Brideshead Revisited: Unhappy, Ashamed and Running Away

In Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, there is a moment where the quality and quantity of Sebastian’s drinking has not only reached something of an apotheosis, but has been made manifest before the rest of his family. It is at this point that his mother, Lady Marchmain, realises quite how far-gone her son has become. After the exposure of Sebastian’s drunkenness and the revelation of his drinking as despair-fuelled alcoholism as opposed to mere dypsomania, Lady Marchmain meets with Charles Ryder, Sebastian’s closest friend and ally, to use him as a sounding board and try to understand how severe the problem is, and what its cause might be:

Later that morning I sought Lady Marchmain; the wind had freshened and we stayed indoors; I sat near her before the fire in her room, while she bent over her needlework and the budding creeper rattled on the window pane.

“I wish I had not seen him,” she said. “That was cruel. I do not mind the idea of his being drunk. It is a thing all men do when they are young. I am used to the idea of it. My brothers were wild at his age. What hurt last night was that there was nothing happy about him.”…

…It was impossible for me to explain to her what I only half understood myself; even then I felt, “She will learn it soon enough. Perhaps she knows it now.”

“It was horrible,” I said. “But please don’t think that’s his usual way.”

“Mr Samgrass told me he was drinking too much all last term.”

“Yes, but not like that – never before.”

“Then why now? here? with us? All night I have been thinking and praying and wondering what I was to say to him, and now, this morning, he isn’t here at all. That was cruel of him, leaving without a word. I don’t want him to be ashamed – it’s being ashamed that makes it all so wrong of him.”

“He’s ashamed of being unhappy,” I said…

“…I’ve been through it all before with someone else whom I loved. Well, you must know what I mean – with his father. He used to be drunk in just that way. Someone told me he is not like that now. I pray God it’s true and thank God for it with all my heart, if it is. But the running awayhe ran away, too, you know. It was as you said just now, he was ashamed of being unhappy. Both of them unhappy, ashamed and running away. It’s too pitiful. The men I grew up with” – and her eyes moved from the embroidery to the three miniatures in the folding leather case on the chimneypiece – “were not like that. I simply don’t understand it. Do you Charles?”

Brideshead Revisited (2011), pp.173-175, Penguin Classics.

            Unhappy, ashamed and running away – this is what Sebastian is, and this is what his mother simply cannot understand. His giving in to the force of emotion, which is itself a kind of self-indulgence, and the consequent relinquishment of responsibility, is something that she did not see in the men she grew up with, and she therefore does not have the categories with which to interpret her son’s experience, which, though selfish, is also paradoxically a profound self-loathing – one that is driven and cultivated by naivety, the insecurity that follows, the fear that this grows into, and the shame of not being able to face the fears that have been allowed to gain control over the self.

Lady Marchmain’s response to this newly gained insight into Sebastian’s unhappiness unfortunately does not involve anything more than an intensified version of what she had tried to do before – keeping tabs on his behaviour, limiting his resources and social mobility, and trying to put him in situations where he will be forced to socialise with other Catholics. The problem here of course is that (as Charles later points out to her) all this will do is make Sebastian want to run away even more, and willpush him further into the spiral of self-concern and self-destruction that he has built for himself.

Sebastian has already allowed his emotions to gain control over his will to such an extent that the provocation of those emotions by the forces he is most reluctant to accept (order, restraint, regularity, coercion, control) will now only drive him further into himself – a retreat that will leave him face to face with his sense of shame and the knowledge of his own failings, thus causing him to seek solace more and more in the nullifying security of drink. In the alcoholic stupor, responsibility is gone, shame can be covered over, and melancholy can become a sweet ocean of forgetfulness in which to wallow.

Lady Marchmain knows nothing of this, as she has built a life of security for herself, and has lived with others who knew their role in life well. Her son lives in an in-between world: believing but not devout, separated by his aristocratic birth but involved in and enamoured of the superficially liberating world without. Added to this is the fact that Sebastian is more devoted to the aesthetic life than he is to the life of faith, and yet, knowing well and indeed believing the contents of that faith, is aware that it cannot remain at the level of aesthetics, nor can it be held on to as one’s own, but requires sharing of it and of the self with others. It is in this sense only that one can say that his religion is the cause of his unhappiness – he sees its beauty, but, while remaining highly conscious of its demands, will not commit himself to them.

This is why his drinking problem progresses as Charles becomes closer to his family – enjoying the closeness of his friendship with Charles, and seeing the beauty of it, he cannot bear to share that with anyone. He loves beauty and indeed loves love, but does not see that love is something that by its nature must be shared, must be passed on. He has a naïve, almost childlike way of seeing the world that is endearing and beautiful in its own way, but his nature is also childlike in the sense that it is selfish, and also holds on to his sense of innocence in a way that hides it from the world, instead of protecting it by facing the world as it is (more on this here).

As fascinating as I find Sebastian’s character though, I would like to try and apply what Lady Marchmain has to say in response to her son’s condition to what we see in contemporary life, as Sebastian’s unhappiness, shame and surrender of responsibility are things that seem to be increasingly common in the Western world. We are materially better off than ever before, have eliminated shame from our vocabulary and, in theory at least, see responsibility as a key element of our common life. Yet many of us are indeed unhappy, ashamed and running away. The reasons for Sebastian being so are, in many ways, unique to his situation, but is there anything we can say more generally that might explain our own predicament?

I think that there is, and that what underlies our problems is connected to what we see in Sebastian Flyte. The project of secularisation – the gradual diminishment of religious influence on culture and the concomitant replacement of commonly held ways of seeing the human condition – has progressively eliminated the ideas of evil and of sin from our shared vocabulary and mental background. We have told ourselves that there is no such thing as evil, and that all the world’s ills can be solved through greater education or social programmes; we have told ourselves that there is no such thing as sin, and that our sense of shame for wrong choices in life is a psychological malady and that we are not responsible for any of it.

However, evil of course continues to reappear, and people, however much they tell themselves otherwise, still sense that they have transgressed a moral law and should be living otherwise. But because our secular doctrines have rid us of the categories with which to deal with these things, and have not equipped us with any satisfactory alternatives (instead leaving us beholden to an empty sentimentality), we become unhappy and we become scared – we then bury our guilt and sense of despair in multiplying activities and temporary pleasures (including but not limited to drink and drugs); we, unable to deal with the evil and sin that continue to exist in our world, instead choose to run away from them.

Like Sebastian, we not only still have a sense of rightness and of duty, but we also have a sense of beauty and of the splendour of love. Furthermore, we feel these latter two perhaps even more so than our moral sense, as they are naturally desirable to us but are not tied to any sense of obligation or responsibility. Because of this, we crave the Beautiful and we crave Love, but we want them to ourselves, and when faced with the unavoidable fact that they can only truly be themselves when placed in the wider context of the True and the Good, and that they can only truly be ours when we stop trying to keep them for ourselves, we baulk and run away.

Unhappy, ashamed and running away – these are not aspects of the human condition that are new to our age, but they have gained something of an ascendancy during a period that has convinced our culture of a truncated view of humanity as well as a naïve and sentimental progressivism that leaves us unable to face the uglier aspects of reality. In essence we have denied Original Sin, and in doing so have denied ourselves the comforts and the weaponry that our forefathers had developed in order to confront the truth that we live in a fallen world. Just as Sebastian’s decontextualised love of innocence and beauty left him bereft as he encountered the harder realities of life, so has our secular optimism left us. Only Christian realism can give us the tools to face this world, and the true sense of peace we need to live in it.

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6 thoughts on “Brideshead Revisited: Unhappy, Ashamed and Running Away

  1. Michael, you have shown deep insight and sensitivity in your analysis of the complex and tragic figure of Sebastian in ‘Brideshead Revisited’. I read the book many years ago (recommended to me by my mother) and I remember at the time feeling deeply saddened – if a little impatient – with Sebastian then. Thank you for opening my eyes to the real reasons this ingenious young man, so full of promise in his youth, was unable to cope with the challenges of his overpowering mother and just the responsibilities of life in general. It is heartbreaking, and yet, somehow Sebastian managed to find a type of peace in the end. Perhaps this was thanks after all to the Catholic Faith imparted to him as a child… but a Faith which he had never allowed to grow and mature.

    Yes, in many ways Sebastian symbolises the young man (or woman) of today’s Western world – seeking Beauty and Love, but in all the wrong places and in all the wrong ways. So many of today’s youngsters have the added misfortune of having been deprived of their Christian heritage, which makes their search for meaning so very much harder… and lonelier.

    • Thank you! I am glad that my attempt to get underneath what was driving Sebastian’s self-destruction was successful 🙂 He is a fascinating character, and I remember when I first read the book being (similar to what you say) saddened and frustrated by him, as well as intrigued – what was it that drove him to drink, and to separate himself from his family etc? It always seemed a vast over-simplification to me that (as a surprising, although given the current climate maybe not so surprising, number of people have said) that this was all simply down to his Catholic upbringing – this is of course an important factor, but not in the way a lot of people seem to think.

      Also, Lady Marchmain, who is often similarly written off as just being overly rigid and pious, does seem to me to be quite an interesting character herself – she genuinely wants what is best for her family, and although there is a controlling element to her, this only comes about (I think) because she wants to preserve her family’s integrity against the changes in society, and has been deeply affected by her husband’s betrayal.

      What I find most remarkable about Brideshead Revisited though, is that Waugh manages to make Catholicism deeply intriguing and strangely attractive, despite using a wide range of deeply flawed Catholics to do so! It is a masterly portrayal of how grace can work in and through even the most stubborn people and difficult circumstances. That he also manages to do this without becoming either sentimental or didactic is quite an achievement (plus there is some great stuff about the relationship between suffering and holiness, which I looked at in my other post on Sebastian). All this makes me want to go back and read it again!

  2. Yes, I think your analysis of Lady Marchmain is also accurate. She was “overpowering” with her family not just for the sake of wielding power, but because she did genuinely want the best for them (for the their souls, to be exact). With her lack of self-confidence after her husband’s disloyalty, she was desperate to prove to herself that she was at least still a ‘good mother’.

    “What I find most remarkable about Brideshead Revisited though, is that Waugh manages to make Catholicism deeply intriguing and strangely attractive, despite using a wide range of deeply flawed Catholics to do so!”

    What an absolutely fascinating observation Michael! And how very clever of you to notice this undeniable fact running through the story that had never occurred to me before! It says a lot about Catholicism too, that even though her members are definitely “flawed” in one way or another, the purity of the Truth still shines through these poor feeble sinners, struggling and stumbling to abide by the Church’s Doctrinal Teachings.

    • It certainly does – I think that, along with the ‘twitch upon the thread’ image used by G.K. Chesterton, the idea that ‘God writes straight with crooked lines’ (one of my favourite sayings) describes much of what occurs in Brideshead Revisited, and much of what occurs in life in general! 🙂

      • That is just so true.
        Good old GKC has left us with so many gems like this one.
        I believe we could all say we can see how God has also worked things out like that in our own lives in many ways. 🙂

        • Yes, that is certainly true – even though it is sometimes hard to make sense of things in the midst of events, looking back we can definitely see the marks of His handiwork. Good ‘Old Gil’! 🙂

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