Awesome Inconsequence: Critique of Modern Society through Apocalyptic Frivolity in the Early Novels of Waugh and Fitzgerald
AbstractThe early novels of both Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald are beautiful works of moral decay – sparkling facades disguising toxic skeletons of modern society – yet their related semblances remain largely unexplored. Decline and Fall, Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust, The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, and The Beautiful and Damned are airy tomes of early twentieth century literature paradoxically heavy with the gravity of soulless society. They operate uniquely to each author through a signature moral relativism, attenuating the complex vagaries of American and English social stratification (and the brutal consequences of class rigidity), and ultimately signifying decentered societies pursuing their own destruction. In his early writing, Waugh’s satiric portrayal of British society ridicules progressive ideas, casting the behavior of the “bright young things” celebrated in his society as lives filled with useless endeavors and distractions from meaningful life. Fitzgerald’s early works examine the relationships between American greed and status-seeking, money and decadence, moral bankruptcy and the social status of the young and socially privileged. Waugh favors complex modes of irony and artfully weaves in elements of the grotesque, while Fitzgerald favors symbologies and depth of character development to produce meditative missives, but the admonitions of the two authors embody the apprehension each feels for the future of his respective society: the crumbling of traditional values and moral substance and the abandonment of human depth. Both critique the moral decay of modern society which ignores investment in moral responsibility. This study critically examines three early novels of each author from the perspective of how they use characterization for social critique, methods of conveyance, and signature literary techniques to advance their overarching themes, which parallel each other trans-continentally. Waugh consistently portrays moral carelessness in society with images of decay in situational irony and societal disintegration. Fitzgerald’s early work carries the same moral message Both authors acknowledge the reality of moral responsibility and juxtapose the gaiety of reckless youth with inevitable catastrophe in literary endings – which ultimately serve as cautionary morality lessons applying to the broader attitude of modern society.