Book Review | Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh


A good satire must do two things: expose an criticise. A tertiary, but somewhat inessential quality, is that it makes us laugh. We often laugh because they ridicule the ridiculousness of things that we’ve previously let slip, and it’s only when we evaluate them through art that we find the humour in their, and our own, absurdity. Granted, it’s difficult to call Evelyn Waugh’s first novel Decline and Fall a truly great satirical novel as its most memorable aspects are accordingly supplementary: its comedic swathes. Any judgement passed then should be on its value as a comedic novel. 

Paul Pennyfeather is quite harmless, you could say he's the nice guy but of course the worst things happen to the nicest guys. Decline and Fall points its critical finger at various aspects of the English social system and it’s PauI who acts as the barometer against which the pomposity of this societies character’s will be measured in class-bound Britain. At every turn Paul finds himself in a setting as contemptible as the people who fill it, and with every twist we’re exposed to another house of cards. The biggest failing of the story and perhaps its biggest disappointment is that the house never falls; in fact it's hard to workout what does fall. 

As the story moves so does Paul and his setting: Oxford University; Llanabba Castle; King’s Thursday; Prison; Oxford University. It ends where it begins, at Waugh’s own Alma Mater, and there’s little development in Paul’s character during that time. At the end we feel as though we know Paul but don't really know him. This isn’t a fault of Waugh’s, it’s more Paul’s. He’s a good listener, as lots of his peers comment, he doesn't talk all that much and he doesn't have many interests or ambitions, you could easily accuse him of being boring. The real characters are the people he meets and it should be said that most of them are neither admirable nor honourable. That’s probably why we like Paul more than his character (or lack of) merits. 

Some of the novel's best comedy happens at Oxford and Llanbba Castle. The laughs are easy but well refined by the way Waugh delivers them; succinctly. When Paul is inadvertently stripped of his clothes by drunk alumni, two onlooking university Dons temporarily fear for the fate of this young student before realising that it’s merely Pennyfeather, who, to quote, is ‘someone of no importance’. The next day, despite his innocence, Paul is sent down for ‘indecent behaviour’. As he’s leaving Oxford he mutters to himself ‘God damn and blast them all to hell’ but quickly ‘he felt rather ashamed, because he rarely swore’. Herein lies Decline and Fall’s favourite comic device: 

One of my favourite moments is Paul acquiring the help of scholastic agents ‘Church and Gargoyle’ in his search for a teaching job. They find an opening but Paul fears he is not qualified for the post; it requires he speak German (of which he doesn't speak a word) amongst other things, but the scholastic agent quickly calms his fears: 

 “Why, only last terms we sent a man who had never been in a laboratory in his life as senior Science Master to one of our leading public schools. He came wanting to do private coaching in music. He's doing very well, I believe”

I love the ‘I believe’ tagged on the end here; clearly he's no idea or is just outright lying. We then cut to an anxious Paul at his interview, worried his incompatibility to the post will be exposed. Being the nice guy he is, he comes clean and declares his lack of experience, to which the headmaster replies: ‘well, of course, that is in many ways an advantage’. And so off the cliff Paul goes, headfirst, into the deep-end of a North Wales school. 

The people Paul meets at Llannaba castle recur throughout the story, appearing sporadically and quite comically. The most memorable, and certainly the most likeable is Captain Grimes. Grimes epitomises everything wrong with society as Waugh sees it. He's a man who has rested on laurels and a favourable social position his entire life. And by laurels we mean a flattering letter of reference an old schoolmaster once wrote him. Grimes describes his position as so:

“You see, I’m a public school man. That means everything. There’s a blessed equity in the English social system […] That’s the public school system all over. They may kick you out, but they never let you down”

In most satires there’s usually some moment of comeuppance for the very thing being satirised. We get brief moments of that in Decline and Fall but as the story goes on the characters who toil the most are those we most sympathise with- the death of Prendergast feels particularly dark and strangely misplaced. Paul’s love Margot Beste-Chetwynde is forced to withdraw from the public spotlight somewhat, but excluding that there’s little retribution for most of the books contemptible’s. 

This begs the question, what is it that Declines and Falls? The obvious answer would be Paul, he is the one who takes the fall for Margot and serves a prison sentence. But, as earlier alluded to, his story ends where it began; there’s no net loss there. He temporarily ‘peaks’ whilst he's engaged to the affluent Margot, but when he later winds up in jail he realises this is where he’s most content. Earlier in the story Sir Humphrey Maltravers, the Minister of Transport, tells him:

‘Aim high has been my motto […] all through my life. You probably won’t get what you want, but you may get something; aim low and you get nothing at all’

Paul doesn’t aim for anything and he certainly doesn't aim high. One benefit of that is that you can't fall. My guess is that it is his opinion which declines. His opinion of the upper-class falls once he's been exposed to it. Surely. He’s studied at the best university in the country; been engaged to a lady of sublime beauty and wealth; lived in one of the countries finest residences; and yet he's happiest behind bars, locked away from it all, that twisted society.