Evelyn Waugh

A Handful of Dust

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A Handful of Dust Summary

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A Handful of Dust is a classic satirical novel by Evelyn Waugh. Published in 1934 by Back Bay Books, it tells the story of rich characters living in England who have tragically comic lives. It’s a popular book for studying satire and it’s well-received by critics. Waugh is a highly regarded writer who based A Handful of Dust on his own experience of divorce and unhappiness. He is believed to have been the most influential satirical novelist of his time. He died in 1966.

The main protagonist is a man called Tony Last. He’s an English county squire who lives a happy but uneventful life. He lives in Hetton Abbey with his wife, Brenda, and their son, John. Brenda thinks the abbey is dull and boring—much like how she feels about her marriage. She’s disillusioned and sick of spending all her time in this cloistered place. She encourages Tony to invite people around to make things more interesting.

Tony doesn’t want anyone else living at Hetton Abbey, but in jest he invites a friend, John Beaver, to stay. He doesn’t expect John to take his invitation seriously, but he does. Brenda’s attracted to John and they begin an affair right under Tony’s nose. Brenda tries to show Tony on many occasions that she isn’t happy and that she’s seeing someone else, but he remains oblivious. Even when she wants money for a flat in London, which she intends to share with John, Tony doesn’t think there’s anything strange about it.

Things change when John, their son, dies. At first, she thinks it’s her lover who died, and she’s relieved when it’s her son. Tony confronts her about it and she tells him she wants a divorce. Not only does Tony lose his son, he loses his wife. However, he still loves her, and he wants to protect her social reputation.

Tony concocts evidence to suggest he’s been unfaithful, which lets her petition to divorce him. All their friends and acquaintances know the truth, but what they don’t know is that Tony doesn’t cheat on Brenda. Tony spends a weekend with a prostitute, but they don’t have sex. Meanwhile, Brenda uses this leverage to bully Tony into giving her more money. She wants so much money that Tony must sell Hetton Abbey. Tony decides he doesn’t want to be the scapegoat in the divorce anymore.

He contacts the prostitute again, and she agrees to help him. The prostitute turns up with her own child. The child also spent the weekend with Tony, and they can say that there was no adultery. They simply spent a nice few days together taking in the sights of Brighton and eating in some cafes. Brenda challenges this evidence, but Tony knows she can’t win. He tells her that he’ll divorce her without financial settlement.

Tony needs time away from all this chaos, and he’s feeling isolated at Hetton Abbey. He wants to go travelling for a few months to refocus and get some new perspective. He goes on an expedition to the Amazon Rainforest. There’s hope of finding a lost city, and he wants to be a part of the crew.

However, Tony and the chief explorer, Messinger, end up lost in the jungle. Their guides abandon them and leave them to their fate. Clueless as to how to proceed, the pair wander for a time and make the most of the jungle. However, Messinger is killed in a canoe accident and Tony’s left with no one.

Tony takes ill and moves around the jungle aimlessly. He’s disoriented and dizzy, and he expects to die soon. Instead, he meets a man, Mr. Todd, who lives nearby. He helps Tony get well in exchange for Tony reading to him. Although Mr. Todd has many books, he says he’s illiterate, and Tony doesn’t know what else to do.

Tony, meanwhile, becomes skeptical of the situation as his health improves. He can’t understand why someone has so many books if they can’t read them. He tries to find out more about Mr. Todd from the native tribe living in a nearby clearing, but he can’t get close enough to them. Mr. Todd won’t let him leave the hut.

Tony plans his escape when Mr. Todd’s not looking. However, when help arrives, Mr. Todd drugs Tony so he appears dead. He tells the search party that Tony’s dead and they accept this explanation. Back home in England, when news of his death reaches Brenda, she marries his friend. Hetton Abbey passes to his cousins, who at least build him a memorial. Everyone knows how much he loved the grounds.

Meanwhile, back in the jungle, Tony falls into the depths of despair. He knows he’s never getting home, and no one knows he’s still alive. He will spend the rest of his life reading Charles Dickens novels to the twisted Mr. Todd, and the novel ends without any sense of hopefulness or optimism.