A Handful of Dust- Review/ Plot Synopsis
Are you a fan of conventional character archetypes? How about characters that you can root for? Clean-cut villains with specific purpose? Plotlines that follow established literary conventions?
If your answer to any of these questions is yes, then you may have a problem with A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh. That’s not to say that the novel isn’t an astounding piece of literature; the British post-war society piece is actually a resounding success in the most unconventional of ways. And when I say unconventional, I mean that by all accounts, the novel should be boring. This novel is essentially the literary equivalent of Quentin Tarantino on valium; broken and despondent, sporadic and lethargic. But through the injection of dark humor and the fluidity of dialogue rich with subtext, Waugh manages to paint portraits in an enticing light. People can always relate to universal truths, and by manipulating love and betrayal Waugh manages to pack a huge emotional punch. His characters are painfully flawed, the majority of which have some sort of antagonistic qualities, and the main protagonist is uncomfortably relatable. But the bottom line is that I enjoyed the book very much. I felt like I was reading a profound piece of literature disguised as a gossip novel, and I haven’t found that in anything that’s been published recently.
For better or for worse, (for worse), the current literary cannon mainly consists of young adult fiction. A genre bursting at the seems with young love that could never be, and fantasy worlds tainted by teenage angst- everything is either a prom night murder mystery or a sad attempt at some sort of coming-of-age epic. It’s not literature- there’s no superior or lasting merit. These books are fine in their own respect, but they’re only worth surface value- there’s no depth. What Waugh does with A Handful of Dust is a testimony to the power of good writing. He injects an introspective experience into the rigid confines of upper-echelon British post-war society, and what we as readers get is a tense, unintentionally humorous ride through the domestic train-wreck of the main characters, Tony and Brenda Last.
The novel has three main characters: the married couple, Tony and Brenda Last, and John Beaver. John Beaver is the written equivalent of the friend in your circle that you never want to invite out anywhere. He takes his pleasures selfishly and lovelessly, full of absent lunch dates and empty small talk. He’s a social butterfly that came out of the cocoon looking worse than before; someone whose most meaningful relationship is his gossip girl relationship with his mother. Now that’s not to say that he’s completely void of anything remotely redeeming, he has this sort of pitiful quality that’s actually somewhat cathartic. As a reader I was really rooting for something to go his way, just so he wouldn’t be such a loser. But once he’s granted a reprieve from his mediocrity in the form of an affair with Brenda Last, Waugh taught me to be careful what I wished for.
Transitioning to Tony and Brenda Last; we arrive at the center of the novel. A Handful of Dust is essentially a look at adultery from the perspective of the blameless cuckhold. Tony Last is the undeserving everyman, prematurely aged and stuck in his ways, but redeeming nonetheless. He’s the character we as the reader are forced to root for, purged by catharsis but never rewarded for his sufferance- never granted the happy-ending that he deserves. Tony is Waugh’s autobiographical representation of himself. In the months previous to Waugh’s writing of the novel, he went through a lengthy divorce with his first wife Evelyn Gardner due to her affair with John Heygate. Shortly thereafter, (still before the writing of the novel), Waugh’s marriage proposal to one of his love interests was denied. Waugh’s twisted introspection of his own domestic misfortunes serves as the emotional foundation of the plot.
Now onto Brenda Last. What a roller coaster she was. At first I fell in love with Brenda Last. At the beginning of the novel I thought she was so sweet and innocent, and in hindsight maybe that was Waugh’s intention. She’s a member of the aristocracy, charming in an adorable way, very polite and proper. But as the novel progressed, she began to shed layers. Eventually her redeeming traits were debunked. Her flawless manners were revealed to be a byproduct of her emotional disconnection. As her affair with John Beaver progressed, the lies became bold and brazen; to the point where Brenda became ruthless. She continuously humiliates Tony and sucks him dry, emotionally and financially. The only problem with her character is that the Brenda portrayed at the beginning of the story is distinctly different and dislocated from the Brenda portrayed at the end. And I’m not talking about straightforward character transformation, I’m talking about a legitimate disconnection; as if wife and adulteress were different people. But this inconsistency seems purposeful. Waugh isn’t particularly concerned with Brenda’s consistency as a character, he’s more invested in the nature of what she’s done to her marriage, and he is unsparing in his depiction of it.
Now to the ending. How do I present something so idiosyncratic? The novel was released with an alternative ending in September of 1934. The ending that I first read was an adaption of Waugh’s short story, The Man Who Loved Dickens. In a state of delirium, Tony goes on an expedition to Brazil in order to escape the embarrassment surrounding his divorce in Britain. Then he ends up trapped by some jungle lunatic and supposedly lives out the rest of his days in the Amazonian Jungle reading Dickens stories. Everybody in England assumes that he died. Now… Where is the dénouement? Where is the happy-ending? There is no satisfaction in that, it seems outrageous and out of place; in juxtaposition to the metropolitan setting of the novel. The second ending however, which involves Tony’s return from Brazil, and his reconciliation with Brenda, led me to a new conclusion. After reading the latter, I realized that I didn’t want that for Tony- I didn’t want to see him completely emasculated. He couldn’t get back with Brenda. Being stuck in the jungle seemed like the lesser of two evils, although neither ending really gave me the satisfaction I was looking for.
The novel itself is cold but refreshing- but such is life. Sometimes we don’t get what we want, and it’s these types of unfortunate admissions that provide the novel with such thematic significance and longevity. When I finally put this book down, I didn’t want to like it, but I did- I loved it. I loved it for its’ uniqueness and its’ literary merit, it’s a meshing of old and new. Waugh’s demographic at the time was a small British elite, but his book turned out to be a literary classic; even after just a lukewarm critical reception. The novel is a relevant contrast to the novels that are pumped out and streamlined onto our bookshelves today. It’s impossible for me to say everything I want to say about the novel here, but rest assured- even with all these spoilers, there’s still so much that I haven’t touched. Oh, and the title is an allusion to T.S. Elliot’s The Wasteland. If you haven’t read that then drop everything you’re doing and go read it now. Then afterwards you can read A Handful of Dust for yourself and tell me what you think. Email me your thoughts. Happy reading!