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Brideshead Revisited

  • Study Guide
Further Study

Study Questions

Further Study Study Questions

Why does Sebastian initially love Charles, and why does that love fade?

Sebastian initially loves Charles because Charles idolizes him. The older members of the Marchmain family treat Sebastian as frivolous and childish, which he resents. Charles, on the other hand, sees wisdom in Sebastian’s love of beauty. Charles follows Sebastian’s lead, leaving Oxford at a moment’s notice because Sebastian wants a champagne picnic or even enduring time at his own unpleasant father’s house because Sebastian doesn’t want to be close to his family. However, the minute Charles begins to question Sebastian’s judgement and encourage him to drink less, Sebastian accuses Charles of turning against him. When Sebastian wants to leave Brideshead, he accuses Charles of ingratiating himself to Lady Marchmain because he wants to be a polite guest and say goodbye to her first. In addition, Charles has matured and found a career path—art—that suits his ambitions, whereas Sebastian refuses to cope with adulthood. Charles’s sure-footing in contrast with Sebastian’s destructive drinking disrupts the power balance of their relationship because it means Charles must care for and advise Sebastian.

Sebastian’s relationship with Kurt illuminates the emotional root of why his relationship with Charles doesn’t last. As Charles observes, who people love is often symbolic of something they need. Just as Sebastian prefigures Julia, Charles, to a certain extent, prefigures Kurt. When Charles meets Sebastian, he’s seeking something more than the rigid social rules of Jasper’s Oxford. Kurt, too, seeks escape from a rigid society, first from military service in the and then from Nazi Germany. Notably, when Charles asks Sebastian what he likes about Kurt, Sebastian expresses a love of having someone to guide and care for, just as Sebastian once guided Charles’s awakening to the beauty of Brideshead and a life of pleasure. Unlike Charles, Kurt has no real ambition or desire for growth, so Sebastian always remains his teacher and caretaker. Although Kurt certainly takes financial advantage of Sebastian, Cordelia observes that Sebastian truly believed he made a difference in Kurt’s life. Charles, on the other hand, has too much maturity to fulfill Sebastian’s emotional need to be someone’s caretaker.

Is Charles a conventional or an unconventional person?

While Charles has values that are unconventional for his time, at his core, he holds primarily traditional values. At first, Charles appears to take an unconventional road through life. Jasper scolds him at Oxford because he isn’t behaving in a way that Jasper considers proper, that is, working to secure and forward career prospects. By valuing his time with Sebastian over studying or participating in social clubs, Charles rejects the popular view of how he should spend his time at university. He even drops out to pursue art, rejecting the idea that Oxford will make him successful. Even in retrospect, Charles believes his time pursuing beauty and pleasure had value, comparing it to alcohol added to enrich wine before it matures. Through this lens, Charles’s reckless youth may have prevented him from excelling at Oxford at the time, but in the long run, his relationship with Sebastian introduces him to Brideshead Castle and eventually Catholicism, planting the seeds for the man Charles eventually becomes. 

His university behavior notwithstanding, Charles is not truly rebellious but rather views modern values as inferior to traditional ones. Beyond Jasper, Charles also looks down on the likes of Rex Mottram, who has a burgeoning political career, because he sees Rex as shallow. Implicitly, if someone as empty as Rex can become popular, it must mean society values emptiness. Charles disparages modern art and architecture as vulgar or faddish compared to that which history has proven can last. At the exhibition for his Latin American paintings, Charles comments on the hypocrisy of those who like his artistic style when he paints jungle scenes but not when he paints English manors, portraying them as only disliking the art of English manors because they’re considered old fashioned. Unlike a truly unconventional figure like Anthony Blanche, who actively endeavors to shock, Charles merely appears unconventional because he rejects what is popular. 

How does the society depicted in Brideshead Revisited view marriage, and does this view align with those of individual characters?

In Brideshead Revisited, London high society treats marriage as a business contract. Early in the novel, Julia searches for marriage prospects strategically, looking to further her position in society and accounting for her family’s reputation. Rex also chooses Julia strategically, looking for her to supply the aristocratic connections he lacks as a Canadian immigrant. Even Charles pursues marriage with society in mind, choosing Celia because her graceful manners and ample connections further his artistic career. However, none of these mercenary marriages last, portraying them as a symptom of the shallow materialism of British society, where nothing is built with endurance in mind. In addition, because London society considers marriage a political or financial move, no one understands why Charles and Julia would attempt to formalize their relationship through marriage after their divorces. The scandal of divorce already puts them at a social disadvantage, and remarrying a lover deepens the scandal, making it a nonsensical social move.

Catholic characters in the novel see marriage as a spiritual commitment. Lady Marchmain refuses to divorce Lord Marchmain, and she never takes another lover, treating their marriage as a responsibility she cannot renounce. Julia’s view on marriage changes to a more spiritual take as she reclaims her Catholic beliefs. When Julia talks about wanting to marry Charles, she speaks not of love but of putting her life in “some sort of order in a human way” by having a child with him. She believes that even if she can’t return to the Church, she can come close to repentance by fulfilling what she believes is her duty to become a mother and have Catholic children. Her understanding of marriage as something with permanent meaning leads her to call off her divorce and remarriage because it would destroy a spiritual commitment she already made. The novel thus portrays Catholic marriage as enduring because of its strong spiritual foundation, more powerful than modern, materialistic values.