Summary: Book 1: Chapter 5

Charles’s second year at Oxford begins somberly, without the sense of adventure of his first. A number of deans lecture Sebastian, warning him that he’ll be expelled if he doesn’t improve. He begins leaving Aloysius in his room. Sebastian and Charles spend all their time together, dropping their other friends. Meanwhile, Charles begins studying art. 

Lady Marchmain comes to Oxford to meet with Mr. Samgrass, a history don, whom she has asked to help her create a memorial book of her brother. She invites Charles to visit Brideshead around Christmas. A week later, Julia visits with a man named Rex Mottram, a young Canadian with a burgeoning political career. He asks Charles, Sebastian, and Mulcaster to a party of Julia’s. The three go to the Marchmain House in London to prepare. The party gets off to a dull start, and Mulcaster wants to go to a nightclub instead. Charles and Sebastian leave with Mulcaster, who insists on taking a car. 

At the nightclub, a pair of women invite the men to their place. Despite being drunk, Sebastian insists on driving and nearly collides with another car, attracting police attention. The police arrest Mulcaster, Sebastian, and Charles. Sebastian suggests they call Rex, who works to mitigate their sentences. Rex advises Charles and Mulcaster to plead guilty and beg the judge not to ruin their careers over a youthful mistake. Mottram’s advice serves Charles and Mulcaster well, and they get off with a fine. Sebastian has a more difficult case because of his drunk driving. He wants to run away because of the fuss but also gets off on a fine. At Oxford, Mr. Samgrass negotiates with the deans so that the boys only face being confined to their college grounds at night. 

Over Christmas break, Lady Marchmain attempts to bring Charles into her confidence, but Charles doesn’t wish to become closer to her because he worries about Sebastian. Since the Marchmains have accepted Charles, Charles has become part of what Sebastian wishes to escape. After two weeks, Sebastian wants to leave Brideshead. They go to Charles’s father’s house in London, which Sebastian enjoys.

Back at Oxford, Sebastian’s behavior worsens. He’s only happy when drunk. Charles realizes that while his own drunkenness just serves as pleasurable excess, Sebastian uses drinking to escape. 

Charles goes to Brideshead for Easter. Sebastian fakes being sick while secretly drinking in his room. Charles checks on Sebastian before dinner and puts him to bed. Sebastian pulls out some whiskey and gets furious at Charles when he tries to stop him from drinking. Charles promises to lie for him. Lady Marchmain wants to check on Sebastian, but Cordelia goes instead. She reveals that Sebastian’s drunk.

Later that night, Sebastian comes into the parlor and apologizes to Charles. Sebastian asks why Charles sides with his family over him. The next morning, Sebastian announces that he’s leaving for London and wants Charles to go with him. Charles wants to say goodbye to Lady Marchmain first because he doesn’t like running away. Upset, Sebastian leaves. Lady Marchmain worries about Sebastian’s joyless drunkenness. Charles insists that this is the first time he’s seen Sebastian drunk in a melancholy way. Charles leaves, recognizing that Lady Marchmain has attempted to bring him to her side.

Charles arrives in London, and Sebastian asks whether he’s joined Lady Marchmain’s team. Charles counters that it’s him and Sebastian against the world. 

In Spring term, Charles seeks out lodgings for the next school year that he can share with Sebastian. However, Lady Marchmain wants Sebastian to live with the chaplain because Charles won’t help her keep an eye on Sebastian. Lady Marchmain comes to visit. She asks Charles whether Sebastian has been drinking excessively. Charles insists Sebastian hasn’t. However, that night, a dean catches Sebastian wandering the quad drunk. Charles tells Sebastian he can’t drink alone every time he sees his family. Sebastian agrees that it’s hopeless. Lady Marchmain lectures Charles, but Charles warns Lady Marchmain that Sebastian will worsen if he lives with the chaplain because Sebastian needs freedom.

Charles tells Sebastian he’d argued with Lady Marchmain about the living arrangement, and Sebastian suggests they get drunk together. They both get happily drunk, as they used to do. The next day, Lady Marchmain takes Sebastian home. When the term ends, Charles announces that he intends to drop out of Oxford and become a painter living abroad. Lady Marchmain sends Charles a letter informing him that Mr. Samgrass has taken Sebastian on a trip through the Levant. She invites Charles to visit for Christmas. 

Analysis: Book 1: Chapter 5

Charles’s hedonistic university experience abruptly changes in this chapter as real-world consequences materialize. If Charles and Sebastian’s first year was about youthful exuberance, their second shows their attempts to grow up. This attempt at growth is powerfully symbolized by Sebastian no longer carrying Aloysius around. Charles also approaches the year differently because his terrible time at his father’s house served as a lesson not to spend all of his allowance. Before Sebastian has spent a day on campus, he finds himself warned of consequences for his academic negligence. Whereas in the previous year, ducking responsibilities with Sebastian meant strawberry picnics and champagne, this year Sebastian, Mulcaster, and Charles go to a nightclub, a markedly adult space. Instead of merely neglecting social norms, they neglect public safety by drunk driving and therefore risk legal consequences in addition to societal censure. Charles also demonstrates maturation in this chapter as he pursues art, something he is passionate about. Although dropping out of Oxford may appear a childish move, Oxford has become a place emblematic of his youth. Without the joy of being there with Sebastian, moving on to study art more seriously actually reads as a mark of burgeoning maturity.

Despite putting his teddy bear away, Sebastian cannot cope with adult responsibilities and therefore tries to escape his life through alcohol. Sebastian has regularly demonstrated that he prefers to run from difficult conversations, as when he avoids having tea with Julia. Now, even though Rex Mottram has done the difficult political work of all but guaranteeing Sebastian won’t face severe consequences for drunk driving, he still expresses an immature desire to run away. Charles’s observation that Sebastian drinks to escape confirms Cara’s assessment that Sebastian’s love of his youth will doom him. Because Sebastian cannot avoid growing up, alcohol becomes a way to become less present in his own adult life and avoid experiencing maturity. In a sense, alcohol fills the void Aloysius has left behind. Previously, Sebastian used Aloysius to diffuse tension or distract from difficult conversations but also as a way to acknowledge proper behavior, as when he apologizes to Charles at their first meeting. Alcohol furthers this purpose but proves a worse defense mechanism because it allows Sebastian total escapism instead of displacement or distraction.

Charles, Sebastian, and Mulcaster’s brush with the law offers an interesting introduction to Rex Mottram by portraying him as a natural fit in modern British society. Even though Rex is Canadian, he has managed to forge important connections in polite society effortlessly. As he did with Anthony Blanche, Charles professes a suspicion of un-English values. Therefore, we might question whether Charles considers Rex’s usefulness to actually be a sign of good character. In reality, Sebastian could have hurt or killed someone with his drunk driving, but Rex, by having political savvy, completely removes all tangible and far-reaching consequences from the boys. Rex approaches the arrest almost like a political campaign, strategizing about the right people to talk to and how the boys should behave in order to create a positive impression. Rex’s success portrays London society and the legal system as nepotistic, prioritizing social graces over the law. We can therefore read Rex Mottram as a character similar to Hooper, emblematic of the modern England Charles criticizes throughout the novel. Like Hooper, Rex is an upstart, forging connections without the heritage to back them up, with values Charles considers shallow and flimsy even though, in this case, they work in his favor.

Throughout this chapter, Charles’s love for Sebastian causes him to make unwise decisions in order to keep him close. Up to this point, Charles has never questioned Sebastian’s behavior, and he allows Sebastian to take the lead in their activities. However, from both Julia’s comments in Chapter 4 and Lady Marchmain’s desire for Charles to keep an eye on Sebastian, we can discern that the Marchmains often question Sebastian or treat him as irresponsible. Therefore, when Charles starts worrying about Sebastian’s drinking over Christmas, Sebastian conflates Charles’s concern with his family’s censure. Charles agrees to lie about Sebastian’s drinking because Sebastian perceives challenges to his behavior as choosing his family at his expense. However, Charles’s promise to side with Sebastian against the world prioritizes keeping Sebastian’s esteem over his friend’s health. Even though Charles describes him and Sebastian getting “happily drunk” on their last day together at Oxford, it continues a pattern of drinking to excess that isn’t healthy for someone rapidly developing alcoholism. Finally, Charles’s belief that freedom will save Sebastian doesn’t appear rooted in reality. Whereas Charles copes without structure, finding a life path in art, left to his own devices, Sebastian spends his time at Oxford only partying.