Summary: Book 1: Chapter 2

Jasper warns Charles that he has fallen in with the worst people at Oxford, though he concedes that Sebastian might be okay because his older brother is. However, society gossips about the Marchmain Family because Lord and Lady Marchmain live separately. Jasper finds Anthony Blanche thoroughly objectionable. He further criticizes Charles’s excessive spending and the elaborate decor of his room, which includes a memento mori, death-related art, of a skull with “Et in Arcadia Ego” written on its forehead resting in a bowl of roses. Charles tells Jasper that he likes his embarrassing friends and invites Jasper to drink champagne with him. 

In retrospect, Charles looks at his time at Oxford as the happy childhood he never had and doesn’t think he would make different choices given the chance. He believes pursuing love creates wisdom. He compares his behavior to the alcohol added to grape juice that requires it to need time to mature before drinking.

The day after Jasper’s lecture, Anthony Blanche seeks Charles out. Charles doesn’t like Anthony much. Charles notes that Anthony pursues excess less for pleasure than to shock. Anthony and Charles go to a bar. However, Anthony doesn’t want to stay because there are too many students. A few days prior, Anthony had faced homophobic bullying from a group of students who threatened to put him in a fountain called the Mercury. Anthony quelled their rage by suggesting that he’d enjoy it when they put their hands on him. He then walked with them to the Mercury fountain and got in himself.

Anthony complains that no one would treat Sebastian in such a way because of his charm. He had gone to visit Sebastian the day after the fountain incident only to find him dining with Boy Mulcaster, one of the culprits. When Anthony told Sebastian they had attacked him, Sebastian suggested that they must have been drunk. Anthony claims he went to school with Sebastian, and even then, Sebastian always escaped punishment because of his charm. Anthony and Sebastian had attended mass together, and Anthony always wondered at the length of Sebastian’s confessions because he never actually got in trouble. 

Anthony gossips to Charles about Sebastian’s family. He calls Brideshead, Sebastian’s older brother, “archaic” and paints Julia as power-hungry. A rumor exists that Sebastian’s younger sister, who is still in the nursery, caused her governess to commit suicide. Anthony also notes that Sebastian’s mother, Lady Marchmain, drove Lord Marchmain out of polite society. Only Sebastian still sees him.

Anthony claims to recognize Charles for the artist he is, unlike Sebastian. When Anthony spoke of Charles’s artistic talent to Sebastian, Sebastian commented on Aloysius’s artistic abilities. Anthony calls Sebastian “insipid,” like a drawing of soap bubbles. Before he leaves, Anthony notes that he knows Charles will repeat what Anthony has said to Sebastian. He warns Charles that Sebastian will react by making a comment about Aloysius. 

Charles can’t sleep that night, thinking about Anthony’s words. When he speaks to Sebastian the next day, he asks if Sebastian went to school with Anthony and attended mass with him. Sebastian explains that Anthony was kicked out during Sebastian’s first term at Eton, and he doesn’t remember going to mass with him. Sebastian says lying is part of Anthony's charm. Charles doesn’t find it charming because Anthony almost succeeded in turning him against Sebastian. Sebastian comments that Aloysius wouldn’t approve of such behavior. 

Analysis: Book 1: Chapter 2

In this chapter, Jasper acts as a voice of responsibility and real-world concerns. While Charles may not care about what others think of him now, the connections and grades he makes at Oxford will help establish his future. Unlike Sebastian, Charles does not have an inheritance nor a noble title, and therefore, the money he spends comes from limited sources. Jasper’s notice of Charles’s memento mori highlights the impermanence of Charles’s current careless lifestyle. More than a flashy centerpiece, a memento mori serves as a reminder of the inevitability of death—that all things must come to an end. Similarly, as shown in the prologue, Charles’s happy times with Sebastian will not last forever. That Charles himself bought this memento mori and doesn’t recognize its warning signifies Charles’s immaturity and lack of self-reflection. However, Charles’s older narrative voice offers a counterpoint to Jasper’s undoubtedly practical advice because he recognizes that these youthful follies influenced who Charles became. The wine metaphor shows how Charles and Sebastian’s relationship added something to Charles’s life instead of serving only as a cautionary tale because the alcohol integrates into the drink instead of getting filtered out. Sebastian’s influence on Charles similarly served to make Charles a whole person.

This chapter establishes Anthony Blanche’s character as a counterpoint to Sebastian’s. Although he may appear similar to Sebastian in that they’re both flamboyant and unconventional, Charles carefully delineates the two young men and demonstrates a clear preference for Sebastian. Charles pointedly describes Anthony as not having a clear nationality, xenophobically portraying him as lacking heritage or history, while Sebastian comes from an established, aristocratic English family. Sebastian stands out at Oxford for behavior that comes naturally to him, like carrying Aloysius around, while Anthony tries to attract attention, such as when he reads a poem using a megaphone or sets himself in the fountain. By noting these differences, Charles implies that what Anthony dismisses as Sebastian’s “charm” is really an intrinsic “Englishness” in Sebastian and his upbringing. Charles’s assessment that Anthony works to shock others assigns blame to Anthony for the bullying he receives. Charles also disapproves of Anthony’s priorities, such as social status and avoidance of social consequences. Anthony expresses jealousy over what he sees as Sebastian avoiding social consequences, such as when Sebastian spends a long time in confession despite never actually getting in trouble. From a Catholic perspective, Sebastian’s focus on spiritual consequences over social consequences is a mark of good character. Charles aligns himself with Sebastian’s priorities rather than Anthony’s.

Charles’s upset at Anthony’s criticism of Sebastian signifies how intrinsic to Charles’s new worldview Sebastian has become. By portraying Sebastian as shallow, Anthony also attacks Charles’s new way of being. Anthony specifically appeals to Charles’s pride in his intellect by praising Charles as an artist, which makes Sebastian’s comment about Aloysius both dismissive of Charles and childish in itself. This scene has importance for the novel’s Catholic themes because Anthony’s twisty language and lies have all the hallmarks of a temptation scene. Anthony sets himself up as an alternative to Sebastian, also unconventional but with substance. If Charles’s occasionally foolish but ultimately formative relationship with Sebastian is about pursuing love and also part of what causes Charles to mature in the way that he does, then Sebastian, for all his flaws, helps Charles spiritually. Anthony is thus tempting Charles away from something foundational. Nevertheless, although Anthony clearly lies, he does correctly predict Sebastian’s reaction to Charles telling him about their conversation, signifying that Anthony is not entirely wrong about Sebastian’s flaws.