Evelyn Waugh's exploration of cause and effect: Unto dust shalt thou return

Dust storm approaching Stratford, Texas, 18 April 1935. Photo: NOAA George E. Marsh Album [Public domain], via Wikimedia.

A Handful of DustA Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One of Evelyn Waugh's most famous novels, A Handful of Dust is the story of an aristocrat and his wife and their dissolving marriage during the inter-war years . Like most of Waugh's work, this novel is satirical but it incorporates an element of despair that makes the story less humorous and more - I am struggling for the word here - hopeless? As if no matter what one does, there is no hope.

Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics referred to this hopelessness not as something unfair - Waugh messes with the reader's sense of justice - but as the  logos - the logic that governs the universe, the power of destiny that we have no hope to overcome.

The entry in The Daily Stoic for 30th November provides an analogy of a dog leashed to a moving cart. The dog has freedom of movement to the extent of the tether, but ultimately it will be pulled along at the whim of the moving cart. From this analogy, one can either fight the logic - that is, be pulled along painfully by the cart - or go with the flow and experience the bounded freedom.

This edition of the novel is interesting in that it has extensive notes. Some were superfluous, but others provide context for the various editions of the story. After the conclusion, an alternative ending is provided. 

In many ways, this reminded me of Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon, an unfinished work, but perfect in its incompleteness. The story ends abruptly with Fitzgerald's own death, and the remainder of the novel is pieced together from the author's notes and ideas about how the story would progress. It is truly a glimpse into the mind of a genius.

What I read into the alternative ending is the possibility of outcomes that escape our conscious choices, or better yet how our choices, with the benefit of hindsight, provide alternative endings that we could never have foreseen.

Had the alternative ending been the first ending, I would have been disappointed. It would have been a complete cop-out. But the first ending is tragic, yet somehow improbable.

Waugh travelled to the Untied States and used this experience to produce The Loved One, and in A Handful of Dust he used his experience of travels in South America to inform parts of the story. It is interesting that the novel was constructed around a short story Waugh had written about the protagonist trapped in a remote part of Brazil (I think it was), with the alternative ending replacing the original short story.

In many ways, the novel is incomplete if read in conjunction with the notes and the alternative ending. One gets the feeling that Waugh was indecisive. However, if I had read the novel without the notes and the alternative ending, I would not be having such misgivings.

The way this book is presented provides a glimpse into the mind of Waugh, and it is clear that he is not just a sentimentalist who pokes fun at the last hurrah of the English aristocracy. There are many comparisons with Waugh's satirical stories about the English aristocracy, with Downton Abbey being an updated take on the 1981 television series Brideshead Revisited.

I recall the Earl of Grantham, in the finale of Downton Abbey, saying:
We never know what's coming, of course. Who does? But I'd say, we have a good chance.
Little does he know that the Great Depression is just around the corner. For Tony and Brenda Last (Waugh's protagonists), this period is already in the past, but if Downton foresaw the end for the aristocrats, Brenda and Tony are living on borrowed time. Or as The New York Times reviewer, Anatole Broyard put it, Waugh is commenting on how:
...the English upper classes are leading a rented life.
But Boryard reviews only the story and the characters, perhaps without the assistance of the alternative ending and numerous notes provided in my version of the book. If one were to read only the review, one would think that the story was simply about the demise of the English upper class.

Once, I would have read fiction only as a form of entertainment, and I had a strong preference for non-fiction. Nowadays, I find myself gaining through risk-free experience. I find myself asking of the characters: What are they thinking? Why are they doing this? How did circumstances effect their choices? What can I learn from this telling of others' lives through the author?

My high school self would have laughed at such nonsense, but now I see how my arrogance and ignorance set me up for a long waste of intellectual time. Is it fair to put so much responsibility on Waugh? Well, yes. If one only read Waugh for entertainment, the story is entertaining.

But if one studies the author, reads their work in its entirety (as much as is possible in terms of what has been published), key themes begin to emerge across their oeuvre.

At the risk of over-inflating what I perceive to be Waugh's intentions, I am seeing the theme of choices made by individuals, but not so much as in cause and effect, but in terms of the limits of freedom. Tony Last is presented with two choices and Waugh explores each choice in the context of destiny. No matter what choice Tony makes, he is still dragged by the cart.

Here, too, I see what the first episode of Mad Men explored as the "death wish", or rather, our choices about life and death. Should Tony have made the second choice? If he had, Waugh's satire would have been complete. Yet if Tony went with the choice of the first ending, he rises above the lunacy of his rented life.

To sum up, what I get from this novel is that we are all born with a death sentence. And the choices we make have little effect upon how our story ends. Sure, our vicissitudes may be different, but the power of the choice itself is not about it causing an effect in our story. Our end is already decided (Genesis 3:19):
In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.
If we live by our principles, we may die sooner but live better. Or we may live longer and kid ourselves that life is just fine. But what I really get from Waugh is that it really doesn't matter. Not the doom and gloom of the nihilist proper, but an acceptance that we are leashed to the cart and our choices are inconsequential. Oh, and the English upper classes were really starting to sweat by the 1930s. Amor fati.

Addendum: Waugh's title is from the second stanza of T.S. Eliot's long poem, The Waste Land, and the notes indicate numerous references to the poem:
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.