Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Posted May 11, 2013 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 4 Comments

Decline and Fall by Evelyn WaughTitle: Decline and Fall (Goodreads)
Author: Evelyn Waugh
Published: Penguin, 1928
Pages: 216
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

Paul Pennyfeather finds himself taking a job at a public school called Llanabba after being expelled from Oxford for indecent behaviour. He takes up some private tutoring to get close to the student’s mother, Margot Beste-Chetwynde. Their relationship forms and they are soon engaged; all the while Paul is still unaware that the main source of her income is a number of high class brothels in South America. Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall is a black comedy satirising British society in the 1920s.

This is my first Evelyn Waugh novel; why did I pick this over Brideshead Revisited? Simple answer is a friend loves this book and I thought I would see if I trust her taste in literature; since they are more of a genre reader. Decline and Fall gets its name from Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a book that traces the trajectory of the Roman Empire, and Western civilisation as a whole. There are some who also attributes the title to Oswald Spengler’s The Decline of the West, a philosophical book that rejects the Euro-centric view of history. Both books are important to remember as both look at western civilisation and reject the idea that it is the be all and end all.

Decline and Fall satirises a world where the British social institutes (like schools) have lost their integrity and their authority. The church has lost its faith and the aristocracy have declined to the same level as the masses since the educational system teaches nothing worth learning. The situation is both humorous in its approach and also very dystopian. Waugh has a great deal of fun playing with this world but when you reflect on this book and take out all the comedy, it really is quite scary; sure I’m for equality in the social classes but the prediction of a failing education system is not something I look forward to.

There are two major literary techniques within this novel that I feel are worth looking at; first of all there is the humour which, while funny, leaves a lot to the reader’s imagination with the deadpan narrative of the newspaper reporter. For all I know the book really isn’t about the decline of education and society but the way this book is written has set my mind running in that direction, it could have filled in the blanks on its own. The second is the way this book parodies English literature within the book, from a reference to Shakespeare’s Othello to many more. A better English major than I could probably pull this book apart a lot better and tell you every single literary reference within the book.

This book confronts the reader with some difficult moral decisions all the while doing it in a tone that reminds me of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Monty Python. The general decay of society is the major theme throughout this book but you might not even pick up on this if you are only reading this for the humour. There are elements of both Horatian and Juvenalian satire within the book and I like the way Evelyn Waugh writes it so you can read in either form and still get some enjoyment from Decline and Fall.

After reading this novel, I’m keener than ever to check out Brideshead Revisited and some of his other works. This is not a perfect novel, I did find myself a little bored at times and even lost but Decline and Fall has some interesting ideas worth reading about. I can’t help but wonder if reading The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire or The Decline of the West might have a positive effect on this novel. I won’t say this is a great novel but I’m glad to have read and dissected Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall.

4 responses to “Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

  1. Violet

    This has always been an hilarious read for me because Waugh is so clever at creating archetypical (or stereotypical?) characters and skewering them without mercy. He was such a brilliant satirist.

  2. Marie

    I’ve recently tried to read Scoop by Evelyn Waugh which sounds similarly darkly satirical to this. I have had to set it aside for a bit though as I can’t get into it. Really want to give this author another go, though, as all of his books sound so appealing from reviews and summaries.

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