A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh is a cynical satire on the aristocratic and upper-class society. Being a traditionalist, Waugh resented the modern urbane materialistic life led by the privileged class. He saw nothing but frivolity in their lifestyle, lacking morality and discipline. Waugh’s Catholic views come in headstrong collision with the immoral and errant behaviour of the men and women of the high society, and his scathing criticism is overabundant in the novel.
Waugh’s satire is often misunderstood as being funny. This is quite wrong. His satire is often laced with dark humour. There is absolutely nothing funny in his stories, but painful truth, narrated in a cynical tone. For this reason, Waugh has earned mixed reception for his stories. Many to this date misunderstand Waugh’s traditionalistic views for snobbery. However, despite the differences in view, that he portrayed quite a truthful account of the prevalent social, political, and moral issues of the day cannot be denied. There lies Waugh’s charm for me.
A Handful of Dust is a direct attack on the modern way of living of the upper-class society. Men of the gentry, holding desperate to their falling estates, trying to relive a bygone past; society women, bored being trophy wives and having no proper channel to direct their energy, finding pleasure in adulterous affairs; and men of nobility frequenting clubs and other dining places, attending parties and doing very little work, either parliamentary or other. All these topics are satirically portrayed in the story, exposing the superficial nature of modern society.
Waugh’s Catholic views are on strong play here. In addition to the frivolous nature of modern society, he attacks the modern belief of “self-determination”. In the first quarter of the 19th century, the concept that “life is what you made of it” speedily enveloped society. With it came the belief that one can control the outcome of his or her life. Waugh totally dismissed this notion. To him, this was a rejection of God. Waugh was a firm believer that it was only God who could determine the outcome of human lives. Humans were after all nothing but a “handful of dust”. Tony Last couldn’t restore Hetton Abbey to its former glory as he intended and Brenda Last was deserted by John Beaver. This shows that we have no control over our course in life. That is determined by a higher force.
Elements from Waugh’s personal experiences can be observed throughout the story. Although the character traits may differ, Tony Last, Brenda Last and John Beaver represent the real-life Waugh-Gardiner-John Haygate triangle, and the subplot was based on his own bizarre experience from a Brazilian expedition. The story is very well-written; the incorporation of personal elements seems to have greatly helped him with the task.
The novel was a winner at the start. It captured my full attention. However, the introduction of the subplot in the last third of the novel, where the protagonist takes an expedition to recover from his wife’s desertion, reversed my enthusiasm. I felt that the expedition subplot was quite out of harmony with the main storyline and the character of the protagonist. Tony Last was not portrayed as an adventurous character, nor as having any passion except for the upkeeping of his ancestral home, the Hetton Abbey. The expedition subplot was a bore, and the interest I solidly held up to that point was somewhat weakened. The novel is a tragicomedy like most of Waugh’s novels, and I understand that Waugh needed the tragic ending to prove a point. But in my opinion, he could have chosen a different subplot more in line with the overall story and its main character.