Elijah and the Beginning of Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms

By Wilson, John Howard | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Elijah and the Beginning of Evelyn Waugh's Men at Arms


Wilson, John Howard, Papers on Language & Literature


At the beginning of Evelyn Waugh's novel Men at Arms (1952), Guy Crouchback, the hero, faces an unusual problem. About to leave Italy for England at the beginning of the Second World War, Guy is presented with "a large ornamental cake which had been made in celebration of his departure." Guy has just eaten lunch, and he is no longer hungry, so he watches "with alarm" as his servant Josefina cuts the cake: "H e tasted it, praised it, crumbled it." Josefina and the other servant, Bianca, stood "implacable before him until he had finished the last morsel" (Sword Trilogy 12). As Guy gets into a taxi to leave, "Josefina put into his lap the remains of the cake wrapped in newspaper" (13). Guy has been to confession and has said goodbye to the neighbors, but he is troubled by one small question [...]: what to do with the cake. He could not leave it in the car; Bianca and Josefina would hear of it. It would be a great nuisance in the train. He tried to remember whether the Vice-Consul, with whom he had to decide certain details of closing the Castello, had any children to whom the cake might be given. He rather thought he had.

Apart from this one sugary encumbrance, Guy floated free [...]. (14-15)

The cake is not mentioned again, and it seems odd that Waugh should devote so much attention to it at the beginning of what turned out to be a three-novel sequence, eventually combined in a one-volume recension entitled Sword of Honour (1965).

The cake does, however, introduce at least three important themes of the trilogy. One is food, particularly baked goods. Guy discards Josefina and Bianca's cake at the beginning of the war, but he goes hungry during the Battle of Crete in the second volume, Officers and Gentlemen (1955). Guy's superior officer, Fido Hound, is reduced to bartering five cigarettes for one biscuit and one lump of bully beef, and he steals six biscuits from men sleeping in the caves of Creforce Headquarters. In the third volume, Unconditional Surrender (The End of the Battle in the USA, 1961), Guy casually suggests that Jewish refugees at the British mission in Croatia take "two or three" biscuits: "With tense self-control each took three biscuits, watching the others to see they did not disgrace the meeting by greed" (Trilogy 649). The longer the war lasts, the more desperate the characters become.

The cake in Italy also introduces the theme of gifts. Guy doesn't want the cake, but at the end of Men at Arms the hospitalized Apthorpe craves Guy's gift of a bottle of whisky, another grain product. Since he is "practically a dipsomaniac" (Trilogy 228), Apthorpe drinks himself into a coma and dies. The medical staff discover the empty bottle, and Guy's superiors conclude that Guy "made an ass of himself" (231), (1) not for the last time. In Unconditional Surrender, after his wife Virginia is killed, Guy gives a mass intention to a priest along with "a tin of bully beef and some bars of chocolate" (Trilogy 668). These gifts upset the partisans. About to leave Croatia at the end of the war, Guy gives his remaining food to "three Montenegrin war-widows" who have cared for him (644), in a reversal of Josefina and Bianca's gift of cake at the beginning of Men at Arms. Guy also gives a "pile of illustrated magazines to Madame Kanyi" (702), but the partisans denounce these as "American counter-revolutionary propaganda" (705) and use them as evidence in a trial leading to the execution of Madame Kanyi and her husband. In "Compassion" (1949), the story that started the trilogy, the chaplain concludes that "It is just as much part of Charity to receive cheerfully as to give" (Complete 440). Waugh develops this idea in the trilogy.

Guy also has wine at lunch in Italy, followed by cake, like the bread and wine of the mass, mentioned in passing throughout the trilogy.

Despite these thematic connections, the episode of the cake still seems overblown. In Evelyn Waugh, Writer (1981), Robert Murray Davis notes that the "composition of Men at Arms is difficult to trace from external sources," and even after four months of writing, Waugh's plan was "still rather nebulous" (238-39). …

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