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The narrator and protagonist of the story, an architectural artist turned disillusioned army captain. As he begins his time at Oxford, Charles seeks out “love,” something that his sensible friends in his first term can’t provide him. In meeting Sebastian, he discovers a world of profound beauty, tied to Sebastian’s ancestral home at Brideshead Castle. Some time after he loses Sebastian to drinking, Charles begins a passionate affair with Julia, attracted as much to her tie to Brideshead as to her. Eventually, Charles realizes that the Marchmain family’s Catholicism has been what his life has spiritually lacked.
Read an in-depth analysis of Captain Charles Ryder.
Charles’s first love, an exuberant and decadent young aristocrat. Sebastian has good looks and a charming, magnetic personality that makes him instantly likeable. However, his joyful exuberance is marred by a deep childishness. Sebastian dreads growing up, as symbolized by his attachment to his teddy bear, Aloysius. He eventually trades his teddy bear for alcohol, leading to an addiction that drives him away from Charles and destroys his life.
Read an in-depth analysis of Lord Sebastian Flyte.
Charles’s second love, Sebastian’s sister. Although she and Sebastian look very similar, Julia cares deeply about public opinion. She approaches marriage by seeking a match based on social standing and not considering the reality of the long-term commitment, and she abandons her Catholicism to marry Rex Mottram. She becomes haunted by this choice, believing herself irredeemable. However, when she sees her father repent on his deathbed, she realizes that she has not strayed too far from God to return.
Read an in-depth analysis of Lady Julia Flyte.
Sebastian’s younger sister, a clever and devout Catholic. Cordelia is a joyful child, willful and exuberant. As she matures, her Catholic faith deepens, and she often provides a voice of spiritual reason. She wishes to become a nun, but unable to do so, she volunteers to provide medical relief in conflict zones. Although she never marries, she has a deep and constant love for her family and those she cares about.
Read an in-depth analysis of Lady Cordelia Flyte.
Sebastian and Charles’s friend, an eccentric and decadent European aesthete. Charles disapproves of the way Anthony goes out of his way to flaunt his unconventional behavior, as if he simply enjoys getting a reaction out of others. Anthony disdains English “charm,” or manners, which he deems unsophisticated and insipid. He tries to convince Charles to abandon charm in favor of his more Bohemian lifestyle.
Sebastian’s older brother and heir to Brideshead Castle. Bridey is a serious, philosophical man who seems older than his years. Bridey has a scholarly bent and considers joining the Jesuits, a scholarly branch of Catholicism. However, Bridey spends so much time analyzing Catholic doctrine that he ignores the spirit, causing him to lack purpose or direction in life.
Sebastian’s father, a melancholic and Byronic man. Lord Marchmain abandons Lady Marchmain after his service in World War I, causing scandal. He resents that Lady Marchmain won’t grant him a divorce because of her Catholic faith. Like Sebastian, Lord Marchmain has a childish selfishness, and he wishes to live his decadent life without consequence. His anger at Lady Marchmain causes him to abandon society. He eventually finds Catholic redemption on his deathbed when he makes the sign of the cross to the priest.
Sebastian’s mother, an overbearing but caring woman. Lady Marchmain tries to use her considerable influence to fix problems in her children’s lives, causing resentment. Although Sebastian and Lord Marchmain resent her unshakable values, her heart is in the right place and her judgement sound.
Julia’s husband, a Canadian immigrant and politician. Rex achieves political success because of his ability to ingratiate himself to others, but, as Charles and Julia observe, his “yes-man” mentality also causes him to lack a self of his own. As a result, he approaches commitments, like marriage, without serious intent.
Charles’s wife and Mulcaster’s sister, a charming but shallow society woman. Celia is an adept and savvy hostess and uses her talent to further her and Charles’s connections and support Charles’s artistic career. Although she cheats on Charles, she becomes incensed when Charles begins a public affair with Julia, valuing the appearance of a happy marriage over the reality.
Lord Marchmain’s mistress, an insightful and wise woman. Cara has a deep understanding of Lord Marchmain’s personality and stays with him despite having no illusion that their relationship is built on true love. She offers Charles a prescient assessment of Sebastian’s character.
Charles’s father, an eccentric and rude man. After Charles’s mother’s death, Ned becomes a recluse, actively driving family away. He possesses an indirect way of expressing himself, often attempting to annoy others until they leave him alone.
An Oxford history don who wins favor with Lady Marchmain. Insincere and pompous, Mr. Samgrass uses Lady Marchmain’s money to further his research. Charles observes that Mr. Samgrass cares more about the appearance of knowledge than its substance.
Sebastian’s companion in Morocco, a young German man. Lazy and needy, Kurt shoots himself in the foot to secure his discharge from the Foreign Legion. He relies on Sebastian for care and money, clearly taking advantage of him. However, Kurt also fulfills Sebastian’s desire to care for someone.
A new platoon commander in Charles’s unit. Charles thinks of him as an emblem of modern England. Hooper values money and efficiency over honor and legacy, displaying a callous attitude toward human life and disparaging tradition.
Charles’s cousin, a serious student who wishes to guide Charles through the social politics of Oxford. He is exasperated by Charles’s bad conduct because it reflects badly on Jasper’s social standing.
An Oxford student and Celia’s brother. Mulcaster is impulsive and belligerent. His quickness to lose interest in things often gets him into trouble.
The Marchmain children’s nanny, a warm and loving woman. As she remains at Brideshead through the years, she continues to care deeply about all her former charges, always delighting in their company.
Bridey’s fiancé, a middle-class Catholic widow. Rude and after Bridey’s money, she exaggerates her Catholic faith to impress him.
Charles’s first friend at Oxford, a grave and studious young man. He cares deeply about the theory behind things but doesn’t appear touched by their spirit.
Charles’s Commanding Officer, an impatient and rude man focused entirely on proper appearances despite his unit’s lack of actual meaningful work to accomplish.
The head servant of the Brideshead household.
Lord Marchmain’s faithful valet.