Goodreads Rating: ~ 8.0 / 10
My Rating: 7.0 / 10
Decline and Fall, Evelyn Waugh’s (1903 – 1966, and male) first published novel, is a satirical portrayal of British society and education system in the 1920’s. Paul Pennyfeather, the novel’s main character, consistently finds himself in bad circumstances, none of which are entirely his fault. After a run-in with Oxford’s Bollinger Club, he is dismissed from the university and takes a job teaching a public school for young boys. He later marries one of his student’s mother, who causes him to take the fall for her after her human trafficking and prostitution.
Critics are typically under the impression that Waugh makes the claim that society is constantly falling from the standards it had in bygone eras. Decline and Fall follows this presumption to a certain extent. Commentary on society is made by several characters through dialogue with Pennyfeather, as his peers seem to constantly have an opinion on their lot as well as civilization in general. Sometimes, the criticism seems genuine and would reflect the author’s views, while on other occasions, the commentary is blatantly invalid and shows Waugh’s disfavor for individuals that think this way.
The dialogue between characters makes this novel. Waugh excellently crafts ideas for everyone to say that are crude, tasteful, or humorous all when they need to be. However, the passivity of Paul Pennyfeather is the only thing that truly kept me from enjoying Decline and Fall. Despite constantly having misfortune fall upon him that he could object to, he just allows every bad event to happen and accepts consequences without any thought. A lead character in this sort of story, I will admit, must demonstrate passivity to some extent so that the calamities that are being criticized can actually happen, but Pennyfeather has almost no for argument. Instead, he functions almost as the reader: just an observer.
Because this novel takes place in the British 1920’s and serves as commentary on the lifestyle and social strata at the time, I would highly recommend reading this immediately before or after reading Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. Both novels take place, entirely or mostly, in the 1920’s and early 1930’s and exemplify the expected standards of individuals at that time. Interestingly, Decline and Fall was contemporary for the time period, while The Remains of the Day was written decades later, but both novels provide similar accounts and are enjoyable in conjunction with one another.
“In fact, the whole of this book is really an account of the mysterious disappearance of Paul Pennyfeather, so that readers must not complain if the shadow which took his name does not amply fill the important part of hero which he was originally cast.”
“But Paul had very little appetite, for he was greatly pained at how little he was pained by the events of the afternoon.”