Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, is one of the twentieth century’s best regarded novels, especally by those seeking fictional art that embodies the Christian message. The central scene in the story is certainly Lord Marchmain’s deathbed act of contrition; in his final moments, and after years of rebellion, he makes the Sign of the Cross.
Waugh wants the reader to understand that Marchmain’s making the sign of the cross is the moment of grace that saves the family: Lord Marchmain’s salvation, Julia’s reversion, and Charles’s eventual conversion all flow from this simple gesture. In the novel’s own stated terms, this scene triggers the avalanche that demolishes Charles’s cozy, self-satisfied world; it is the “twitch upon the thread” that brings the wandering sinners back to God. Lord Marchmain’s confessor, Father Mackay, provides the final gloss on the event: “Well, now, and that was a beautiful thing to see. I’ve known it happen that way again and again. The devil resists to the last moment and then the Grace of God is too much for him.” Divine grace has operated on the characters, and God has triumphed.
Lewis, however, would have none of it. He notes that the scene was, for him, a failure, as “a twitch-on-the-thread conversion doesn’t seem . . . to be capable of artistic presentation.” A year later, he explained himself more fully: given Waugh’s presentation of the scene, “the supposedly good end of the old rake had simply to be taken on trust.”
That is, in the absence of further evidence, the reader cannot draw any sure conclusion regarding the “operation of divine grace” on Lord Marchmain. The outward sign of contrition is in itself insufficient. He might have made the Sign of the Cross, as Lewis says, unwittingly or out of “momentary sentiment” or even, as one of my colleagues has observed, out of plain spite—and the reader has no way of telling the difference. Given the importance of the theme to the novel and of this scene to the theme, Waugh’s failure here is considerable.
But consider this: In moments of fear or temptation, the Sign of the Cross can give us fortitude. As we confront evil, the Sign of the Cross is a powerful weapon. The devil hates and flees from the Cross, the instrument of his decisive defeat. As Pope Benedict XVI put it, “by signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross, hold it in front of us like a shield that will guard us in all the distress of daily life and give us the courage to go on.”
Benedict says by signing ourselves with the Cross, we place ourselves under the protection of the Cross. Lord Marchmain makes the sign of the Cross; therefore, he places himself under its protection. But does that entail the man’s contrition, which seems to be the attribute Lewis is exercised about.
Waugh may have built an imposing, formidable structure on the foundation of a small, shaky cornerstone.
For the novelist there’s a moral here. When you, the writer, reach the point near the end of your story where the protagonist acts or speaks or commits or engages so as to make clear the novel’s theme and purpose, make sure the words or gesture or decision can be unequivocally understood by all.
Adapted by me from an article in Touchstone Magazine by Ben Rheinhard