"Brideshead Revisited," published in 1944, is based on Evelyn Waugh's Oxford University experiences and his observation of the social circles he mixed in. The story focuses on the lifestyle of a declining, and often dissolute, British aristocracy between the two world wars. Against this social backdrop, Waugh also explores some of the characters' struggle with Catholic morality. The story is complex and structured in two parts. Book 1 focuses on Sebastian, while Book 2 focuses on Charles.
Charles Ryder is the novel's narrator, and one of the main characters. In 1944, he returns to Brideshead Castle, and there begins his tale of his earlier visits to the estate owned by the aristocratic Flyte family. His extended flashback starts in 1923 at Oxford University, where he meets Sebastian Flyte. Sebastian is wealthy, aristocratic, charming, and reckless in the way he conducts his life. The friendship that develops between Charles and Sebastian has a crucial effect on Charles' life as he is drawn into Sebastian's dissolute lifestyle, and carries the responsibility of protecting Sebastian from himself much of the time.
Charles learns about the troubled Flyte family history from Sebastian's friend, the outrageously flamboyant Anthony Blanche. Charles first visits Sebastian's family home, Brideshead, during their first summer at Oxford, and meets Sebastian's brother and sisters, and his devoutly Catholic mother, Lady Marchmain. The two friends travel to Venice to visit Lord Marchmain, who loathes Catholicism. It is apparent during the visit that Sebastian is rapidly becoming an alcoholic. Much of the story then centers around Lady Marchmain's attempts to control Sebastian's behavior and drinking. The arrival of Sebastian's sister, Julia, with Rex Mottram, a gangster-type character, leads to Sebastian being arrested for drunken driving, and a family scandal.
In a bid to control Sebastian's drinking, Lady Marchmain sends him on a European tour, with Mr. Samgrass, an Oxford professor. It's all to no effect, as Sebastian is still drinking when he returns, often helped by family members and Charles, causing a rift between him and Sebastian's mother. But when Lady Marchmain discovers she is dying, she asks Charles to find Sebastian in Morocco, where he is living with a German, Kurt, who takes advantage of his wealth. Sebastian is ill, and before Charles can get him back to England, Lady Marchmain dies.
In Book 2, the story jumps to the present, and focuses on Charles's life and career as an architectural painter. On a trip back to England, he bumps into Julia Flyte, and starts an affair with her. He marries her, after divorcing his wife, and while on visit to Brideshead, they hear that Sebastian is still an alcoholic and lives in Tunis. The novel ends with a series of events centering around Catholic beliefs: Charles and Julia divorce over religious differences prompted by Lord Marchmain turning to Catholicism on his deathbed. Julia supports her father and also turns to the church, while Charles remains doggedly anti-religious. The novel's epilogue finds Charles, after the war, sitting in the Brideshead chapel contemplating "the small tragedy" in which he took part, meaning the story of the Flyte family.
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