In Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited”, the broader themes or motifs – espoused or embodied by the characters – take precedence over plot development (and perhaps, even over scene-setting), and two of the most interesting concern religion or Catholicism as well as the supposed homosexual relationship between architectural artist Charles Ryder and Lord Sebastian Flyte, beginning when the both of them were students. The first theme of religion is emphasised, in particular, by the dynamics and conflicts of the aristocratic Flyte family: The estranged relationship between Lord and Lady Marchmain, the marital decisions and consequences of their children, and how outsiders make sense of Catholic beliefs and practices. The second theme of homosexuality is not as obvious, even if it does dominate the first-half of the novel, and perhaps most of the popular interest surrounding it.
Inter-relatedly, it lacks both balance and consistent pacing. The lack of balance, because – even though the younger son of the Flytes remains omnipresent throughout (since the first book, “Et in Arcadia Ego”, as a metaphor for death) – he is left barely accounted for in the second-half and towards the end, besides the occasional mention or visit, told through another person. In this vein, in spite of the chronological progression of the novel, the three books feel a tad disconnected. Inconsistent pacing, because episodes such as Ryder’s marriage and his work overseas, for instance, are glossed over. And in fact, his relationship with Lady Julia Flyte in the third book (“A Twitch upon the Thread”, on the idea of religious conversion) speeds by too. This might have been deliberate, to make the point about how Ryder values or prioritises his relationships, yet as a consequence the concluding chapters felt rushed.
“Brideshead Revisited”, nevertheless, is anchored by Ryder as narrator and protagonist, and his exchanges in general – and especially his conversations when he was still schooling, with his widowed father, Edward Ryder – make this an interesting read. The identity of each principal character is therefore established through his or her interactions with Ryder, and each is distinctive: Anthony Blanche, and his keen perspectives about the people around him; Lady Cordelia Flyte, perhaps the most devout member of the Flyte family; and Canadian Rex Mottram, with his endeavours and his desire to ascend the socio-economic ladder. Not heavy on the plot, the novel instead gives its characters and its settings greater life, immersing the reader deeper into the world of Brideshead.