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 exitfish
sometimes hilarious, sometimes mean and nasty. probably much better than i'm willing to give it credit for right now, but i really don't like evelyn waugh.
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 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 mikestocks
Probably my favourite book ever -- Waugh is a master of prose style even when being completely trivial...
LibraryThing member wrmjr66
I'd really call this 3 1/2 stars. I enjoyed the comedy and some of the absurd events in the book, and Waugh's very controlled and understated narration was a good fit for the type of humor he was doing. Most of the characters are pretty flat, though, and so it is hard to care much. This isn't so much of an issue in some comic novels, but since many of these characters had ridiculous names, I was often at a loss to remember what character went with what event. Overall, a good, quick read, but not something I'd call a favorite.… (more)
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 DameMuriel
It's like "The Headmaster Ritual" by the Smiths except funnier.
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 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 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 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 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 Helenliz
Almost laugh-out-loud funny. In a quiet way it points out the absurdity of the social class system and public schools.
Which I've just re-read. It operates as several levels, and illustrates the cyclic nature of life.
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 Maura49
Evelyn Waugh's debut novel is a very promising start for an author who was to become a master of comic fiction. His protaganist ( hero would be too strong a word) is the hapless Paul Pennyfeather whose misadventures interrupt a contented if dull undergraduate life at Oxford University. He exchanges his sheltered existence for a journey through a cross section of pre-war British Society, meeting an amazing array of eccentric and venal characters along the way. Many of these are funny and yet appalling such as the chameleon-like Grimes or Philbrick who constantly remakes his identity, constructing a different one for whomever he is talking to. The most fascinating person Paul encounters is the gorgeous Margot Beste-Chetwynde, alluring but dangerous.
Paul, passive and lacking any real personality functions as the conduit through which we experience the novel, it's characters and the manners and mores of England in the late 1920's as the era of the "bright young things" gives way to a more sombre society. There is a bitter flavour to the end of the novel as Paul ends up precisely where he has begun, leaving the reader to ponder on just what he has learned through the more worldly education he has experienced.
In later novels Waugh would refine his comic vision; there are broadbrush effects here which are a sign of his novice status, but the assured narration and acute satire of a class-ridden, and rather rigid society mark him out as an author with something to say and the ability to say it entertainingly.
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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 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 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 ritaer
May have been cutting social satire in its time, but the time is past and the humor has IMO faded. Only read a few chapters before concluding that I could not care about the characters.
LibraryThing member Dreesie
A picaresque novel in the tradition of Lazarillo de Tormes, etc, only in 20th century England. Completely absurd, and funny, and even more absurd.

**spoilers below!**

Paul Pennyfeather is expelled from his college (I think--this novel would be much more enjoyable for someone who understands the English school system and old money/new money/titled social expectations) for "indecency" for accidentally crossing paths with a rich student's drunken mob.

He then becomes a school master at a boarding school in Wales. A sloppily run boarding school--so how does it attract wealthy students? That is not answered. Or maybe they are all like this?

He quits and gets engaged to one of his students' mothers. All is going swimmingly until he is arrested for white slavery while doing a business favor for his fiance. He is sent to prison. His fiance marries someone else. They arrange for him to get out of prison and fake his death. He goes along with it all, and ends up back in school to be a clergyman.

Meanwhile, he meets the same people over and over--he ends up in prison with another employee of the boarding school, while the school's chaplain is now the prison chaplain and so on and so forth. There is a lot of sarcasm and wit regarding British society and culture, but I definitely do not have the background needed to find it as funny as it probably is.

All in less than 200 pages.
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