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”Brideshead Revisited”, ”Look back in Anger” and ”The Whitsun Weddings” Essay Sample

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”Brideshead Revisited”, ”Look back in Anger” and ”The Whitsun Weddings” Essay Sample

‘Many post-World War II writers were concerned with making sense of a rapidly changing world’. Compare and contrast ways in which your chosen writers present a changing world.

Within the three texts, Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh, Look back in Anger by John Osborne and The Whitsun Weddings by Phillip Larkin, each writer explores the concept of a ‘changing world’. However, this presentation of post-war Britain is dramatically different in each work. With Waugh, almost exclusively focusing on the effect of the aristocracy and upper classes, he differs from Osbourne and Larkin in this respect, as their texts largely concern the affect on the ‘ordinary’ and the working classes. All three main narrative voices in each of the three texts, however, all share the same sense of disillusionment, albeit for different reasons, that was part of the zeitgeist of Britain at the time still in the grips of economic and cultural austerity from the war . This disillusionment with the new world is also met in the texts with a longing for the past and a sense of nostalgia, particularly seen with the characters of Jimmy in Look back in Anger and Charles Brideshead Revisited. The three texts, although different in form and genre, all explore through varying literary methods, how the social changes in post-war Britain created a new generation struggling to find its identity and purpose.

There is one major drawing line between the three texts. Waugh writing as the second world war was coming to end, shows the point of view of the aristocracy and the ‘old order’ , whilst Osborne and Larkin writing in the mid-to-late 50s can be seen as from the ‘new’. All three texts, however, share the same disdain for the ‘brave new-not-very-much-thank you’[1], as Jimmy puts it in Look back in Anger. This disdain can be seen most clearly in Brideshead Revisited through the character of Lieutenant Hooper. Waugh’s unsympathetic portrayal of Hooper as an ignorant and graceless army officer, lacking the sense of tradition present in the character of Charles, is representative of Waugh’s presentation of the working class in the novel and the changing world where they are becoming more prominent.

Waugh’s description of Charles seeing Hooper as a ‘symbol’ of ‘Young England’[2] presents Charles’ and also Waugh’s view of a new generation whose pragmatism was at odds with the romanticism and splendour of the upper classes. Hooper had not learned of the ‘epitaph at Thermopylae’ or battles such as ‘Gallipoli’ and ‘Marathon’ like Charles but about the ‘humane legislation and recent industrial change’[3].Although a satirist of the upper classes, Waugh was still an adamant admirer of the world he inhabited as an outsider, much in the same way Charles does in Brideshead Revisited and this negative portrayal of the fading of the upper classes to make way for the lower would have been very hotly received at the time when it was first published in 1945. Many contemporary readers would have found it hard to stomach the blatant nostalgia for the golden age of landed aristocracy, and negative portrayal of the working-class, as the general mood in Britain was one of a complete break from old conventions. Through Waugh’s presentation of the character of Hooper and hence Charles’ reluctance to the changing world and society he inhabits, the reader can see Waugh’s negative presentation of post-war British society.

Whilst Waugh deals with the disillusionment of the changing world on the upper classes, Larkin and Osbourne in their respective works explore the different effects of the post-war culture on their middle and working-class characters and narrative voices. Written later in the 50s and 60s, post-war Britain had changed much from the days, only a decade previously, when Waugh wrote Brideshead Revisited. Rather than be a ‘changing world’ the writers are working in, it is, in a way, a changed world. Written ‘in and informed by a sense of bleakness and paranoia prevalent in the 1950s, embodied neatly in the phrase ‘Cold War’’ [4] both Larkin and Osborne deal with this changed post-war Britain but in different ways. Osborne, part of the ‘Angry Young Men’ movement which he unwittingly instigated with Look back in Anger, explores as the title of the play suggests; anger at post-war society.

This is explored almost exclusively through the character of the university-educated but creatively and financially stifled Jimmy, who was received by audiences of the time as a ‘mouthpiece of protest for a dissatisfied generation’[5]. With him asserting that ‘there aren’t any good, brave causes left’[6] and Osborne’s extensive use of monologue, the audience of the time could see how Osborne uses his anti-hero Jimmy to present the underlying feeling of anger at the modern establishment in post-war Britain. Most of the criticism at the time shows how the audience responded to the play with T.C Worlsey in the New Statesman writing how through ‘[Jimmy’s] soliloquies you can hear the authentic new tone of the Nineteen-Fifties, desperate, savage, resentful’. Although as a dramatic piece, it did not garner much completely positive praise, critics understood the importance of the play and they were right, with it being a huge cultural turning point in British theatre and wider British society in the mid-1950s.

However, in comparison with Osborne, rather than anger, Larkin presents his sense of dissatisfaction with modern life in the 50s and 60s with a gentle irony and presenting the boredom of everyday life. Although first published in 1964, most of the poems were written in the 1950s and so The Whitsun Weddings and Look back in Anger are both informed by the circumstances of that time. With Britain living in the ‘American Age’[7] as Jimmy puts it, it has lost its empire, becoming less of a world power, its exhausted from two world wars in 30 years and still in the grips of austerity. This bleakness of the ordinary is represented in both works by both writers. Poems such as ‘Here’ and ‘Afternoons’ with their ‘raw estates’[8] and ‘recreation grounds’[9] show how Larkin perceived post-war urban renewal projects as drab and the people living in them lives’, to some extent, as piteous and meaningless. This feeling in Larkin shapes much of his work in The Whitsun Weddings and like in Brideshead Revisited, it received criticism for the, it could be argued, negative portrayal of ordinary, working-class life.

Language is Osbourne’s primary way of showing Jimmy’s dissatisfaction with the changing world he feels he has no place in. This is reflected in Osbourne’s presentation of language in the relationship between Jimmy and Alison because of Jimmy’s contempt at the class she belongs to and the creative freedom he feels she quells in him, she becomes to symbolise all he hates in the changing world. One example of this is when Jimmy states how Alison has the ‘passion of a python’[10], this negative imagery of Alison as the ‘python’ shows the audience she represents something evil or cold-blooded to Jimmy. Jimmy then says that he is her prey, with him being an ‘over-large rabbit’, which Osbourne does to show how Jimmy feels like a victim of Alison’s that cannot get away. This gives a sense of irony to what Jimmy is saying as what has been presented by Osbourne to the audience prior to this, is the complete opposite, with Jimmy being Alison’s predator.

The whole piece of imagery present in this one of Jimmy’s speeches is extremely powerful to the audience. Osbourne carries on the snake metaphor with Jimmy stating that the ‘indigestible mess’ that he is would ‘stir up some kind of terror’ within her. Osbourne is presenting to the audience the extent to which Jimmy feels totally trapped by a woman he loves but cannot be around because of the class she represents to him. Osbourne is also showing through the imagery, the stagnancy of the relationship, with Jimmy being ‘smothered’ creatively and emotionally and how he sees Alison not recognizing this where Osbourne writes, ‘not a flicker from her – she doesn’t even rumble a little.’ This use of language by Osborne to present a relationship representing Jimmy, the main character’s, disillusionment with the world he lives helps shape the meaning of the play to the audience and is also present in another of the three texts.

Like in Look back in Anger, Waugh, in Brideshead Revisited, uses relationships to reflect the main protagonist’s feelings towards the changing worlds they inhabit. Charles’ infatuations with the Flyte family and eventual distancing from them are used by Waugh to reflect the decline of a decadent era in Britain after World War II. This, also like in Look back in Anger is done, most significantly, through language but also through structure. At the beginning of the book, in the midst of the ‘roaring twenties’ sees a golden age for both Charles and the aristocratic world he is a part of. In Charles’ days with Sebastian at Oxford, Waugh uses language to idolise, writing from the voice of Charles in the Second World War, the world he sees fading. Waugh describes some ‘languid days at Brideshead’ with Charles and Sebastian, with them being in an ‘enchanted castle’[11] with the ’zest, the generous affections’ of Charles being ‘very near heaven’.

The language chosen by Waugh in this particular section shows the idolisation of the time period as well as the relationship between Charles and Sebastian as paradise. This is shown especially words like ‘languid’ and the structure of the section, with long, descriptive sentences; it gives the reader a sense of the ‘heaven’ Charles speaks of. It is no coincidence then, that the steady deterioration of the relationships between Charles and Sebastian and other members of the Fylte family, especially Julia, throughout Brideshead Revisited, are also marked with the decline of the landed aristocracy and Waugh uses language again to present this theme to the reader. From the imagery used by Waugh earlier in the novel, towards the end of the novel the reader can see lots of negative imagery to mark the fading world.

Waugh depicts the military as invading Brideshead with ‘the age of Hooper’[12]. In the novel, Brideshead becomes a symbol to Charles of the splendour and beauty of the upper classes and it is being ruined by the military with them boarding up ‘walls and fireplaces’[13] and throwing cigarettes in the fountain. Not only is the military shown as ruining the aesthetic beauty of Brideshead but Waugh is also using them as a wider metaphor to symbolise how the war is bringing an end to the world Charles has loved and admired. Waugh is trying making sense of his changing world by using language to show how relationships parallel what is happening within the novel as a whole.

This presentation of relationships by the writers that someway mirrors the problems of the changing world they inhabit is also present in Larkin’s work. In the poem ‘Talking in Bed’ the break down in relationship where it has become difficult to ‘find words at once true and kind, Or not untrue and not unkind’, is a direct link to Look back in Anger. Jimmy and Alison’s relationship is similar to that described by Larkin as both couples suffer from a communication breakdown, with the couple in ‘Talking in Bed’ a ‘unique distance from isolation’. This and how in the poem, as mentioned in the first stanza, the couple are an ‘emblem’ for honesty, and so become to symbolise beauty being worn away by ‘winds’ that represent the banality and repetition of the post-war life in Britain. Of course Jimmy in Look back in Anger has problems with findings words ‘not untrue and not unkind’ and so links to the play to the poem, however as Larkin much as presents despair in the relationship, Osborne explores a certain degree of hope in the play. At the end of the play, Osborne chooses for Jimmy and Alison to revert to a childlike fantasy of ‘bears and squirrels’. They are seemingly able to make peace through this method of communication, representing to the audience how society and real-life, and Jimmy’s anger at it, have made their relationship unbearable.

Like Waugh and Osborne, Larkin also uses language and other literary techniques to make sense of his rapidly changing worlds his is writing in. In the poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’ Larkin draws a picture of the poetic voice feeling at odds with the community around him in the post-war years. At first the poetic voice seems disinterested with the couples, describing their families as ‘fathers with broad belts’ and ‘mothers loud and fat’[14] and marriage seeming as a continuation of failed tradition. This can be seen with the metaphor of ‘free at last’ but then the voice is thrown back into the ‘shuffling gouts of steam’[15] representing the conventions these people are still tied to in this changing world. The structure of the poem also shows how Larkin presents the changing world to the reader with its standard rhyme and rhythm adding to the sense of the inevitably and stagnancy felt by Larkin in the society he lives in. This use of structure is also employed Osborne to much the same effect in Look back in Anger. Osborne’s use of long monologues, with Jimmy speaking with neither Alison or Cliff actually listening give the sense of the tedium of post-war Britain. Jimmy exclaims ‘I want to hear a warm, thrilling voice cry out Hallelujah!’… ‘Let’s pretend that we’re human beings and that we’re actually alive’[16].

This exploration of the mundane is different however with Osborne portraying it through the narrative voice of Jimmy as resentful and angry at the boredom, whereas Larkin, through his various poetic voices chooses to present it through weary pessimism of contemporary life. However, coming back to the poem ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, it has been argued that the pessimism portrayed by Larkin in the poem is also balanced by an ambiguous ending. Although writing from a generation who were mostly disappointed with contemporary life, Larkin’s comparison of the train stopping to a ‘sense of falling’ like an ‘arrow-shower’ turning into ‘rain’[17] gives a sense of optimism. This shows to the reader, although life-giving rain is not falling on post-war Britain, it remains ‘out of sight’; there is still a transcendence of the ordinary and hope for ‘somewhere’ where arrows are becoming rain. This and the switch from the personal pronoun ‘I’ to the collective ‘we’, it shows to the reader how the poetic becomes to identify more with the couples.

If we read Larkin’s poetry in The Whitsun Weddings as reflecting the post-war feeling of stagnancy and hopelessness many comparisons can be made between this text, but there are also many differences between this and the other two texts in question, Look back in Anger and Brideshead Revisited. One of the main ways in which Larkin appears to be criticising the changing world of post-war Britain is how it has been interoperated by some as longing for a sense of nostalgia and tradition. This is shown in all three texts, and so the writers, it could be argued are all trying to make sense of their changing world by looking at the past. However all three writers are nostalgic of different things representing the different figures in society they portray in the works. Larkin predominately does this through the presentation of the urbanisation and commercialisation of Britain in the time he was writing in.

Many of his poems in The Whitsun Weddings portray the English countryside of ‘piled gold clouds’ and ‘shining gull marked mud’[18] juxtaposed by ‘industrial shadows’ and ‘dark towns’ that ‘heap on the horizon’[19]. This is best seen in ‘Sunny Prestatyn’ and especially ‘Large Cool Store’ where he first describes the ‘simple sizes plainly [set out]’ and then goes into how ‘unearthly love is’ and the ‘ecstasies’[20] are unnatural. Larkin is commenting that the how the commercialisation has stopped people from knowing what or how to love. Compared to the, at times, romantic language used to describe the English countryside the reader can see Larkin’s view on the changing, urbanised world of 1960s Britain.

The reader also gains a sense of Larkin’s nostalgia through the continued negative portrayal of ordinary people in contemporary 1950s and 60s life. However some have interoperated this as harming the message of his changing world as his stereotypes which abound in his poetry could be seen as limitations on his judgement. A contemporary critic of Larkin, Alverez wrote that Larkin was wrong to assume that ‘life in England goes on much as it always has… a belief that life is always more or less orderly and polite’[21]. This has been disputed however as it is accepted that while Larkin gives a sense of disapproving of the English working-class and the continuingly changing they inhabit, it is with a gently mocking, ironic tone that sets out to deal with all aspects of human nature, especially how it is affected by things like marriage, commercialisation and the changing world in the 1960s.

Both Look back in Anger and Brideshead Revisited deal with the same sense of nostalgia that the writers use to try and make sense of a British society that was in constant flux in the post-war years. This can be seen both through the characters of Alison’s father, referred to as The Colonel and Jimmy. Set and written in the backdrop of the fall of the British empire both characters look back to Britain’s past glories to criticise the new world they live in. Osborne portrays The Colonel as a sympathetic character, aware he is of a different time but believing that ‘the last day the sun shone’[22] was when he left his post in the empire in India. This is also seen with Jimmy where Osborne writes how ‘the old Edwardian brigade do make their brief little world look pretty tempting’[23]. Although alien to a modern audience, this notion of the empire would have been very familiar to all watching when it was first performed in 1956. Brideshead Revisited, written in the style of a memoir, unlike both Look back in Anger and The Whitsun Weddings it has a sense of nostalgia running through every page. Charles and indeed Waugh cannot make sense of their ‘changing world’ as it is so at odds with the decadence and beauty that they both see in the old world.

Finally, it is clear from examining these three texts that all three writers choose to present their changing worlds very differently. This is partly because, for one, Waugh was writing from the prospective of another world entirely, that of the landed aristocracy, but all the texts offer different ways in which people reacted to the huge social upheaval that occurred during the post-war years. With Osborne showing bringing to light a ‘new generation’ that were left embittered and disappointed from the false optimism that directly precluded the second world war, to Larkin who presents the changing world he lives in with an irony and asking questions to how society was affected by bigger questions such as death and futility in the time period, the writers choose to present the changing world they are a part of in a unique way, but that still holds similarities with each other.


Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Penguin Modern Classics, 1945

John Osborne, Look back in Anger, Faber and Faber, 1956

Phillip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, 1964

Andy Golding, The English Review, February 2003

John Russell Taylor, Anger and After – A guide to the new British drama 1962

Alverez, The New Poetry, Penguin, 1962

[1] John Osborne, Look back in anger, Faber and Faber, 1956, (all quotes from same edition)

Act III, Scene 1, pg 89

[2] Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, Penguin Modern Classics, 1945(all quotes from same edition) pg. 7

[3] Pg. 6

[4] (The English Review, Andy Golding , pg 27)

[5] (Anger and After – A guide to the new British drama by john Russell Taylor pg. 44)

[6] Act III pg. 89

[7] Act I pg.11

[8] Phillip Larkin The Whitsun Weddings, Faber and Faber, 1964 (all quotes from same edition) Here pg3

[9] Afternoons pg. 44

[10] Act I pg36

[11] Chapter 4 pg. 71

[12] Epilogue pg 325

[13] Epilogue pg. 321

[14] The Whitsun Weddings pg.19

[15] Pg. 19

[16] Act I pg 8-9

[17] The Whitsun Weddings pg. 20

[18] Here pg. 3

[19] Talking in Bed pg.27

[20] Large Cool Store pg.28

[21] Alverez, The New Poetry, Penguin, 1962

[22] Act II pg. 70

[23] Act I pg. 11

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