salvation through donations. Mrs. Ape also lends an example of modernism as she is a rebuttal for traditional religion. In the years between the wars as people began to seek an improvement in life, they felt skeptical about religion and sought out other ways of satisfaction or new religious methods that would offer the satisfaction missing from traditional religions like Protestantism and Catholicism (Melton).

Mrs. Ape’s evangelistic methods were an alternative to the traditional religions and many of the characters in Waugh’s novel embraced it. Mrs. Ape was invited to many of the parties and even given a party in her own honor by Lady Metroland. Lady Metroland had the typical characteristics of a modernist. Although she attempted to keep up appearances of proper and traditional etiquette, she actually embraced very nontraditional methods of making money.

Lady Metroland disapproved of anything that made her appear nontraditional and astray from social rules, even going as far as to ban a social reporter from her parties after he wrote something about her she had considered unflattering. Yet she also made money sending pretty girls to foreigners. She had offered to help Chastity escape Mrs. Ape by sending her to a ”job in South America” (Waugh 130). The implications here were definitely nontraditional and sexual. Such underground dealings were totally unacceptable by the etiquette of the social circle. Another hypocritical character was the Duchess of Stayle.

As she attempted to embrace the novel idea that individuals should not do anything that made them feel unhappy or uncomfortable, she actually believed in doing what she considered best for all involved regardless of individual suffering or feeling. This she displayed when she listened to her daughter’s refusal to marry a young man whom the family had hoped she would marry. After listening to the girl’s protests and remarking that she only wants her daughter’s happiness, Duchess Stayle responded by forcing the marriage upon the girl. So even though her daughter’s individualism was an issue that was acknowledged, it was promptly ignored.

This is a sure display of how the interwar claims of individualism were not actually being implemented by everyone. Waugh could have been trying to show how the desire to focus only on the individual was impossible as the effects of the outside world could not be ignored. Some characters displayed a great amount of self-centeredness which was necessary when focusing on the search for individualism. Here is where the ideas of amusement and the shunning of boredom seem most important. This seemed to be a prominent lifestyle and way of thinking during the interwar years.

Waugh involves characters whose main focus on life is self-satisfaction regardless of the impact on others or the rest of the world. One such character is Miss Brown, who drags a group of partiers to her house in the middle of the night to continue their amusing antics. Miss Brown is seeking the sense of belonging that is characteristic of the modernistic age (Foster). In her quest to become one of the group, she tosses her family’s feelings and repercussions of her actions aside and allows the group to descend upon her home, make a mess, consume alcohol and food, and continue the debaucheries of the party they had left behind.

The reasons for Miss Brown’s actions do not reduce the outcome of her decision to open up her home to these questionable youths. In the morning it is clear that her decision has harmed her entire family and her father, being the Prime Minister, has a damaged reputation as a result. But Miss Brown who meant no harm initially, only thought of her own social needs and not of that of her family’s social standing. Her great need to belong overrode all rational thinking. This is a classic example of individualistic thinking and modernism in literature during the interwar years.

Agatha Runcible was another self-centered female whose main objective in life was to amuse herself at the expense of anyone who got in her way. She refused to follow any type of social etiquette and even small rules were difficult for her to maintain. When at the race track where she and her friends were guests of a race car driver, she continuously smoked in the pits where she was told there was no smoking allowed. Her ashes fell ungracefully on other guests and in their food. However, she was more concerned about how she was treated when reprimanded for her callousness.

“What a pig that man was…” (Waugh 237), she said of the official who had asked her politely three times to put out her cigarettes. It is as if she only sees herself and her own feelings and cares nothing for her actions’ affects on others. Her actions are like this throughout the entire story and her death comes ironically right after a party held solely for her in a nursing home where she is staying due to traumatic stress after a race car incident. Again Waugh uses satirical humor to show how true individualism will only lead to the fall of those who seek it.

It is the result of their own selfish actions that is leading to their destruction. Miles was also a very self-absorbed person. One good example is when Miss Agatha Runcible was lost and out of control in the race car. He seemed delighted that such a story for his newspaper column would bring him great recognition from his editors. And later he is more concerned about how he is in physical discomfort when faced with finding lost Agatha. He considers, “Let’s leave Agatha until we’ve had a meal” (Waugh 251).

At many intervals, Miles is shown to be very self-centered and concerned with his own desires regardless of what is happening around him. Nina Blount, Adam’s fiancee, is also a grand display of shallowness. Through retorts such as “Do be amusing Adam. I can’t bare you when you’re not amusing” (Waugh 121) and constantly uttering “It is a bore… ”(Waugh 111), Nina shows how the most important objective in her life is to avoid boredom and seek amusement. She expects Adam to provide entertainment as well as companionship if he wants her to be his fiancee.

Nina shuns responsibility and expects her father to take care of her financially, even going as far as expecting Adam to ask him to support them as a married couple. After all it is her desire to be married, and Adam cannot provide the funds to do so. Clearly her wants and desires are foremost in her mind. Nina does not display any true affection or the real feelings of being in love. Although at one point she believes she is in love with Adam, the feeling fades quickly, and “Nina thought how once, only twenty-four hours ago, she had been in love”(Waugh 137).

The fleeting emotion only shows how unfeeling she really is. Nina is also very unkind to Adam, as she is concerned only for her own future, no matter how much she knows he feels love for her and will be hurt, she agrees to marry another man when Adam cannot come through with funds to marry her in what she considers a timely manner. Then later, realizing that she enjoyed Adam’s companionship more than Ginger’s, she disregards her new husband’s feelings and uses Adam, again disregarding his feelings, by sneaking off with him to her father’s home when Ginger is sent to join his regiment.

Then in a final callous remark, she writes a letter to Adam when he is away in the war how she is getting along well and is with child, insinuating it is Adam’s child but that her husband believes it to be his. With a careless remark she tells Adam she is going to let her husband believe so and live her life along, not caring what Adam thinks or how he feels about the whole situation, only explaining how she feels and how it all affects her. In Nina, Waugh has a character who displays definite individualist ideals of the younger generation during the interwar years. However, Adam is a different sort of character.

He is struggling with the idea of the importance of individualism and amusement. He is not shirking responsibility, but seeking a job in order to be able to support his fiancee and to be married. He feels awkward about approaching her father for money and only does so to please her. He is the one character that displays a feeling of emptiness and disillusionment about the parties and the constant search for amusement. He tells Nina that he is tiring of all the parties and begins to think about the different parties they have attended and sees them as a gathering of “succession and repetition of massed humanity….

Those vile bodies…” (Waugh 171). With these thoughts, Waugh suggests to the reader that Adam is beginning to see that the fun and games of his life are leading him nowhere, and he is sickened by them. He wants to move on with his life and begin accomplishing his dreams , but feels sucked into this amusing lifestyle by his companions. There are many modernist themes that pervade Waugh’s novel. Modernism can be explained as an experimentation by individuals to resolve their selfish drive toward a better individual life and maintain autonomy while still adjusting to and recognizing social forces and culture (Wellman 19-22).

These modernist themes were prevalent during interwar times and involved a deviation from traditional religious practices, personal experimentation toward pleasure, an increased reliance on technology to simplify life, and an impudent disregard of political and diplomatic policies and issues. A deviation from traditional religious practices is evident throughout the story. Colonel Blount mentions to his neighboring rector, “If you practiced a little more Christianity yourself, we might be more willing to subscribe to your foreign missions and Boy Scouts and organ funds” (Waugh 293).

With this statement, Waugh reveals that Blount is not backing his Church as had been customary in prior history and social culture. But he is also revealing that the rector himself is not practicing his own Christian beliefs as he should. Further accounts of new religious practices are Mrs. Ape’s evangelistic sessions and appearances at parties. Mrs. Ape is constantly getting people to sing for salvation and hope. Her evangelistic sessions consist of her attempts to try and force those present to feel guilty and long for salvation. Her attractive angels and their songs are to grasp attention and to soften the audience’s hearts.

She does not give traditional sessions or masses in a traditional church, thus straying from the norm and deviating from customary religious practices. Personal experimentation to gain pleasure pervades Waugh’s novel. Adam and Nina show signs of this practice when they spend the night together in the hotel. This is new and experimental to Nina who says ”this is the first time this has happened to me” (Waugh 108), yet on an experimental level seeking a pleasure she has heard much about, Nina goes ahead and plays along with Adam’s seduction of her. Chastity also uses sexual experimentation in search of pleasure.

She takes a ride in a car with Mrs. Panrast in which later it is implied that some sort of sexual experimentation had taken place. When confronted by her guilt during the evangelist lady’s performance, “Mrs. Panrast stirred uncomfortably; had that silly little girl been talking, she wondered” (Waugh 137). Then the other angels mock Chastity for her decision to “ride” with Mrs. Panrast, but then put their heads together to hear her account the details of the ride which Mrs. Ape overhears and pronounces “back-chat” (Waugh 128) and tells them “I’m sick ashamed of you” (Waugh 128).

With both of these statements it is to be implied that some sort of sexual experimentation devious from the norm had occurred on that car ride. Again Waugh cites a young innocent falling into experimental choices. Finally, the young group that society calls “Bright Young People” (Waugh 75) are continually attending and giving parties, seemingly dismissing responsibilities to do nothing but seek out amusement and pleasure. Throughout the story there are several parties attended during a short period of time. These young persons even throw parties on airships and in the nursing home for Agatha Runcible (Waugh 268).

The last is a good example of how when faced with reality and life’s seriousness, this group still attempts to ignore reality with a party. Waugh inserts mention of some new or more readily available technology in his story. The telephone is mentioned and is easily available for Adam and Nina. In fact Adam uses the modern device so often that Nina remarks, “Darling, you do telephone a lot, don’t you? ” (Waugh 54). Adam keeps in touch with his fiancee even when he has traveled far away to a motor car race. Within minutes he tells her he can marry her and then minutes later that he cannot. All this happening so quickly over the phone.

So that as quickly as Adam seems to lose and gain his money for marriage, so quickly is he able to inform Nina in the change of plans. This may have been a great factor in her choice to get engaged and quickly married to Ginger in the end. And Colonel Blount is always remarking about the usefulness of his neighbor’s car. Mention of motor car rides is scattered throughout the story. All of these wonderful pieces of technology only make it easier for the Bright Young People to further amuse themselves near and far and in a short span of time. Political issues, laws and diplomatic policies are shunned by the Bright Young People in Waugh’s novel.

This too is a trend of the interwar generation. When confronted by the Customs officers, Agatha Runcible is so astonished and defiled by a body search that she makes a loud protest of their customs practices when she is home and has articles about it printed in the paper. Adam is also stressed by the Customs officers who burn his manuscript. They are ready to protest against the laws that they do not understand and are very unwilling to seek out the reasons why these laws are set. The young generation would rather amuse themselves and complain about government than to understand what it is all about.

This is clear to the reader when the older generation discusses the subject. When talking about government, Metroland says ”it stands for a damned lot of hard work and precious little in return. If those young people can find a way to get on without it, good luck to them” (Waugh 182). And this is a loaded statement, not only suggesting that the young people shun government, but also that a member of government himself, the Foreign Minister, is disillusioned by the whole process. There were other themes in Vile Bodies that were not modernist themes, but were interwar themes.

One such theme was the idea of an untrustworthy government. Waugh mentions this theory often throughout the story. Father Rothschild is continually calling up Mr. Outrage to conspire about politics, diplomacy and government issues. Father Rothschild even calls Mr. Outrage, the former Prime Minister, over the telephone at Shepheard’s Hotel to come over and meet him so that they might discuss ”several things”(Waugh 59). He is relentless and also pulls Lord Metroland, the Foreign Minister, and Mr. Outrage aside during Lady Metroland’s party. “Father Rothschild was conspiring with Mr.

Outrage and Lord Metroland” (Waugh 133). The conspiring was involving “statesmanship and foreign policy”(Waugh 138). Father Rothschild’s insistent meetings and discussions with political figures outlines the common views of government unrest that existed after the First World War. By making Father Rothschild a part of these political discussions with important statesmen, Waugh is implying that the Church is still somewhat involved in the State’s policies. By making these discussions secretive, Waugh alludes to the government’s misleading tactics and suggests that the leaders are withholding information from the people.

During the interwar years there was much political unrest. Another interwar theme was the distrust and suspicions of foreigners or even new faces. Here too Waugh uses Father Rothschild and his cohorts to display how uncomfortable and distrustful the times were between the two world wars. During Lady Metroland’s party Father Rothschild manifests suspicious behaviors. He trusts no one and when noticing an unfamiliar face in the crowd who is exhibiting odd behaviors, Father Rothschild pauses in his discussion to say, “Forgive me, but there are spies everywhere. That man with the beard, do you know him? ” (Waugh 133).

When his companions cannot offer a satisfying answer, Father Rothschild ushers them into Lord Metroland’s study, closing the door and looking behind curtains. But he refuses to lock the door because “A lock does not prevent a spy from hearing; but it does hinder us, inside, from catching the spy” (Waugh 133). Rothschild is so intense about the idea of spies that he convinces the other gentlemen to hide behind curtains when someone else enters the study. Then he dramatically steps out from behind the curtain to catch the spy, a journalist crashing the party and phoning in his story to the night desk.

Although the spy was not a foreigner spying for another country, Waugh makes his point through Father Rothschild’s actions that Britain and the whole world were regarding each other suspiciously following the First World War. The inevitable next war was also a common issue in literature during the time between the two World Wars. Waugh inserted a couple of remarks that let the reader know that another world war was expected and impossible to prevent. During a discussion with other adults, Father Rothschild carelessly mentions ”it’s like this war that’s coming…”(Waugh 184).

The others are shocked by his statement, but he goes on to explain, “We long for peace, and fill our newspapers with conferences about disarmament and arbitration, but there is a radical instability in our whole world-order, and soon we shall be walking into the jaws of destruction again…”(Waugh 185). Finally, with an obvious tactic, Waugh has Britain declare war at the end of the story. This is a subject everyone is dreading during the interwar years, but everyone knows in some way it is an unstoppable outcome. And with his final plot twist, Waugh realizes the world’s greatest fear.

The depressed economy is yet another theme from interwar times that Waugh addresses in his novel. It is very difficult for Adam to get a job throughout the story and even when he does find a job it is as a journalist in the gossip column of a newspaper. But he accepts because it is better than no job and very difficult to find jobs during those times. Adam cannot marry Nina throughout the story as he is penniless and even when he does get a job, it seems barely enough for him to make do and not quite enough to save for a house.

Also, later when Adam is fired, his friend Miles takes over his job without any qualms because he too is desperate for a job.. Not only characters and themes reveal Vile Bodies as a typical interwar years novel, but the style of writing Waugh used suggests the times in which this was written. Waugh is a humorist, constantly plugging comical sketches and characters, like Colonel Blount, Nina’s absent-minded father, into the story. The interwar years embraced satire and humor as it was a time for seeking amusement. Reading for pleasure was common in this age of amusement.

Waugh also wrote not in a strict timeline of events, but in quick flashes of activity. Waugh flashed from scene to scene without any display of logical order. The story consists mainly of short events here and there with different characters partaking in these events. For example, a discussion between two elderly sisters then jumps to a conversation between a group of older adults discussing the Bright Young People. This jumping from scene to scene and disregarding the way time moves along is a classic example of modernist literature (Melton).

Evelyn Waugh has created in Vile Bodies a typical interwar British literature masterpiece. Through characterizations and themes as well as his literary techniques, he shows his book as a 1930 classic. With his satirist methods, he writes an amusing and prolific book that is sure to amuse generations to come.

Works Cited

Bloom, Harry, Ed. British Modernist Fiction 1920 to 1945. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. Bradshaw, David and Kevin JH Dettmar. A Companion to Modernist Literature and Culture. Hoboken: Blackwell Publishing, 2006. Foster, Jennifer.“Modernism in Literature and History 3. ” December 21, 2008. http://www. helium. com/items/743749-modernism-in-literature-and-history. Melton, Lili Ph. D. “Modernism in Literature and History . 1” December 21, 2008. http://www. helium. com/items/809291-modernism-in-literature-and-history. Waugh, Evelyn. Vile Bodies. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1930. Wellman, Barry. “Structural Analysis: From Method and Metaphor to Theory and Substance. ” Pp. 19-61 in Social Structures: A Network Approach, edited by Barry Wellman and S. D. Berkowitz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

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