Miniaturization and Anticlimax in Evelyn Waugh's 'Sword of Honor.' (Author)

By Trout, Steven | Twentieth Century Literature, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview

Miniaturization and Anticlimax in Evelyn Waugh's 'Sword of Honor.' (Author)


Trout, Steven, Twentieth Century Literature


Although Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour has drawn high praise from a number of influential critics - especially Anthony Burgess (56-58), Andrew Rutherford (113-34), and Bernard Bergonzi (116-19) - the trilogy has slipped in and out of print since the 1960s, its stature as Waugh's magnum opus eclipsed by the steady popularity of earlier works such as A Handful of Dust and Brideshead Revisited. Thus, the recent addition of Sword of Honour to the Knopf Everyman's Library, a gesture that marks the trilogy's belated recognition as a twentieth-century classic and (one hopes) its now permanent availability in print,(1) calls for a reexamination of what Andrew Rutherford, speaking for many readers, has called "probably the greatest work of fiction to emerge from the Second World War" (113).

Underlying most of the critical commentary that the trilogy has attracted to date is an assumption that I intend, in the following discussion, to modify: namely, that Sword of Honour, like the more openly nostalgic and sentimental Brideshead Revisited, constitutes an almost complete departure from the manic farce in Waugh's early fiction. The trilogy, critics have generally agreed, represents Waugh in a more somber, morally engaged, and forthrightly Catholic phase. Here, the author no longer presents bizarre or grotesque situations from a seemingly detached perspective (as in, for example, A Handful of Dust) but adopts fiction as, one could say, a "sword of honour," as a means of openly attacking the modern age and explicitly asserting an alternative set of values. In The Ironic World of Evelyn Waugh (1992), Frederick L. Beaty has refined this contrast between Waugh's fiction of the 1930s and his later work. Distinguishing between irony, which, in Harold Bloom's words, "undermines clarities [and] opens up vistas of chaos," and satire, which supposedly posits a discernable moral position, Beaty characterizes the novels prior to Brideshead as the work of a master ironist, who "stands apart from his creation[s] virtually to the extent of being an amoral observer" (29-30). The later novels, on the other hand, are works of satire that merely use "traces" of "irony as a technical device." Their "dominant world view is no longer ironic" (9).

I essentially agree that Sword of Honour offers, in Beaty's terms, a satirical vision of World War II. However, Waugh's use of irony - even as a so-called "technical device" - in this later work seems to me much more intricate and extensive than generally recognized. And, while subdued in comparison with Waugh's novels of the 30s, the trilogy does present more than a few "vistas of chaos," as Waugh's restless irony turns from target to target, at times threatening to subsume the entire world into its vision of futility and betrayal. Critical analyses of the trilogy have tended, up to this point, to examine the text primarily in terms of plot and character development.(2) I would like to take a different approach and to explore the issue of irony in Sword of Honour in two specific areas: language, considered here both as a medium and as a subject of the narration, and setting, or, more specifically, Waugh's presentation of physical space. What ultimately emerges from this less linear and less plot-bound consideration is the recognition that the trilogy not only attacks modern warfare (and midcentury English culture) with more pervasive irony than previously suspected, but also lampoons war fiction itself, subverting every imaginable convention. An examination of language and setting also suggests the myriad ways in which the trilogy undermines its own seemingly expansive structure, continually collapsing inward to form an anti-epic - the perfect form, as it turns out, for the protagonist's painful journey toward the renunciation of violence and "just" military causes.

Central to my reading is the assertion that Sword of Honour engages the reader, on many different levels, in a recurring - and perversely compelling - cycle of raised expectation and disappointment. …

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