Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)


College of Humanities and Social Sciences



Thesis Sponsor/Dissertation Chair/Project Chair

Jonathan Greenberg

Committee Member

Jessica Restaino

Committee Member

Art Simon


In the years in between the two World Wars, Britain witnessed many changes in the behavior and ethics of the emerging younger population. There were positive advances, especially in the education of truant students and the development of experimental schools, such as Neill’s Summerhill (Graves 209-11). There was also an emergence in public smoking, drinking, and heightened hemlines symbolizing modern times and a freer youth (Graves). These changes exhibited a shift from more rigid, Victorian ideals, yet, the real problems remained in the excess activities in which a wilder crowd indulged. Alcohol abuse became a concern, as the Practitioner stated that alcohol was “a repressant, not a stimulant” and the youth “lost their power of manly self-control” (Grave 119). The “Bright Young People” threw a plethora of “amusing” parties and partook in harmless games (Graves). They play-acted at being arty Bohemians, even though many never painted or produced art (Graves 124). Through this menagerie of wild parties and freeing behavior of both men and women, not all were sharing in the joviality. An anonymous surgeon during this time revealed “the great degradation and demoralization of these wild dances” (Graves 119). The Church did everything to discourage these public pleasures and stated “thousands of young people are being brought up without religious instruction and without religious examples” (Graves 113). This perceived deterioration of a moral code was viewed as problematic, as it fostered a generation who lived by his or her own code and existed independent of anyone else.

Waugh’s novels Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, and A Handful of Dust address the problems involved with a British society who indulges in mind-altering, riotous excess and pretends to be people they are not. Waugh’s characters are caricature-like representations of the amoralistic younger generation. For example, instead of going to church on a Sunday which would be expected, the younger generation “rambling clubs” would instead ride the new London Underground extensions, or “Metroland” from place to place (Graves 114). It is no coincidence that one character who makes her presence known through all three novels happens to be Lady Metroland, a character known for her parties. His characters play-act at being happy, while their inner conflict is evident in their continual partying and excess drinking; ambivalence towards other characters, especially in death; costumes and masks to hide their true selves; and forms of escapism through suicide and disappearances. Here Waugh presents a Britain that is neither happy nor malcontent. He is critical of their bad behavior, and in order to express this criticism, Waugh employs what Freud calls “tendentious jokes” (Freud 107). A tendentious joke has a purpose in the telling of the joke, and that in the case of Waugh, he writes hostile tendentious jokes through his satire (Freud 115). Waugh’s criticism of this amoralistic lifestyle reflects the criticism from the Church. Waugh saw, as the Catholic Church did also, a decline in social and moral awareness and a development of the “new Disillusion” (Graves 128). In his novels, Waugh’s critique exposes how a crazed, amoralistic existence eventually leads to the downfall of the partier and those around him or her.

In order to express the point that Waugh’s hostile tendentious jokes are intended to present a harsh criticism toward the amoralistic lifestyle of the younger generation, the thesis will be separated into three chapters, one for each novel to be addressed. Each novel deals with how the amoralistic lifestyle of the characters is a catalyst for their downfall. In Decline and Fall, the point will be made how Paul Pennyfeather’s subsequent decline was reliant on the irresponsibility of the Oxford Bollinger Club’s partying and the immoral business practices of Margot Beste-Chetwynde/Lady Metroland. It will also address forms of escapism in terms of how characters disappear intentionally from their responsibilities. It will also deal with how the public school system is not fostering proper conduct, but blindly allowing disrespect to elders and more frivolity in games. In Vile Bodies, it will be stated how the excess partying, drinking, and a fast-paced life results in an incoherent, confused, and jaded younger generation who flourishes on pretending to be people they are not rather than facing themselves. This play-acting functions a type of mask on the characters that hides their true selves and their amoralistic behavior. In A Handful of Dust it will be shown how existing entirely for one’s own pleasure results in the downfall of the innocent, for example, John Andrew and Tony. The drive for parties and social outings becomes less frivolous and fun, and becomes caustic and cruel, especially Brenda’s callous disregard of Tony’s presence in her life. All of the novels center on the issue of how living for one’s own pleasures and how this ambivalence towards others can be harmful. Each novel deals with different problems of abusing excesses.

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