Parts of the whole: An analysis of religion and religious belief in Brideshead Revisited

Brideshead Revisited (the series, based on the book by Evelyn Waugh) provides a rich and varied glance at Religious belief from a largely Roman Catholic point of view. This is juxtaposed, to my mind, with an antagonistic view of religion that is provided by Captain Charles Ryder’s agnostic/atheist views.

My analysis of the Brideshead Revisited has led me to realise that it is the characters within the series that provide a wholistic view of religion. However, not one character holds the view in entirety. Therein lies the attraction and magic of the show; each character’s unique journey throughout the show inexorably leads to the conversion of Charles Ryder. Each character forms, a part of an intricate mosaic that eventually when viewed reveals religion as I see it now.

Sebastian Flight introduces Charles to Catholicism. He offers Charles a short summary of the religious nature of his family, stating that his family is a mixed family religiously. Sebastian’s mother, is a saint. His father (Alex) is not. His elder brother Brideshead (hereinafter referred to as Bridey) and sister Cordelia are devout Catholics, with Brideshead being miserable and Cordelia having a fierce love of The Faith and other persons. Julia and himself are heathens, she’s quite miserable and he’s quite happy.   This initially perplexes Charles. He tries (and fails) to reconcile how Sebastian is both a heathen and yet a staunch believer in Catholic doctrine.

Sebastian lives a vicious life. Cognisant of this contradiction and tries to explain it away with two maxims: The Faith is a lovely idea, so he believes in it. On the contrary, he prays, “Oh God, make me good but not yet…” Sebastian takes this maxim to heart. As his life goes on Sebastian sinks deeper into an addiction to drinking, ruining his life.

Because of this, Charles decidedly states that Sebastian would have been better off without religion. This declaration is happily proven wrong, for later in life Sebastian seeks the faith in between illness and drunkenness. His illness seems to be an expiation for the sins of his life. As such, this makes him holier; he stays in a monastery in Carthage for the rest of the series. The splendid nature of this conversion is reinforced by Cordelia’s observation after meeting Sebastian, “Sinners are God’s favourite children and no one is truly holy without suffering.”

Bridey provides an exposition to the regimented obedience to religion that comes off as cold, unfeeling and loveless. Thus, religious belief in my view, is not as Bridey sees it. While complete obedience to the precepts of one’s religion is an essential part of being a part of that religion, it only forms a part, not the whole.

Bridey regarded Julia’s adultery with great disdain. Rightly so, however, he expresses it by stating she lives in sin and his fiancé will have nothing to do with her because of this. In fact, if one properly analysed Bridey’s views, it would reveal that he is not in the real sense fully obedient to his faith. For he ignores the commandment: Love your neighbour… (despite their indiscretions or their “living in sin”).

Julia, who initially was a “heathen” at the beginning of the series eventually turns her whole life around. In a fit of hysteria, she laments how because of her indiscretions she will forever bear a stain on her soul, yet she makes a great act of faith stating that her sins have contributed to her Saviour being nailed hand and foot. She realizes that mercy does indeed exist. If one is repentant.

This is evident also in her insistence on her father receiving the Last Sacrament at the end of his life. Julia therefore presents another essential part of religion, mercy. I should think this is the most important part of religion. Mercy implies that despite the imperfections of man, it is only by God’s infinite love and mercy that we are saved from the wages of sin.

All these experiences that Charles went through with this most enthralling group of people serve to weave a tapestry that makes a complete image of what religion truly is. While it needed a sign for Charles to convert, he gets it. Marvelling at the faith of Alex, at the hour of his death.

Charles Opiyo
4th Year Student
Law School