Brideshead Revisited: Why does Sebastian drink?

As a precursor to this post, I should mention that I will be assuming a prior familiarity with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, so if anyone reading this has not read the book, there will be a great deal of plot revelations. I will be looking at the character of Sebastian Flyte, who acts as an entry point for the principal character and narrator – Charles Ryder – into Catholicism, and whose development throughout the story provides a strange counterpoint to Charles’ own growing spiritual development and understanding of the Catholic Church. I should also mention that in my analysis of Sebastian’s journey as an illustration of the operations of grace, I am in no way condoning any aspects of his lifestyle.

Sebastian enters the story as a charismatic, eccentric figure, and Charles, a self-avowed aesthete, immediately sees him as representing something beautiful and fantastical, standing out from the humdrum hedonism of Oxford life. Sebastian’s Catholicism is not something hidden, but a full examination of his faith is introduced with a suddenness that forces the reader to engage with what will form the backbone and underlying texture of the book. This introduction takes place via Charles’ questioning of Sebastian one weekend at Brideshead:

“I suppose they try and make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?”

“Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.”

“But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.”

“Can’t I?”

“I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.”

“Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

“But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.”

“But I do. That’s how I believe.”

Brideshead Revisited (2011), p.109, Penguin Classics.

            It would like to suggest that it is in this passage that we may be able to find the key to Sebastian’s alcoholic deterioration later in the novel. Whilst it is commonplace to attribute his heavy drinking to an overbearing mother, and the Catholicism that she represents, I think this is only a half-truth, and that the heart of the matter can instead be found in an admixture of Sebastian’s Catholic upbringing and the particular interpretation that he has brought to bear upon it. This interpretation itself stems from the combination of an intense appreciation for the aesthetic element of Catholicism, and the pampered, indulgent life he has been allowed to enjoy throughout his life.

Sebastian’s appreciation for beauty and joy, as evidenced in the above quotation, combined with his privileged upbringing, create in him a rather naïve expectation that beauty and joy should meet him on every corner. When Charles meets him at Oxford, he is still revelling in a life without responsibility, and has discovered the temporary joys of drink and debauchery. As terms pass and it becomes apparent that Sebastian’s dedication to the joys of living it up are impeding his academic progress, his family become concerned, and their attention intensifies his desire to escape into the easy-access joys of drink:

I had left him morose but completely sober at a few minutes before twelve. In the succeeding hour he had drunk half a bottle of whisky alone. He did not remember much about it when he came to tell me the next morning.

“Have you been doing that a lot,” I asked, “drinking by yourself after I’ve gone?”

“About twice; perhaps four times. It’s only when they start bothering me. I’d be all right if they’d only leave me alone.”…

“…Really” I said, “if you are going to embark on a solitary bout of drinking every time you see a member of your family,  it’s perfectly hopeless.”

“Oh, yes,” said Sebastian with great sadness. “I know. It’s hopeless.”

ibid, p.181.

            The attentions of Sebastian’s family that cause him to retreat further into alcoholism are not just a reminder of the religion that he has cast off during university life, but also the call to look life straight in the face, warts and all. He is being led to realise that he has responsibilities, that he cannot just indulge his desire for beauty and joy – that one cannot rest one’s happiness on the idea that life will be a perpetual beatific vision. His family’s recognition is a reminder of his failure to face reality, and Sebastian associates his letting them down with letting God down, for his attachment to beauty and joy is also bound up with a love for holiness.

Sebastian has placed all his hopes in the idea that he may find fullness of life and happiness in every moment, and when this doesn’t happen, he turns to a source of instant gratification that allows an escape from reality – drink. But this yearning for joy in the present moment is also connected to his recognition that true beauty is found in holiness; this is what I think Sebastian means when he says that the story of the Nativity is a ‘lovely idea’ and that is ‘how I believe’. He instinctively sees beauty radiating from holy things, and holy people, and it is this that he is desperately trying to recapture by his escape into alcoholic reverie.

We can see this innate desire for holiness practically realised in Sebastian later in the novel, where, fatigued and weakened by drink, he is living in drastically reduced circumstances, and has taken it upon himself to look after Kurt, a disreputable character who lives off Sebastian’s kindness. This new situation seems to provide Sebastian with an opportunity for self-sacrifice and charity that he had never had before:

“For God’s sake,” I said, “you don’t mean to spend your life with Kurt do you?”

“I don’t know. He seems to mean to spend it with me. ‘It’th all right for him, I reckon, maybe,’ he said, mimicking Kurt’s accent, and then he added what, if I had paid more attention, should have given me the key I lacked; at the time I heard and remembered it, without taking notice.

“You know Charles,” he said, “it’s rather a pleasant change when all your life you’ve had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself. Only of course it has to be someone pretty hopeless to need looking after by me.”

ibid, pp.279-280.

            Sebastian’s sister Cordelia recognises this trait in Sebastian when, later on she returns to Brideshead and tells Charles of her assessment of the state of life that her brother had fallen into. She describes what she sees as his future – living half in and half out of the monastic community that he had become attached to, going on occasional drinking sprees and cultivating private, eccentric devotions; he will become a familiar face around the monastery, where everyone will know about his drinking, but they will become very fond of him and remember him in their prayers, until one day his body finally gives in:

“…Then one morning, after one of his drinking bouts, he’ll be picked up at the gate dying, and show by a mere flicker of the eyelid that he is conscious when they give him the last sacraments. It’s not such a bad way of getting through one’s life.”

I thought of the youth with the teddy-bear under the flowering chestnuts. “It’s not what one would have foretold,” I said. “I suppose he doesn’t suffer?”

“Oh, yes, I think he does. One can have no idea what the suffering may be, to be maimed as he is – no dignity, no power of will. No one is ever holy without suffering. It’s taken that form with him…I’ve seen so much suffering in the last few years; there’s so much coming for everybody soon. It’s the spring of love…”

ibid, p.401.

            Suffering as the spring of love – this, I think, is central to understanding Sebastian’s character, and why he drinks. He is haunted by beauty, by holiness, and ultimately by love. His disposition throughout the book is presented as ebullient, forthcoming, ready to embrace all the joys and brightness of the world that he found in that story of the Nativity all those years ago in the nursery. A cosseted and privileged upbringing, combined with his sensitive and loving nature was, tragically, a recipe for disaster, and so he sought refuge in the instantaneous joys of the bottle. But later in life, as he fell upon hard times, he found another way to recapture the glimmers of joy that he had known as a child – in the self-giving love of service.

I don’t think it is accidental that Sebastian is so named. His namesake, Saint Sebastian, is famous for his wounds and the battering he received in order to complete his martyrdom; Sebastian Flyte carries the wounds of a life spent looking for love in all the wrong places, and ends his days battered by the consequences of his misplaced desires. Yet, by the mysteries of grace, he is finally perfected in love by the very sufferings that his misdemeanours brought upon him. As Cordelia says, ‘no one is ever made holy without suffering’; and Sebastian achieves a strange kind of holiness towards the end of the novel. Waugh, it seems, intends the reader to see his character as an imperfect icon of the workings of grace through our weaknesses – God’s writing ‘straight with crooked lines’ – and the life of Sebastian Flyte is certainly an affecting testimony to that abiding truth.

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12 thoughts on “Brideshead Revisited: Why does Sebastian drink?

  1. Pingback: Brideshead Revisited: Unhappy, Ashamed and Running Away | Journey Towards Easter

  2. Beautiful post! The root of Sebastian’s drinking is never made explicitly known throughout the novel, and though my thoughts mirrored your own for the most part, you’ve really illuminated his character for me. God bless!

    • Thank you very much for your comments! I am glad that what I wrote resonated with your own reading, and very glad to have added to that in any small way 🙂 God bless you too!

  3. I have come to see Lady Marchmain as representing the Catholic Church as it was in Waugh’s day or perhaps how it was seen through the eyes of a convert.

    Sebastian had rejected mother/church but never found earthly happiness. Cordelia though recognised that her brother had attained holiness through his suffering.

    In my opinion her imagined death for Sebastian, frail, sick, being cared for by monks and given the Last Sacrament mirrors that of his father Lord Marchmain who had also fled the mother/church figure of Lady Marchmain.

    Thankyou. I have just stumbled upon your blog.

  4. Why does Sebastian drink? It could be to seek instant gratification of every moment, but it could be that he doesn’t believe he’s earned Grace given to him freely by God.

    It’s never clearly stated; however, I think the reason may have several layers of depth. Of course, in the novel, there is the connection of The Church and the state of Grace. Sebastian, for the most part, wishes to reject his mother, which he views as a replacement for his animosity.

    However, Sebastian believes his happiness is found disconnected from his world, which has all but revealed God to him. God is very much apart of Brideshead, Sebastian seeks to find an Island, an oasis, from it. The relationship between Charles and Sebastian takes off into a joyous experience at first, and Sebastian needing his oasis seeks to keep Charles away from any and all sort.

    I remember after the jail incident, Charles speaks about Sebastian believing his happiness to be tied to this separation from Brideshead, and in effect God. However, as Charles emphasizes Sebastian’s need to disconnect and his rejection of even Charles after Charles becomes friendly with he family, there may be deep reasons for Sebastian’s rejection of God. 

Thomas Merton perhaps speaks of a different layer in his book No man is an Island. Merton says, “Only the man who has had to face despair is really convinced that he needs mercy. Those who do not want mercy never seek it. It is better to find God on the threshold of despair than to risk our lives in a complacency that has never felt the need of forgiveness. A life that is without problems may literally be more hopeless than one that always verges on despair.”

    Sebastian, always has had a degree of faith no matter how much he tried to reject it. When Charles challenges him about his faith, Sebastian cannot outright reject his faith. Sebastian says something of the nature that “it’s a wonderful story.” Something deeply rooted, like Grace, compels him to believe it. Perhaps, Sebastian rejecting the world through drinking is also a method for Grace to enter into this young man of wealth to accept the Grace of God. As a society, the humanist tell us and try to conform God to the morality that moral actions must relieve suffering. However, these are not the same rules for God. If God truly relieved the suffering of Sebastian would Grace enter his heart among the brothers later? It wouldn’t appear so.

    • You quote the conversation above where Charles challenged Sebastian on his faith, I simply missed the part I wanted to quote., ““Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.”

      Oh, and I just checked my book, I thought Sebastian said this but it ends up it was his sister Cordelia.

      “I never really knew your mother,” I said.

      “You didn’t like her. I sometimes think when people wanted to hate God they hated mummy.”

      What do you mean by that, Cordelia?”

      “Well, you see, she was saintly, but she wasn’t a saint. No one could really hate a saint, could they? They really can’t hate God either. When they want to hate him and his saints they to find something like themselves and pretend it’s God and hate that. I suppose you think that’s all bosh.” ( p. 254-55 Bay Books 2012)

      At any rate, I still think this shows us insight to Sebastian’s actions.

    • Hi Philip,

      Many thanks for your comment(s), and apologies for taking so long to reply. Before I respond properly though, I just want to clarify something – is what you’ve written meant to be taken as a disagreement with what I wrote in the post above, or are you simply stating your own response to the question ‘why does Sebastian drink’?

      I ask because a.) basically I don’t really disagree with what you have written; and b.) you actually affirm a couple of the points I made in the post (e.g.; about Sebastian’s having a degree of faith regardless of his attempts to reject it), yet your affirmations of these points seem to be made as part of a wider point in contradistinction to my own.

      I may well be very wrong here of course! But I can’t quite make out what angle you’re coming from, so I would appreciate a brief clarification if that’s okay.

      • I’m just writing my understanding of the relationship, perhaps it says more about me than anything. You know how interpretations go…

        As far as I’m concerned with the depth of the book Waugh could have meant to write both in the book.

        • So it’s the latter then – thanks for clarifying. As I said, I don’t really disagree with what you wrote (in fact, I see it and my own view as complementary – though obviously there must be some kind of priority in the end*), I just wasn’t sure if it was meant as an engagement with or critique of my own, or just a presentation of your own interpretation without reference to my own.

          *As you say, the book does indeed have great depth, and I think it is one of its virtues that so much is left undefined – we are encouraged to get to know the characters, and any conclusions we may make about them are on the basis of how well we ‘got on’ with them or what kind of impression they made on us (if you know what I mean). Just as it is hard to sum up relationships in the real world in any neat, final way, so it is with the characters in BR.

        • Hi Philip,

          I’m very much enjoying your new site in general, and noticed today that you posted an article on this very topic. Whilst I take the point you make there (and here), I ask again – what do you make specifically of my interpretation above? It’d be interesting to see any confluence (or dissonance – one never knows!) between the two interpretations.

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