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A Handful of Dust

From Academic Kids

A Handful of Dust is a novel by Evelyn Waugh published in 1934.

The title is an allusion to T. S. Eliot's 1922 poem The Waste Land, where there is the lines:

I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.

Tony and Brenda Last are upper crust Britons in the 1920s. Tony is preoccupied with the maintenance of his ancestral home, Hetton. Lady Brenda grows bored with life in the country. She takes up with John Beaver, a socialite of relatively meager means. Beaver's mother takes every advantage of the relationship: she encourages Brenda to secure an apartment in London and secures an agreement to remodel Hetton.

After tragedy strikes the Lasts, Brenda decides that she wants a divorce. Tony agrees to go through the sham of creating appropriate grounds for divorce. Their agreement on the divorce falls apart and Tony withdraws his consent. Instead, he participates in an expedition to find a lost city in Brazil.

Waugh's characters are almost entirely unsympathetic. Brenda is entirely self-involved. John Beaver's greatest skills are getting other people to pay for his drinks and being shown around a house. Only Tony has redeeming qualities, for which he is endlessly punished.

The novel is representative of Waugh's wit and biting satire.

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