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Waugh’s preface to the 1960 edition of the novel explains how he originally wrote the novel while on leave from the Army during World War II following an injury in a parachuting accident. He admits that the general mood and food rationing of the period led him to describe luxuries—particularly food—more floridly than he might have otherwise.
Toward the end of World War II, Captain Charles Ryder is extremely disillusioned with the Army. His company camps on farmland that would have been absorbed into a local suburb if they were in peacetime. He finds the area desolate.
They are stationed near an asylum, and Charles describes the inmates as happy. The other men of his company often yell through the fence, telling the mental patients to save them a bed. Hooper, the new platoon commander, thinks the mental patients are a waste of resources and evokes Hitler’s gas chambers.
When the company marched into this camp, they thought the Army would soon deploy them to the Middle East, but they now realize this is not to be. Charles describes himself as having become old at thirty-nine and having fallen out of love with the army. He imagines future archaeologists discovering the vacated camp and reading it as a sign that an advanced, civilized culture became overrun by a lesser one. Hooper is late for inspection because he doesn’t rely on his servant to pull his gear together.
Most of the troops don’t like Hooper, but Charles looks on him with amusement. When the new colonel orders someone to cut Hooper’s hair, Charles apologizes for the colonel’s behavior. To Charles’s surprise, Hooper takes no offense. Charles observes that Hooper comes from a generation who learned about social legislation instead of great battles and therefore never romanticized the military. Instead, Hooper constantly compares army operations to the business world. Charles sees Hooper as emblematic of “Young England.”
The colonel inspects the camp and reprimands Charles for the mess he sees. Charles orders his men to clean up the camp even though his men didn’t cause the mess.
Eventually, the company moves out toward their next camp. Because of the mess left in the old camp, the colonel decides to punish Charles’s company by making them unload the train when they arrive at their destination. Charles needles the colonel by sarcastically reporting a mustard gas attack.
Finally they reach their new camp at an old country manner. When Charles learns that the place is called Brideshead Castle, he is overcome with nostalgia. Charles walks to the edge of the noisy camp to gaze at the beautiful landscape he knows he’ll find. He remembers walking along the stream, called the Bride, and wonders if deer still graze there.
Hooper distracts Charles from his reverie to comment on how big and ornate the place is. He notes that there’s a giant, elaborate fountain and a Roman Catholic chapel having a service, which might be up Charles’s alley. Charles tells Hooper he’s been there before.
The prologue begins with Charles’s overwhelming sense of disillusionment with the Army, which also hints at a pessimism about England itself. Early in his description of the camp, he mentions a mental asylum, which despite containing happy inmates, carries ominous connotations. He never contradicts his men joking that they’ll soon join the patients there, which shows he believes the conditions of the Army drive sensible men insane. Since the men in the institution are not all soldiers, this also indicates a belief that society itself can drive men mad. Charles turns his pessimism toward England because his unit is not actively engaged in fighting. When he sarcastically comments about mustard gas, a notorious weapon from World War I, he emphasizes the disparity between the dangers those who fought in previous wars faced and the mundane business of his version of Army life. Instead of real conflict, Charles finds himself caught between a commanding officer more focused on appearance over substance and a subordinate who values money over tradition. Here, Charles expresses frustration with England deploying troops to occupy its own land and a military in which even someone like Hooper can rise to an officer’s rank.
Charles’s assessment of Hooper as emblematic of Young England offers insight into Charles’s values and how they seem opposed to where he believes the country is heading. Charles sees Young England as focused on money over tradition. Although Charles professes a kind of fondness for Hooper, it doesn’t appear to be sincere regard but one closer to exasperation. The introduction to Hooper occurs when the man praises Hitler’s murder of the mentally ill, a pointedly cruel portrayal of the character. Charles’s own view of the asylum inmates is closer to that of the other soldiers under his command, who humanize the inmates by acknowledging that they might join them someday. Hooper’s outlying position on mental health ties into his desire to see the Army run more like a business. When contrasted with Charles’s romantic view of historical battles, we see that Charles views Hooper as ignoring values like tradition and honor for efficiency and profit. Another aspect of Hooper’s Young England that Charles objects to is social mobility, as shown from Charles’s dismay at Hooper’s unwillingness to delegate to his servant, which causes Hooper to be late. Charles believes the social order creates an orderly society, and he sees Hooper deferring to his servant as disruptive.
Charles’s tone changes abruptly the moment he realizes he’s at Brideshead, signaling the house’s importance to him as something beloved. Toward the beginning of the prologue, he speaks of his current position in the Army is that of a lover who quickly feels their love diminish, and accordingly, he describes his actions as monotonous and the landscape bleak. In contrast, at Brideshead, he first notes the stream called The Bride, evoking a marriage and a blissful stage in a romantic relationship. In the Army camp, in addition to a bleak, gray landscape, the dominating feature Charles notices is an asylum, symbolic of a society that has caused its people madness. At Brideshead, Charles instead notices the nature around him, an unsullied world, and imagines animals freely grazing, a contrast to the imprisoned patients. However, these descriptions carry some sadness because Charles clearly hasn’t been to Brideshead in a long time and no longer experiences this beauty daily. Brideshead takes shape as a place he has lost. This sense of loss permeates Charles’s demeanor in this scene when he hopes that certain aspects of the house—like the grazing deer—haven’t changed.