Decline and fall

by Evelyn Waugh

Other authorsDavid Lodge (Introduction), John Holder (Illustrator)
Hardcover, 1999





London : The Folio Society, 1999.


(Book Jacket Status: Jacketed) Decline and Fall (1928) was Evelyn Waugh's immensely successful first novel, and it displays not only all of its author's customary satiric genius and flair for unearthing the ridiculous in human nature, but also a youthful willingness to train those weapons on any and every thing in his path. In this fractured picaresque comedy of the hapless Paul Pennyfeather stumbling from one disaster to another, Waugh manages the delicious task of skewering every aspect of the society in which he lived. With an Introduction by Frank Kermode

Media reviews

New Statesman
No novel is a statement, and we should try to fight against making inferences about the author's state of mind. Nevertheless I will succumb to temptation by suggesting that the twenty-five-year-old Waugh, rather than go mad or commit suicide, was in real need of something that offered an explanation of or an excuse for the horrors of existence. We all know what Evelyn Waugh found —to his artistic detriment: what had been an enlivening bitterness sank to defiance and jeering, a struggle against the unalterable and inevitable on the secular and social plane...

Waugh's one great book is the outcome not, as Edmund Wilson put it, of regarding cruel things as funny because he didn't understand them. One way or the other, what Decline and Fall is the outcome of is trying to make cruel things as funny as possible, because that is one of the very few ways of making them a little less intolerable.
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The Bookman
In Decline and Fall Mr. Waugh did what hardly any modern author has done in his first book; he reated a character that simply and naturally takes its place among the great characters of fiction that are larger than life-size, and more significant than a single child of man can be. Grimes is one of the world's great rogues, one of those whose serenity and bloomy sense of inner rightness almost persuade honest men that there is a strong moral case for roguery; and he has a subtle value, too, as a vehicle for criticism of our English life. For in him the generation that has spent its youth overshadowed by Dr. Arnold and Rudyard Kipling joyously recognized an embodiment of all the exceedingly queer forms that nature, driven out with a fork from the public school, assumes in order that it may effect a reëntrance.
The New Yorker
The great thing about Decline and Fall, written when the author was twenty-five, was its breath-taking spontaneity. The latter part of the book leans a little too heavily on Voltaire’s Candide, but the early part, that hair-raising harlequinade in a brazenly bad boys’ school, has an audacity that is altogether Waugh’s and that was to prove the great principle of his art. This audacity is personified here by an hilarious character, called Grimes. Though a schoolmaster and a ‘ public-school man,” Grimes is frankly and even exultantly everything that is most contrary to the British code of good behavior: he is a bounder, a rotter, a scoundrel, but he never has a moment of compunction.
London Times
Decline And Fall stands alone in the canon. The constant flow of comic invention, and the absurdist logic ordering the characters' actions, makes it memorable. The book's logic is that of Lewis Carroll, its spirit allied to the genial anarchy of early Marx Brothers films. When Grimes escapes from prison, as earlier he has escaped from marriage to Dr Fagan's awful daughter, he is thought to have perished in the quicksand of Egdon Mire a joke related to the Great Grimpen Mire in The Hound Of The Baskervilles. Like Paul, however, we know that Grimes is not dead but a life force, immortal. That's the right word also for Evelyn Waugh's comic creation.

User reviews

LibraryThing member cameling
Waugh's first novel is a wonderful satirical dark comedy, with no shortage of humorous characters. Be prepared for some racist and plenty of politically incorrectness. Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Scone College for 'indecent behavior' and is disowned by his guardian. In need of money, he manages to get a job as a teacher at Llanabba, a small boys school in Wales.

At Llanabba, Paul finds his own method of getting along with the boys and faculty members, often with hilarious results. But lest you think this is just a chuckle-a-minute book without any depth, the build up to the final chapter where the meaning of life is explained with a very interesting and vivid metaphor is simply superb.
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LibraryThing member Nickelini
This is Waugh's first published novel. Based on its title, and having read his second novel (Vile Bodies), I pretty well knew to expect a satirical, funny-with-a-message book about the atrophy of the British Empire.

But really, isn't all post-WWI British lit about the decline of Empire? Playing off Gibbon's History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Waugh wasn't even trying to be subtle. And so church, the educational system, and the aristocracy fall victim to his scathing pen and wit.

With one caveat, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. As The Atlantic says, Waugh has created a "riotously anarchic cosmos." How can you not have fun with a book where characters are named Sir Alastair Digby-Vane-Trumpington; Lady Circumference; Lord Pastmaster; Clutterbuck; Colonels Slidebottom, Shybottom and Sidbotham; Hon. Miles Malpractice, Sir Humphrey Maltravers, and Lord Parakeet. Trust me, I could go on. Great fun.

The caveat: I try not to judge older books by today's standards. And it's no secret that the British ruling class of the 1920s had utter disdain for anyone who was not them. And further, Waugh is satirizing the ignoramuses making the comments. But still, the racism (against 3 different groups, but mainly Africans) was very uncomfortable to read. So, if this bothers you, rather than miss an otherwise lovely novel, just skip chapter 9 entirely. It's one short chapter out of 26, and may increase your enjoyment of the novel. You won't have missed any story.

Recommended for: Waugh is a must-read for all Anglophiles. If you don't like British humour, this one isn't for you.
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LibraryThing member TheAmpersand
A briskly paced but densely written schoolboy farce which takes its hard-luck protagonist, Paul Pennyfeather, from Oxford to a down-at-the-heels boy's school in Wales to the arms of the formidable Margot Beste-Chetwynde and back. Humor doesn't often age gracefully, and so it's a testament to Waugh's talent that much of "Decline and Fall" is still genuinely laugh-provoking some seventy years after its publication, and to an American reader, no less. A few unforgettable characters, such as the protean Philbrick and the resourceful Grimes. also make this novel very much worth reading. I would have enjoyed "Decline and Fall" much less had I not read the perceptive introduction by a certain David Bradshaw that was included in my Penguin Classics edition. Knowing a bit about Waugh's own anti-modernist political and cultural leanings helped me put his spoofs, of modern writers, psychiatry, jazz musicians, and the Welsh, in proper perspective. If nothing else, "Decline and Fall" gives the lie the oft-heard assumption that there aren't any funny conservatives out there. While I enjoyed this book, I can't say that I'm quite finished with it and think that it probably deserves a reread. In a way, that might be the best compliment I can give it. After all, how often do you hear yourself saying that about a comic novel?… (more)
LibraryThing member mikestocks
Probably my favourite book ever -- Waugh is a master of prose style even when being completely trivial...
LibraryThing member jfetting
You can tell this was his first - it isn't as polished as some of his later work, and it is definitely lighter. He hasn't had time to get too bitter, yet, and it shows. Using the story of Paul Pennyfeather, sent down from Oxford for "indecent behavior" and subsequently becoming a teacher ("...what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behavior."), Waugh not-very-subtly mocks Oxford, public school, British high society, the obsession with sports, etc etc. Hilarity ensues.

It is laugh-out-loud funny, the kind of book I like to read with another person around so I can say "here, listen to this!" and then read my unsuspecting victim an entire chapter. Since I'm not in 1920s Britain, I think some of the satire went over my head - is Waugh making fun of the Welsh, or is he making fun of an English prejudice against the Welsh? Were the English even prejudiced against the Welsh? I don't know, but he does it so well that it still made me laugh.
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LibraryThing member MugsyNoir
Paul Pennyfeather is the main protagonist in Decline and Fall, which is not to say we ever see him developed as a character or come to know him in any way. He is more the pawn that Waugh uses to unfold his story, and a funny tale it is. None of the characters are really imbued with any depth, but then they don't need to be.
Decline and Fall is a farce, and draws more from the supporting characters and the situations that Pennyfeather finds himself in. Delving into his deepest thoughts would only hinder the fun and flow of the story. Consider this the forerunner to It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Just enjoy the madcap fun, Pennyfeather's naive outlook of the world, and Waugh's skewering of society at every level.
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LibraryThing member .Monkey.
"'Prendy's not so bad in his way,' said Grimes, 'but he can't keep order. Of course, you know he wears a ig. Very hard for a man with a wig to keep order. I've got a fale leg, but that's different. Boys respect that. Think I lost it in the war. Actually,' said the Captain, 'and strictly between ourselves, mind, I was run over by a tram in Stoke-on-Trent when I was one-over-the-eight. Still, it doesn't do to let that out to everyone. Funny thing, but I feel I can trust you. I think we're going to be pals.'"

Evelyn Waugh was a master of satire. He had that wonderful way of mocking the stereotypical attitudes of people that rings so true and is laugh-out-loud hilarious.

"One way and another, I have been consistently unfortunate in my efforts at festivity. And yet I look forward to each new fiasco with the utmost relish."

Paul Pennyfeather has his life flipped upside down and inside out by an odd twist of wrong place-wrong time, and is joined in his pursuits by a most amusing and eclectic cast of characters. Don't try to make any predictions about what's going to happen here, because it's a complete roller coaster and you cannot possibly anticipate the loops and drops it'll take!

"'[...] Shall I tell you about life?'
'Yes, do,' said Paul politely.
'Well, it's like the big wheel at Luna Park. Have you seen the big wheel?'
'No, I'm afraid not.'
'You pay five francs and go into a room with tiers of seats all around, and in the center the floor is made of a great disc of polished wood that revolves quickly. At first you sit down and watch the others. They are all trying to sit in the wheel, and they keep getting flung off, and that makes them laugh, and you laugh too. It's great fun.'
'I don't think that sounds very much like life,' said Paul rather sadly.
'Oh, but it is, though. You see, [...]'"

Sadly I must cut off there, because the passage that follows is a longer paragraph, and really continues for the next two successive paragraphs as well, and in a way it would give a certain kind of a spoiler. But, it's rather an adept and poignant view of life, and you must read the book for yourself to see what it is. It comes about rather unexpectedly (like most things in Waugh's satire, which is all completely unpredictable) and it just made me sit back and go "Well huh. How apt!" Waugh is always good for an interesting surprise.

Absolutely loved this, recommended to all who enjoy humorous intellectual looks at the world around them.… (more)
LibraryThing member booksaplenty1949
Frank Kermode's introduction to the 1993 Everyman's Library edition does an excellent job of connecting Decline and Fall to Waugh's development as a novelist and as a human being generally. His perception of the roots of Waugh's later religious convictions struck me as subtle. Great value-added to a novel which seemed easier to laugh at when I first read it in heartless early youth, when scorn for human folly was untinged with compassion.… (more)
LibraryThing member madbooks
A Favorite Passage:

"Comes of missing your breakfast. Prendy been telling you about his Doubts?"

"Yes," said Paul.

"Funny thing," said Grimes, "but I've never been worried in that way. I don't pretend to be a particularly pious sort of chap, but I've never had any Doubts. When you've been in the soup as often as I have, it gives you a sort of feeling that everything's for the best, really. You know, God's in His heaven, all's right with the world. I can't quite explain it, but I don't believe one can ever be unhappy for long provided one does exactly what one wants to and when one wants to. The last chap who put me on my feet said I was 'singularly in harmony with the primitive promptings of humanity'..."… (more)
LibraryThing member bookenthusiast100
A hilarious satirical story about a certain paul Pennyweather who was sent down from Oxford because he was seen about without his trousers, and ended up as a teacher in a very bad public school.
LibraryThing member queen_evie
Decline and Fall tells the story of Paul Pennyfeather, a young man who is (through no fault of his own) shamed out of Oxford university and made a schoolteacher (unlikely candidate though he is to teach sport or music, due to his total lack of knowledge in these areas) in Llabbana castle in Wales. Here he meets an array of interesting and often insincere characters, and most importantly perhaps, the magnificent Mrs Beste-Chetwynde whose wily charms he is soon spellbound by. A funny sequence of events follows, and almost all the characters have hilariously interlocking storylines, ducking and weaving in and out of each others lives.

This is Waugh's first novel, written in 1928 and was meant to be a satirical look at English 'society' and the absurdity thereof, I believe. I suppose sometimes humour and satire don't quite transcend time and social context, because although I did find the book amusing, I also felt it was slightly lacking. It seems to end abruptly, and I suppose I subconciously am uncomfortable sometimes with stories that aren't ciruclar and don't conform to the standard structural foundation of Beginning: set the scene, Middle: problem and plot, and End: Conclusion and resolution. But I don't doubt that is the effect it was MEANT to have, as I'm sure Waugh intended to point out that what some people considered 'normal' was rather ridiculous.

It was well-written, certainly - simplistic but purposeful language, not overly-descriptive but I could definately picture grey-green Wales and hear the pomp of the 'lords and ladies' without a thousand adjectives. Overall I rate it 3 1/2 out of 5, because while I enjoyed it I still felt a little... let down by it.
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LibraryThing member Sabby06
An amusing look into British society during the post-modern period. While the first half of this book drags a bit for my tastes, it picks up in the second half and becomes quite entertaining. While Waugh isn't my favorite post-modern author, Decline and Fall is a quick and easy read for anyone who wants a quick taste of what that literary era was like.… (more)
LibraryThing member CitizenMarc
Mild to quite amusing light satire on the mores and manners of the English upper classes during the 1920's and the naivety of the aspiring bourgeoisie (not leaving the lower orders unscathed with some patronising en passant caricatures, nevertheless tinged with a modicum of affection).

The narrative is a 'stiff upper lip' farce: a young Oxford undergraduate finds himself the unwitting victim, several times over, of the amoral cavorting of upper class types, leading to his sending down from College, his sudden and convenient romance and betrothal to a high society socialite and (unknown to him) 'white slave trafficker' who leaves him in the lurch when, once more unwittingly. he is apprehended parti pris and has to carry the can in gaol; his subsequent retrieval from prison by the machinations of the same woman, only then to slope off to an obscure religious vocation is a little anticlimactic.
There are many targets for EW's dry satire and some of the set pieces bite strongest, including the account of a somewhat dadaist school sports day, during which a young boarder is shot (and his eventual demise chronicled in a several brutally indifferent epistolary asides, made by both headmaster and his mother) and in the caricature of the iconoclastic destruction of the Pastmaster stately home for a vulgar modernist carbuncular make-over.

Some of these sketches also sail close to the wind in portraying the casual racism and discrimination of the age ('Chalky', Mrs Beste-Chetwynde's 'companion', is described using language no longer deemed acceptable) while committing much of the same in the narrator's racist portrayal of the morally stunted Welsh wind-bags of the 'Llanabba' local choir.

Other more obscure attacks (from our contemporary perspective) include diatribes against religious movements within Anglicism of the time (1928) and fads for liberal penal reform. Nevertheless, despite its weaknesses, this is the promising first novel of a 24/25 year old who went on to write such classics as 'Scoop' and 'Brideshead Revisited'.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
Evelyn Waugh's first novel, Decline and Fall (1928), is a delightful satiric comedy. I tremendously enjoyed the picaresque adventures of its hero, Paul Pennyfeather, as he encountered barely believable difficulties in "getting along". This was a book that is a joy to read even if you do not participate in all of Mr. Waugh's inside references. It is a worthy introduction to the novels of one of the finest authors of our century.… (more)
LibraryThing member marek2009
Hilarious. It was a pleasure to return to D & F after reading Brideshead earlier in the year. Much funnier, though less moving than B., it is a favourite of mine, because of the satire & a vague feeling of sentimentality when thinking of school days.
LibraryThing member Seager
I haven't read this for years but all I remember about reading it is that I laughed out loud when I read it on a train, I literally could not stop laughing. Brilliant writer and very funny book.
LibraryThing member eglinton
Scorn can make for a trying read when its cruelty and harshness are still fresh, but almost a century on, Waugh's mockery of his own world has cooled to a playful and inventive caper. Very funny, carefully composed, remarkably restrained and economical for a first novel, yet still wide-ranging in it's scope and subjects. Diffident, hapless Paul Pennyfeather is borne from one farcical escapade to another, dispassionate witness to the frantic pretensions of the other characters: "How they all shriek and giggle!" as Professor Silenus puts it. Pure pleasure; I could read it again and again (this, prompted by an 'In Our Time' radio discussion, was, I think, my third time).… (more)
LibraryThing member DameMuriel
It's like "The Headmaster Ritual" by the Smiths except funnier.
LibraryThing member P_S_Patrick
Decline and Fall is a short satiric novel, compassing the tragic life of the main character, beginning with his being sent down from Oxford, his becoming a school teacher, and his further misfortunes. It is quite a different book to Waugh's Brideshead, as it is not serious. This book is deliberately written to be a farce, and to make the reader sympathise with the main character in his suffering of the hardships which he doesn't deserve, and consequently, to enjoy the few happy turns of fate which he survives to see through his optimistic persistence in life. I don't read many comical books, but I did enjoy this. I would recommend it to anyone who needs cheering up, it really made me laugh.… (more)
LibraryThing member thf1977
This is probably the book I most often get back to when I need a laugh. Waugh dissects 1920s society with his hilarious descriptions of universities, boarding schools, religion, high society and the prison and health systems. Add to this the amazing character of Paul Pennyfeather - the story's protatgonist - who, through no apparent faults of his own, finds himself at some time in all of the above mentioned settings. I recommend it most highly.… (more)
LibraryThing member dbeveridge
Thanks to Mark Feeney for visitng my 1982 hospital bed with a fistful of Evelyn Waugh. He began my lifelong love of this absurdist anarchist rapier commenter on society and all of our foibles. I don't wish I could write like him. I wish I had his eye in a roomful of people.
LibraryThing member isabelx
It's not a good sign when you've read a book at least twice but still can't really remember what you thought of it or any of the plot.

Paul Pennyfeather is sent down from Oxford and becomes a teacher at a minor public school. Various bizarre adventures ensue.
LibraryThing member Betty.Ann.Beam
LibraryThing member PilgrimJess
“...any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home in prison.”

Decline and Fall was the first novel written by Evelyn Waugh and was published in 1928 when he was just 24. Personally I cannot help but feel that this is a young man's book in that it was written by a young man for young men. Many of the jokes would certainly seem to appeal to a younger male audiences. (I am in excess of 50). It is a novel full of silly named characters who come out with outrageous comments.

Equally I cannot help but feel that this is a book of its time. Many of the author's 'jokes' would be considered offensive if written today covering some pretty distasteful subjects. There are gags about child abuse, white slavery, mental and physical disabilities to name but a few but perhaps most distasteful are those on racism.

When a mother of one of the prep school boys arrives at her son's school's sports day accompanied by a black man called Chokey, the vicar states that “the mistake was ever giving them their freedom. They were much happier and better looked after before”. The Welsh don't fair much better, they are branded “an unclean people” lacking in culture, “They just sing”. The hero, such as he is, is similarly not a particularly likeable character either.

The novel is best described as a social satire and certainly no social class totally escapes criticism but most of it is aimed at the progeny of the upper classes. Their time at school and college in particular seeming categorized by a time of drinking binges and generally squandering their time there rather than studying. Reading Waugh's other pieces of work it is obvious that his time at college was not a very happy one where he felt excluded from the 'smart set'. Instead he took out his frustrations in literary cynicism.

That all said and done that doesn't mean that I particularly disliked this book, I did smile rather than laugh out loud at some of the absurdities within. However, I feel that this is not one of author's stronger pieces of work which I've read meaning that I found it an OK read rather than a great one.
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LibraryThing member Novak
Decline and Fall is a marvellous first novel, years before it's time. Obviously read by Tom Sharp and all the Monty Python gang in their time. Witty, clever, cutting and very entertaining. My first ever Evelyn Waugh book many years ago, it made me a fan. Re-read over and over.



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