The novel with which I am concerned here is not, it must be said, untitled. It has a perfectly serviceable title, one which (as we shall see) cleverly captures its somewhat elusive moral undertones. Rather, this is a novel that has been re-titled, translated into film and given a new name. In the process, it has vexed film-reviewers as thoroughly as it once vexed literary critics; there is something fundamentally confusing, it seems, about their common narrative. By revisiting the novel, I hope to show that much of the confusion evaporates if we read the book not as a straightforward comedy or satire, but as a parody of conventional romance. I am interested, that is, not in the process of re-titling itself, but in the critical problems and puzzles that can survive such a re-christening.
In 2003, Stephen Fry released Bright Young Things,  a film adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies.  Despite changing the title and moving the action from the 1920s to the ’30s, Fry’s film is generally faithful to the tone and plot of Waugh’s 1930 novel. The Bright Young Things race between parties in a haze of champagne, desperate to outpace the boredom that always seems just about to overtake them. As war approaches and minor characters mysteriously fall away, the hero and heroine’s protracted romance ends in disappointment. Throughout, the tone is almost perversely flippant; the novel’s arch narrator and the film’s glittering, fast-paced camera-work prevent the melancholy undertones from ever entirely taking over.
Perhaps more revealing, however, are the similarities between reviews of the film and critical responses to the novel. Although widely praised for its fast-paced frivolity and witty dialogue, other aspects of the film received a lukewarm, somewhat confused reception. In expressing their reservations about Fry’s film, reviewers frequently pointed to the very things which have bothered literary critics for decades. In particular, the apocalyptic ending and the improbability of much of the action prompted several critics to declare the film a failed romantic comedy. Writing in The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw found the war-torn ending lacking in “satire and darkness” and therefore unconvincing. “There is no real hangover here,” he complained, “just a cocktail that is more Virgin Mary than Bloody Mary.”  Others attributed the ending to meddling on Fry’s part: “[The film] amounts to a succession of silly but enjoyable vignettes,” Neil Young asserted,
Until, that is, Fry feels the need to turn abruptly serious and the wheels suddenly fall off the wagon. In a jarringly brief spell, the more colourful characters are shunted off and our ‘hero’ goes off to war. These are largely unconvincing developments that smack heavily of scriptwriting contrivance. 
John Ashton agreed, lamenting that “none of this would matter if Fry had stuck with Waugh’s original story.” He goes on to complain of the film’s use of “broad” caricature, a device which prevents us from “engaging emotionally” with the characters and which “jars somewhat with the rather more naturalistic style of the rest of the film.” 
In each case, the reviewer holds Fry responsible for plot-twists and mood-swings originally employed by Waugh. More significantly, each echoes earlier reviews of Waugh’s novel, suggesting that Vile Bodies itself may continue to pose problems for literary criticism and popular consumption alike. By revisiting Waugh’s novel, I hope to show that alleged inconsistencies in its tone and structure are in fact part of a coherent and largely successful aesthetic plan. The complaints levelled at both Vile Bodies and Fry’s Bright Young Things rest on inaccurate assumptions about what type of story Waugh was writing. If we look to the novel for a simple romantic comedy or an acerbic social satire, we shall be disappointed. If we recognise it as a parody of conventional romance, however, the more puzzling elements of the book begin to make sense.
Much criticism of Waugh’s early novels has revolved around problems of classification and definition. Some critics treat Waugh as a bitter satirist and evaluate the novels accordingly, praising their sharp portraits of social decay but complaining about their inconsistent moral standards. Others, admiring Waugh’s fast-paced comedy and vivid caricatures, resist attempts to discern any moral message whatsoever. In arguing over the believability of Waugh’s plots and characters, however, both readings overlook the parodic nature of the novels. They mistake Waugh’s moral and artistic aims and so misunderstand both his comic and satiric technique. Before undertaking a close analysis of parody in Vile Bodies, I shall outline two extreme and apparently contradictory readings of Waugh’s early fiction.
Waugh considered this his worst novel, as well as his most self-consciously modern.  In his preface to the 1965 edition, the highest praise he allows it is that “this was the first English novel in which dialogue on the telephone plays a large part.” “For reasons of novelty”, he continues, “its many gross faults were overlooked.” Among these faults he includes the “cribbing” of characters and scenes from Ronald Firbank, a sudden shift in tone two-thirds of the way through, and the lack of a coherent structure; this was, he insists, “a totally unplanned novel.”  Others have agreed with this assessment, citing an apparently haphazard structure and the use of techniques borrowed from the cinema and from various early twentieth-century writers. William Meyers likens Waugh’s use of “collages of brief scenes and snatches of conversation” to The Waste Land. As in Eliot’s poem, Meyers argues, “the play of voices is controlled by a presiding voice which combines studied neutrality with a calculated disruption of linguistic expectations.”  Robert Frick, meanwhile, has argued convincingly that the novel is heavily cinematic. Rapid shifts between scenes and a reliance on action and dialogue to convey vital information can be likened to the montage and ellipses of silent films. 
In analysing the fragmented structure of Vile Bodies, however, it is easy to misinterpret Waugh’s use of modern stylistic devices. Peter Conrad has linked the disjointed progression of scenes in the cinema to “the jerky, nervous movement of consciousness.” “This was a uniquely modern mode of vision,” he writes, “it assumed the inherent disorder of things, and saw order as a human pretence.”  This is one justification for abandoning “causal connections” in art, but it was not Evelyn Waugh’s. Waugh was highly sceptical of the notion of realist art, and rejected attempts to depict whole or ‘three-dimensional’ personalities. “All characters are flat,” he told one interviewer. “All a writer can do is give more or less information about a character, not information of a different order.”  He was particularly critical of modernist efforts to achieve psychological verisimilitude or (as Virginia Woolf put it) to reproduce “with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible” the “myriad of impressions” received by the human mind.  “Psychology – there isn’t such a thing,” he insisted in 1949, “like the word slenderizing – there isn’t such a word…I regard writing not as an investigation of character, but as an exercise in the use of language… I have no technical psychological interest.”  When asked to discuss the inner lives of his characters, Waugh invariably refused. These and other statements suggest that Waugh’s artistic outlook was not a realist one; although he borrowed techniques from modern poetry and from the cinema, his aim was probably not the naturalistic imitation of the unfiltered human mind.
Having remarked upon the novel’s modern style, many critics find themselves complaining that its structure is too fragmented. Thus Meyers declares that “technically, chapter eight is a disaster,” and laments its failure to “compose itself into a formally engaging set of contrasts.”  Jacqueline McDonnell concurs, arguing that the novel’s “most noticeable structural fault” is the “haphazard” disappearance of certain key characters (the same “structural fault,” that is, as was lamented by the reviewers of Bright Young Things).  These questions of structure become most pressing when critics arrive at the apocalyptic final chapter. Where Christopher Hollis detects an “artistic wit” at work,  Meyers sees “a mere expedient for winding up a narrative that is out of control.”  The first reading treats the ending as part of a larger formal plan; the second assumes that the novel lacks any such coherent internal structure. By reading the novel as a parody of romantic comedy, I hope to show that the narrative is more carefully structured than either Meyers or McDonnell allows. Claims that the ending is expedient or haphazard ignore the artful reworking of conventional comedy that precedes it. The very events to which McDonnell, Meyers and the film-reviewers object – the disappearance of important characters, the disintegration of Adam’s coterie, the outbreak of war – pointedly subvert the comedic conventions of reconciliation and renewal.
Some critics have thus concluded that his outrageous comic devices work against his more serious satirical aims. A second group, charmed by Waugh’s incessant joking, attempts to avoid theoretical problems by denying Waugh any serious intent whatsoever. Robert Garnet warns against reading too grave a meaning into the early novels, arguing instead that their aim is “pure comic effect” and their material “the diverse, tangential, reckless and interesting human energies.” If Waugh occasionally treats sympathetically the “quieter values” of domesticity and tradition, he does so only by accident; his real enthusiasm, Garnet insists, is reserved for Margot Metroland and her careless, impulsive “life force.”  Among Waugh’s admirers, such interpretations are common. Katharyn Crabbe considers Waugh an “accomplished farceur,” pointing to his type-characters, “outrageous and violent actions,” mistaken identities and playful indecorum. Although she provides a helpful discussion of Waugh’s place in an English comic tradition, she denies that this comedy has any part in a serious moral or aesthetic plan.  Contemporary reviewers adopted a similar view, describing Waugh as “a master of inconsequence” and Vile Bodies as an “extravaganza” in the Noel Coward vein.  Although complimentary, such readings of the early novels ignore the ambivalent context in which particular moments of hilarity take place. Alone, Adam’s fake gossip columns are farcically funny: “‘Lady —, whose imitations of animal sounds are so lifelike that she can seldom be persuaded to converse in any other way… ‘”  In the context of the novel’s unchecked appetites, parasitic press and collective madness, however, such jokes take on a more melancholy tinge.
In praising the surface brilliance of Waugh’s comedy, these critics overlook the serious moral and aesthetic preoccupations which underpin the novel’s most playful moments. A more important flaw in Robert Garnet’s argument, however, concerns the relationship between fiction and reality. Garnet admires Waugh’s early novels for their uncensored depiction of the “energies” of life. The later novels, he complains, represent a “retreat” by Waugh from “the rough data of human experience.”  Certainly, the early novels—Vile Bodies among them—describe a world of ‘variety and extremity’ in which certain characters’ ‘human vitality’ cannot be suppressed. To read them as descriptions of actual life, however, is to misread both their moral and aesthetic position. As we have seen, Waugh’s own statements make clear that he doubted art’s ability to reproduce the energy and diversity of raw human experience.
Even without Waugh’s own declarations, however, a careful reading of the early novels shows that they are, if anything, resolutely anti-realist in their style and structure. Some critics have tried valiantly to deny the unreality of Waugh’s technique, arguing instead that the modern world is as strange and absurd as the world of Waugh’s fiction. A. B. Kernan describes Waugh’s use of caricature as “a realism of sorts,” suggesting that to Waugh, modern people are in fact “as stiff, empty and mechanical” as the “fictive abstractions” of his novels.  Douglas Patey likewise argues that if Waugh’s characters resemble “mere shells,” it is because modern people are spiritually and culturally hollow.  In some cases, this reading accords well with the novel’s themes of moral and emotional emptiness. In general, however, the shallowness of Waugh’s characters cannot be defended solely by reference to an equally shallow real world. The plot of Vile Bodies consists of ludicrous coincidences and violent swings in the hero’s fortunes. Two-dimensional characters move about in a world of grossly disproportionate consequence and impossibly convenient accidents. Although vividly drawn, they never display the free will or emotional complexity ascribed by some writers to their creations. Their behaviour is either clichéd or violently shocking; at both extremes, they refer more to the novel-reader’s expectations about fiction than to his or her knowledge of how the world actually works. Their universe is constructed not of the “rough data of human experience,” but of refined and reified literary conventions. Vile Bodies, like Waugh’s other early novels, might be described as comic, allegoric, melodramatic or satiric: none of these forms are at heart ‘naturalistic.’
It is here that the notion of parody, with its quite different standards of probability, begins to prove useful. To complain that a parody is unnaturalistic or improbable is really to miss the point entirely. Parody seldom derives its structure from the external world of nature or human society. Instead, it operates according to rules borrowed from other texts; its chronological and causal logic reflect, albeit distortedly, the chronological and causal logic of other fictional worlds. Some absurd exaggeration may even be vital to parody’s success: without it, how would we distinguish a parody from the genuine article? In what follows, I shall argue that the very things which critics have labelled ‘unconvincing’ and ‘inconsistent’ in Vile Bodies make perfect aesthetic sense within a fictional universe governed by its own internal rules.
To some extent, of course, the proposition that Vile Bodies parodies comic romance is glaringly obvious. The central storyline, after all, describes the hapless courtship of two young lovers. What is lacking from most readings of the novel, however, is a recognition that the very structure of the book consists of a sustained parody of comic romance. When critics do identify parody in Waugh’s early novels, they tend to treat the term as a subspecies of satire. Some observe that Waugh deals ironically with conventional themes (“the search for the father figure,” for instance, or “the treasure hunt”  ) but say nothing of his reworking of conventional formal devices. Others identify parody in certain allusive passages, but draw no connections between these and the overall structure of the novel. In parodying conventional narratives, of course, Waugh often had satirical aims; his reworking of comic romance certainly exposes the foibles and vices of post-war high society. To treat parody as just another weapon in the satirist’s arsenal, however, is to underestimate its role in Waugh’s work. In emphasising parody in Vile Bodies, I am not denying the satirical effects of the novel. Rather, I am arguing that Waugh’s parody amounts to more than a series of isolated gibes at individual targets. The very structure of the novel parodies comic romance; certain plot-twists and mood swings—the very things which have prompted critics to find the text ‘inconsistent’ or ‘fragmented’—make aesthetic sense only when viewed as part of a sustained parody of a particular literary genre. Before examining this parody in detail, therefore, it may be helpful to consider how parody differs from more general conceptions of both satire and black comedy.
Like satire, parody uses irony to reveal the discrepancy between form and content, illusion and reality, or virtue and vice. Its target may be literature itself (one thinks of Don Quixote, Northanger Abbey and Waugh’s own A Handful of Dust) or something else altogether; in either case, the parodist and the satirist seem frequently to be pursuing similar ends. Unlike other types of irony, however, parody depends on its target for both form and style. As Margaret Rose has observed, the need to make “the “victim” or object of its attack a part of its own structure” can both limit and expand the parodist’s choice of techniques.  On one hand, the parodist is “restricted to the imitation, distortion, or quotation of other literary texts.”  The devices at his or her disposal are limited to those of the original text or genre; to stray too far from the tone and structure of the original is to risk having the reader lose sight of the parody’s target.
On the other hand, parody depends on subtle departures from the rules of the original for its effect. It is only by breaking, stretching or up-turning familiar conventions that the parodist can alert the reader to his or her ironic intent. By toying with the reader’s expectations, parody draws attention to the artificiality of literary conventions; by forcing these conventions to accommodate unfamiliar material, it reminds us of the often humorous tension between form and content. As various modern critics have argued, these moments of subversion and transgression allow parody to do more than simply mock the conventions which they imitate. By using hackneyed conventions in unexpected ways, the parodist can renew and re-fashion inherited literary forms. 
Now, this of course provides opportunities for satire. When Swift imitates the ruthless logic of an earnest pamphleteer in A Modest Proposal, his ridicule is clearly directed at targets outside the text.  His mimicry exposes the inhumanity and hypocrisy of these targets, thereby meeting M. H. Abrams’s condition that satire “use laughter as a weapon” rather than, as in comedy, something to be relished for its own sake.  Waugh’s parody of romantic comedy likewise exposes the folly and vice of 1920s society. Vile Bodies includes sharp portraits of faithless lovers, ineffectual politicians, shameless journalists and venal aristocrats. Its mockery of these targets, moreover, is inextricably linked to its parody of romantic comedy: characters are exposed as feckless and corrupt when they fail to fulfil their conventional comic roles. To see these satirical portraits in isolation, however, is to overlook the role of parody in the overall structure of the novel. The narrator’s strangely carefree tone, the dispersion of the hero’s circle of friends and the apocalyptic ending make sense only when the rules of conventional comic romance are kept in mind.
* * *
For an understanding of these rules, I have relied in particular on the work of Northrop Frye. Although Frye distinguishes between the “social” endings of new comedy and the “pastoral” endings of much romance, he generally treats the two as branches of the same tradition.  Broadly, romantic comedy “is concerned with a love affair that involves a beautiful and idealised heroine… The course of this love does not run smooth, but overcomes all difficulties to end in a happy union.” After a series of ordeals, “enemies [are] reconciled, and true lovers united” in a “festive conclusion,” usually culminating in a “social ritual” such as a marriage, dance or feast.  The details of this convention will be discussed in a moment. For now, it is sufficient to note that the plot of Vile Bodies has much in common with this outline of romantic comedy. It tells the story of a young couple’s attempts to marry and of the various obstacles thrown in their way. They lack money and must appeal to the heroine’s father for aid. A rival appears, richer and more aristocratic than the hero. The tone throughout is superficially light, apparently meeting M. H. Abrams’s demand that comedy “engage our delighted attention rather than our profound concern.”  In fact, subtle deviations from convention warn us that this is parody and that Adam and Nina cannot expect a conventional festive ending.
* * *
Like many of Waugh’s protagonists, Adam Fenwick-Symes is nondescript. “There was nothing particularly remarkable about his appearance,” the narrator explains brusquely, “he looked exactly as young men like him do look.”  Whereas some of Waugh’s heroes are so shadowy that they cannot “amply fill the important part of hero for which [they were] cast,”  Adam fills his role so seamlessly as to make further description unnecessary. In Decline and Fall, Paul Pennyfeather fails to live up to his literary conventions; in Vile Bodies, Adam is perfectly suited to his.
To some degree, this is because they are similar characters in different literary genres. Decline and Fall borrowed its structure and motifs from the bildungsroman. In this setting, the hero’s lack of depth or personality made him incapable of achieving the bildungsroman ideal. In Vile Bodies, Adam’s ordinariness makes him particularly well-adapted to the comic hero’s task. The novel borrows its conventions not from the ‘novel of education’ but from comic romance, and it is therefore entirely proper that Adam should learn little from his various setbacks. His aim is not spiritual maturity, but marriage to Nina. In a genre whose subject is the relationship between characters rather than the internal development of a single expansive personality, the hero has no need for a complex inner life. To succeed as a comic hero, the protagonist need not be a particularly complicated person; he need only be “ordinary in his virtues,” Frye observes, “but socially attractive.” 
Adam finds himself, moreover, in a typical comedic situation: he wants to marry Nina, but must first secure his fortune and gain her father’s approval. Although Adam is a typical hero, and although he finds himself in a classic comic scenario, society thwarts his quest so effectively as to make a conventional comic ending impossible. Frye’s outline of the comic plot emphasises the movement from estrangement to reconciliation:
At the beginning of the play, the forces thwarting the hero are in control of the play’s society, but after a discovery in which the hero becomes wealthy or the heroine respectable, a new society crystallises on the stage around the hero and his bride. The action of the comedy thus moves towards the incorporation of the hero into the society that he naturally fits. 
Society at first opposes the hero’s marriage because its laws—as laid down by the heroine’s father—deem him an unsuitable husband. The hero triumphs when he proves them wrong by meeting traditional standards; although an unreasonably strict father may relax somewhat by story’s end, the hero must still conform to society’s rules.
Adam, however, faces a far trickier opponent. Instead of a conservative society governed by clear rules of courtship, he faces a timid and confused establishment unsure of its own standards. The usual foils to the hero’s marriage—the heroine’s father and the society around him—are absorbed in childish daydreams and trivial gossip. Waugh frustrates his hero’s quest by filling London with inadequate father figures. Men whose office might make them suitable mentors prove ineffectual and inept; their ranks and appellations mean no more than they do at Shepheard’s hotel, where honourary titles are part of the Edwardian bric-a-brac, distributed at random by proprietress Lottie Trump. “‘You all know Lord Thingummy, don’t you?’” she asks as she introduces Adam; “‘Mr Symes,’” he corrects her, but the point does not interest her. “‘Yes, dear, that’s what I said,’” she continues, before introducing him to “‘Your Honour Judge-What’s-His-Name,’” “‘A Major,’” “‘Mr-What-Do-You-Call-Him’” and “‘The King of Ruritania.’”  Old-fashioned formality adds a reassuring air of class to the hotel, whose guests, “arched with modernity,” come to “draw up, cool and uncontaminated, great, healing draughts from the well of Edwardian certainty.”  This debasement of rank and title eventually foils Adam’s pursuit of his fortune. Having entrusted “The Major” with his last thousand pounds, Adam asks Lottie where he can be found. “‘What Major?,’” she replies, “‘I never saw a Major’”:
‘The one you introduced me to in the corner.’
‘How d’you know he’s a Major?’
‘You said he was.’
‘My dear boy, I’ve never seen him before. Now I come to think of it, he did look rather like a Major, didn’t he?’ 
The novel is full of such father figures who offer neither active opposition nor useful advice. Nina’s father obstructs her marriage by daft obscurity rather than any wilful objection to her choice of fiancé. When he finally understands what Adam is proposing, he offers the young couple a cheque for five thousand pounds, but signs it ‘Charlie Chaplin’. More interested in his new career as a movie extra, he refuses to take on the role of the intimidating father-in-law. He is one of many old men preoccupied by trivial or arcane hobbies. Adam’s publisher, Mr Rampole, is a benign old man interested only in “the progress of a little book of his own about bee-keeping, which they had published twenty years ago and, though he did not know it, allowed long ago to drop out of print.”  The two prime ministers, Mr Brown and Mr Outrage, are timid and petulant and entirely ignorant of current affairs. “It was all like one of those Cabinet meetings,” Outrage sulks as his dinner guests discuss the approaching war, “when they all talked about something he didn’t understand and paid no attention to him.”  Although the Ladies’ Conservative Association at Chesham Bois describes him as the captain of their ship of state,  Mr Outrage is not really at the helm. During the rough sea voyage of the first chapter, he lies in his cabin “happily undisturbed, his mind absorbed in lovely dream sequences of a world of little cooing voices.”  Like Mr Rampole and the “terribly tapette” Lord Throbbing, Mr Outrage fails to live up to his ludicrously virile name.
The Jesuit Father Rothschild is an ambiguous exception to the rule. Although his title makes him a figurative father figure, his office disqualifies him from fatherhood in the literal sense. Of the older generation, he is the only character to express any sympathy or insight into the plight of the Bright Young Things. In one of the novel’s rare didactic passages, he comments on their “almost fatal hunger for permanence” and speculates as to its historical causes.  He appears, at first, to fit Northrop Frye’s description of the oracle in conventional romance. Communicating in “dark sayings, riddles and ciphers,” such figures warn the hero of impending dangers and steer him in the right direction.  With his uncanny foresight and mysterious manner, Father Rothschild serves this function at key moments in the novel. From his first appearance, he demonstrates a preternatural knowledge of the people around him: “Very few of [the passengers] were unknown to the Jesuit, for it was his happy knack to remember everything that could possibly be learned about everyone who could possibly be of any importance.”  Meeting Adam for the first time on board, Father Rothschild knows that Adam has written his memoirs, that he is engaged to Nina, and that Nina’s eccentric father is recovering from bronchitis. He leaves Adam with a warning and a prediction. “‘It is going to be rough,’” he observes, “‘and I am a bad sailor…We meet again at Lady Metroland’s on the twelfth, if not, as I hope, before.’”  We are told that as a boy he was “too clever by half,” “given to asking extraordinary questions,” and “endowed with a penetrating acumen in the detection of falsehood and exaggeration.”  Throughout the novel, he communicates in the “dark saying, riddles, ciphers and oracular utterances” typical of guides and oracles in conventional romance. 
Father Rothschild, however, is a parody of something. He displays “a peculiar resemblance to those plaster reproductions of the gargoyles of Notre Dame, which may be seen in the shop windows of artists” colour-men, tinted the colour of “Old Ivory.”  Much of the Bright Young Things’ conversation concerns what is and is not ‘bogus,’ and this opening description of Father Rothschild ensures that we are never entirely sure that he is not a sham. He travels with “a suitcase of imitation crocodile hide,” stamped in “Gothic characters” that are not his own, “for he had borrowed it that morning from the valet-de-chambre of his hotel.”  A copy of a copy, even his priesthood seems an imitation gothic front for some more worldly vocation. In later life, Waugh apologised for using the cliché of a scheming Catholic priest. “At the time,” he wrote in 1965, “I had never met a Jesuit.”  In the context of ineffectual father figures and false recognition scenes, however, Father Rothschild is more important than this apology suggests. A parody of the benign, oracular guide, he fails to help Adam achieve the conventional hero’s goals. Although he displays more acumen than the rest of the older generation, he has no more success than Adam in attracting their attention.
Together, these various father figures form a debased imitation—a parody—of society in conventional comedy. The older generation, and in particular its patriarchs, are mad, childish, cuckolded or senile. They are not interested in taking part in Adam’s quest, either as foils or as benefactors, and they have no clear sense of their own values. As A. B. Kernan observes, “the empty, adulterous marriages of the older generation offer no moral support for Adam and Nina’s marriage.”  As outlined above, conventional comedy ends with the hero welcomed back into society. He cannot achieve this reconciliation, however, unless society offers a clear set of standards to which he can aspire. In Vile Bodies, Adam faces a distracted, timorous society and can find no way in.
This loss of a meaningful tradition is reflected in the younger generation’s manic attempts to create its own myths and rituals. “Ritual,” Frye writes, “is a conscious waking act, but there is always something else unconsciously meant by what is being done.” Through the stories it tells and the ceremonies it conducts, a group can express “dreams of its own social function.” These “symbolic acts of social cohesion” may include “religious services, weddings and funerals, convocations…parades and tournaments, parties and balls and receptions, [and] games and sporting events of all kinds.”  In Vile Bodies, the Bright Young Things race from one such event to the next. Egged on by their voyeuristic elders, they make a ritual of partying. “Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties,” the narrator opines;
Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s Wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris—all that succession and repetition of massed humanity…those vile bodies… 
Gossip in general—and Adam’s fake gossip column in particular—provide this community with its self-descriptive myths. His “Titled Eccentrics,” “Notable Invalids” and Imogen Quest, “his most important creation,” enter the popular imagination and take on lives of their own. He finds that by catering to his readers’ “vicarious inquisitiveness,” he can influence their taste, conversation and behaviour.  The result of these new myths and rituals, however, is not social cohesion but boring and futile repetition. As parodies of more meaningful rituals, they are ineffective and unsatisfying.
Faced with this flimsy imitation of conventional comic society, Adam embarks on a comic quest and fails. The final three chapters of Vile Bodies cleverly and pointedly reverse the conventions of this journey. In comedy, separated lovers are often reunited by a shift in one or both of their identities. The hero may discover that he is heir to a great fortune, or the son of a king, or, at the very least, not illegitimate after all. Guy Mannering, Tom Jones and The Importance of Being Earnest all conclude with a hero rejoining society after discovering the truth about his parentage. Other shifts in the hero or heroine’s identity include the removal of a disguise, as in Twelfth Night, or a simple stroke of good fortune. In each case, a sudden revelation (what Frye terms a “recognition scene”  ) removes an apparently insurmountable obstacle to the hero and heroine’s happiness.
By the final section of Vile Bodies, Adam might reasonably expect to receive some relief of this sort. He has followed the rules of romantic comedy, pursuing his object relentlessly and greeting each new obstacle with brave good cheer. Were his creator following the same rules, a timely accident would see him married to Nina and his place in society restored. His parents, mysteriously absent throughout the novel, might arrive bearing money and pedigree. The Major, sober for once and with Adam’s thousand pounds in hand, might act as best man. Instead, the final chapters of the novel twist these conventions, denying Adam his happy ending and reinforcing the point that without a cohesive society to return to, there can be no conventional comic renewal.
The last-but-one chapter, number thirteen, describes what amounts to a ‘recognition scene’ in reverse. Nina has married Ginger Littlejohn, but war is about to break out and Ginger has been recalled to his regiment. Adam and Nina return to her father’s house for Christmas, where they announce themselves as “Captain and Mrs Littlejohn” and are warmly received by her senile father. They enjoy a happy weekend of claret, mistletoe and afternoon naps, before war is officially declared and the chapter ends abruptly.  Superficially, the episode embodies the ‘festive society’ and ‘reintegrated’ community of a conventional comic ending.  Ritual, so important in Frye’s model of comedy as a source of ‘social cohesion’,  shapes every detail of life at Doubting Hall. The Christmas festivities are highly ceremonial, from the punch-sipping carollers (“‘Bring ’em in, Bring ’em in, they come every year’”) to a carefully scripted “below stairs” visit to exchange presents with the servants.  “‘It’s been just like this every year, as long as I can remember,’”  muses Nina’s father, and the chapter is full of small gestures suggestive of an unchanging, unchallenging routine. There is port wine and cigars after dinner, church bells each morning, and a charitable Christmas tour of local farmers’ cottages. If a successful comic quest ends with “the exaltation of the hero,”  Adam’s patience seems vindicated by the many toasts to his prosperity offered by his tipsy host.
These toasts, however, are all to the health of “Ginger Littlejohn,” and this misunderstanding continually undermines the episode’s apparent conventionality. Nina and Adam’s happiness is not, as Martin Stannard claims, “mocked as radically sentimental” or condemned as “decadent and ignorant.”  Instead, Waugh presents sympathetically a conventional comic ending but suggests that, given the state of the novel’s society and the fraudulence of Adam and Nina’s marriage, the comic mood cannot last. Comedy ends with “the recognition of the true identity of the hero”; without this discovery, marriage to the heroine and reconciliation with society are impossible.  Adam, however, never discovers that he is really a prince or a millionaire; his society never accepts him on his own merits. Although he achieves a weekend of sheltered domestic happiness, he does so by adopting a false persona rather than by reclaiming his true identity. His enjoyment of marital bliss depends on his ability to avoid recognition; when he succeeds in deceiving Nina’s father, he takes a step away from a genuine comic ending.
The final chapter, unnumbered and entitled “Happy Ending,” contains another ‘recognition scene’ and completes this subversion of conventional comedy. On “the biggest battlefield in the history of the world,” Adam finally tracks down The Major and demands his thirty-five thousand pounds. With inflation, it will buy him “a couple of drinks and newspaper.”  “‘How people are disappearing,’” Miss Runcible remarked before she died;  by the time Adam finds The Major, this process is nearly complete. In romantic comedy, “a new society is created on stage” and the community seems sure to be renewed.  In Vile Bodies, society disintegrates and leaves the hero nearly alone. The novel closes, not with happy newlyweds and a festive society, but with The Major (now a General) making love to one of Mrs Ape’s angels (Chastity, as it happens) in the back seat of a motor-car. Adam rests against a nearby tree-stump and goes to sleep.
This allegedly unstructured novel thus parodies the plot of a comic romance. It begins with a typical comic hero embarking on a quest for love and money. As he pursues his heroine, however, it becomes clear that a conventional comic ending will be impossible. He cannot be reintegrated with his community because it is in the process of disintegrating. Its patriarchs are vague and indecisive, its morals shaky and undefined. Rather than crystallising around the hero and heroine’s union, society breaks up and its members are dispersed, leaving the heroine to marry a boorish aristocrat and the hero to wander through Europe alone.
In keeping with this parody, the narrator maintains the light, slightly frivolous tone characteristic of New Comedy.  Like his characters, he dismisses signs of tension or unease as the trivial side-effects of innocent fun. This superficially jovial tone has perhaps contributed to complaints that the pessimistic ending is “haphazard,” ‘inconsistent’ or “expedient.”  In fact, the ending is foreshadowed from the novel’s opening page, where passengers board their ship with “faces eloquent of polite misgiving” and the narrator warns that they are in for “a bad crossing.”  Throughout the novel, references to illness and unease undermine the comic tone without explicitly interrupting it. In an early essay on Ronald Firbank, Waugh described what was to become his own technique. “There is the barest minimum of direct description,” Waugh wrote. “His compositions are built up, intricately and with a balanced alternation of the wildest extravagances and the most austere economy, with conversational nuances.”  In Vile Bodies, this technique allows the narrator to foreshadow a grim conclusion without disturbing the superficially comic mood. Isolated images, turns of phrase and shifts in tone hint at a vague disquiet. Nina complains of mysterious “pains,” Adam wakes up “feeling terribly ill,” and a “distinct air of constraint” occasionally descends on their parties.  Boredom and physical illness seem always about to disturb the fun, as a short catalogue of examples suggests:
In the last ten minutes they were growing notably quieter. It was rather a nasty kind of hush…
The flashes and bangs had rather a disquieting effect on the party, causing a feeling of tension, because everyone looked negligent and said what a bore the papers were…
The long drive chilled and depressed them…
Adam’s discomfort became acute…
Adam had a glass of champagne, hoping it would make him feel a little better. It made him feel much worse…
Oh, how bored I feel… 
Together with the parody of romantic comedy, this undercurrent of unease prepares us for the novel’s ending. It suggests, as well, that the characters are conscious of having lost something important, although they do not know what it is. In scattered allusions to flight and transcendence, characters seem to realise that something vital is missing from their apparently comic universe. Recovering from a hangover, Adam contemplates his breakfast and puts it aside in disgust:
No kipper, he reflected, is ever as good as it smells; how this too earthly contact with flesh and bone spoiled the first happy exhilaration; if only one could live, as Jehovah was said to have done, on the savour of burnt offerings. 
Dinners of enchanting aromatic foods that should be carried under the nose, snuffed and thrown to the dogs…endless dinners, in which one could alternate flavour with flavour from sunset to dawn without satiety, while one breathed great draughts of the bouquet of old brandy. 
And then, “wandering a little from the point as he fell asleep again,” Adam has a moment of spiritual longing. “‘Oh, for the wings of a dove,’” he thinks, recalling Psalm 55:
My heart is sore pained within me: and the terrors of death are
Fallen upon me. Fearfulness and trembling are come upon me,
And horror hath overwhelmed me. And I said, Oh that I had
Wings, like a dove! For then I would fly away, and be at rest. 
The narrator dismisses this lapse as a symptom of a hangover. “Everyone,” he explains, “is liable to this ninetyish feeling early in the morning after a party.”  Out of context, Adam’s daydream does recall the fatigued sophistication of one of Oscar Wilde’s more ‘ninetyish’ characters. His horror of over-stimulation recalls Vivian from “The Decay of Lying,” whose club “The Tired Hedonists” excludes anyone “too fond of the simple pleasures” and demands that its members be “a good deal bored with each other.”  The passage, however, is one of a series of references to flight and transcendence. Mrs Ape travels with a troupe of performing angels, named for a hodge-podge of virtues and costumed in gauze wings.  The Bright Young Things describe anything pleasurable as “divine”:  Nina in particular uses a vocabulary of flight and divinity, calling Adam, Ginger and her father her “angels.”  Strangest of all is Mr Outrage, who has a moment something like Adam’s when he fails to seduce the wife of a Japanese diplomat:
Poor Mr Outrage, thought Mr Outrage; poor, poor Outrage, always just on the verge of revelation, of some sublime and transfiguring experience; always frustrated… Was Mr Outrage an immortal soul, thought Mr Outrage; had he wings, was he free and unconfined, was he born for eternity? He sipped his champagne, fingered the ribbon of his order of merit, and resigned himself to the dust. 
Even the novel’s title contributes to this motif of transcendence. Most critics follow Martin Stannard in tracing ‘vile bodies’ to the Anglican burial service, and so interpret it as a morbid reminder that the flippant, careless Bright Young Things cannot escape death.  The phrase, however, originally appears in St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, from which the burial service is taken. It is worth quoting at some length, for it suggests a more complex meaning than most critics have allowed. “Brethren, be followers together of me,” Paul writes,
And mark them which walk so as ye have for an ensample (for many walk, of whom I have told you often, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ: Whose end is destruction, whose God is their belly, and whose glory is in their shame, who mind earthly things). For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the saviour…Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself. 
This is, of course, a warning about death and a condemnation of materialism. It is also, however, an expression of hope, for Paul promises the Philippians that if they eschew material ends and live by Christian teachings, they will eventually be transformed. As well as foreshadowing the deaths of the novel, the title hints at the vague, unarticulated desire expressed by Adam over his kippers. Like Adam’s groggy daydream, Paul’s letter combines physical disgust with spiritual longing; this belief in the vileness of human bodies and the possibility of spiritual transformation is hinted at throughout the novel. Evangelising the sea-sick passengers in chapter one, Mrs Ape recalls Paul’s admonishment to those “whose God is their belly”: “If you have peace in your hearts your stomach will look after itself,” she promises, before passing around a collection plate and leading them in a hymn.  There is much talk of ‘bellies’ and ‘tummies’ in this chapter, as characters struggle to avoid nausea. They have “indulged in every kind of civilised witchcraft,” but are “lacking in faith.”  Even Mrs Ape’s hymn is crudely physical: she leads her troupe of travelling angels in a song of her own composition entitled “There Ain’t No Flies on the Lamb of God.”  Queasy and uncontrollable, the human bodies in this novel are certainly vile, and their owners’ concerns entirely worldly.
After all this discussion of transcendence, the novel’s final image of flight is significant. Leaving for her honeymoon with Ginger, Nina looks down on England from an aeroplane. For the first time in the novel, a character acquires wings and leaves the ground. This modern form of flight, however, differs sharply from the transcendence longed for by Adam and Mr Outrage. “Nina looked down and saw inclined at an odd angle a horizon of straggling red suburb,” we are told. “Men and women were indiscernible except as tiny spots; they were marrying and shopping and making money and having children. The scene lurched and tilted again as the aeroplane struck a current of air.”  Having complained of vague ‘pains’ throughout the novel, Nina is finally physically ill. Ginger, meanwhile, is predictably insensible, quoting Shakespeare as Nina vomits:
‘I say, Nina’, he shouted, ‘when you were young did you ever have to learn a thing out of a poetry book about “This sceptred isle, this earth of majesty, this something or other Eden?” D’you know what I mean?— “this happy breed of men, this little world, this precious stone set in the silver sea…This blessed plot, this earth, this real, this England…”. I forget how it goes on. Something about a stubborn Jew. But you know the thing I mean?’
‘It comes in a play.’
‘No, a blue poetry book.’
‘I acted in it.’
‘Well, they may have put it into a play since. It was in a blue poetry book when I learned it…Well, I mean to say, don’t you feel somehow, up here in the air like this and looking down and seeing everything underneath. I mean don’t you have a sort of feeling rather like that, if you see what I mean?’ 
Peter Conrad has observed that the aeroplane, like the camera, allows us to “abstract ourselves form the earth on which men in earlier centuries were grounded.”  As representatives of the old, conservative Empire and flippant new Mayfair respectively, Ginger and Nina reveal the inability of both societies to make sense of this new perspective. Like the rest of the Bright Young Things, Nina views the world below with detachment but cannot stomach the ‘lurching and tilting’ of the scene. Ginger’s view is shaped by a half-understood snippet of canonical verse; although the quotation protects him from motion-sickness, the new world and its changed proportions threaten to render such talismans absurd.
All this brings us back to Waugh’s parody of comic romance. Like Ginger’s half-remembered, half-digested fragment of Richard II, the conventions of comedy are at risk of losing their redemptive power. With his revision of comic conventions, Waugh suggests that some deficiency in modern society makes traditional comic renewal impossible. In place of a festive society, Adam finds confusion, disjunction and, in the end, diaspora. The conventions of comedy, however, require a light-hearted, optimistic narrator: too violent a departure from this would disturb the comic mood and destroy the illusion of conventionality. Recurring imagery, conversational nuances and scattered allusions allow Waugh to undercut his conventional plot without departing too drastically from the superficially comic tone.
* * *
In identifying parody in Vile Bodies I have argued, firstly, that the novel is not as determinedly modern as some critics have assumed and, secondly, that the modern devices it employs are not as gratuitous as Waugh’s own remarks suggest. Although the influence of the cinema, Firbank, T. S. Eliot and others is discernable, the novel also reworks age-old narrative conventions to serious effect. Conventional and experimental devices work together to create a parody of romantic comedy in which a conventional comic ending is impossible.
What implications does this reading have for Waugh’s work more generally? Although Vile Bodies has perhaps suffered the most from critical neglect, Waugh’s other early novels also make more sense when read with the idea of parody in mind. Several critics have described Decline and Fall as a parody of the bildungsroman; curiously, however, few have looked in detail at how Waugh reworks particular bildungsroman conventions, or at what such a parody might mean. The term bildungsroman is often left unexamined and undefined, while ‘parody’ is used interchangeably with ‘satire.’  Like Vile Bodies, Decline and Fall would benefit from a closer study of its reworking of generic conventions. To do so would require a survey of bildungsroman conventions and a detailed analysis of their place in Waugh’s novel; unfortunately, space does not permit me to attempt such a study here.
A Handful of Dust, meanwhile, has long been recognised as parody, but parody of a different sort. Like Don Quixote or Madame Bovary, A Handful of Dust juxtaposes the romantic delusions of its characters against a purportedly more realistic account of the world. Unlike Vile Bodies and Decline and Fall, it describes an apparently ordinary world in which the improbable happenings of romance are known to be unreal. In the opening chapters of the novel, no incredible coincidences or fantastical stock characters warn us that we are entering a romantic universe. Romance and melodrama are safely contained in the books in Tony’s library; like us, Tony and Brenda read Dickens and Tennyson and might be expected to distinguish romance from reality. Enough has been written about the allusions in A Handful of Dust to make another close reading somewhat superfluous. Jerome Meckier and Richard Wasson have analysed Waugh’s critique of Dickensian melodrama and discussed its possible implications.  It is interesting to observe in passing, however, that this critique of romantic delusion may signal Waugh’s transition from the self-consciously allusive fantasy of his early novels to the more understated satire of his later works.
More generally, various accounts of Waugh’s place in modern literature have tended to overlook his pointed use of generic conventions. A. B. Kernan, for example, observes that Waugh’s plots are often circular but makes no mention of how this might relate to conventional novelistic technique. “The effect,” he writes, “is of something “just happening,” of a discontinuity through which some unknown and unidentifiable power is working to force matters to a disastrous conclusion.”  The circularity of the novels’ plots may well reflect the mindless movement and empty repetition of modern life. It also, however, echoes the conventions of comic romance (Vile Bodies) and the education novel (Decline and Fall).
Likewise, Robert Murray-Davis offers a useful account of Waugh’s place in modern fiction but overlooks his ironic use of literary conventions. In the 1920s, Davis argues, many novelists “shifted their focus to society, using character in order to illustrate its effects.” Rather than describing the internal development of psychologically complex characters, they focused on how relatively simple characters functioned as parts of a larger social machine.  All this accords with Waugh’s own statements about psychology and characterisation. In distinguishing the ‘externalist novel’ from the ‘novel of ideas,’ however, Davis overlooks the possible link between Waugh’s ‘externalist’ technique and the much older conventions of romantic comedy.
* * *
These and other critics have considered Waugh’s response to modernity. In identifying parody in his early work, I have argued that Waugh explores the modern condition by reworking inherited literary genres. I have not, however, attempted to relate Waugh’s use of parody to modernist fiction more generally. If, as David Kiremidjian has argued, parody is quintessentially modernist, Waugh might have more in common with James Joyce and T. S. Eliot than his own remarks suggest. Some critics have gone further, arguing that in his playful use of genre, Waugh leaves modernism behind and approaches the postmodernism of Roussel and Robbe-Grillet.  There is, of course, something short-sighted about such claims. To suggest that parody is a mark of modernity is to ignore the many pre-twentieth century parodists, as well as to risk confusing parody with other types of literary borrowing. Nevertheless, parody may provide an interesting link between Waugh and other twentieth century writers. The question is, regrettably, too large for me to tackle here. It would require, at the very least, a more thorough definition of modernist literature than I can pretend to provide. Rather, I have sought to establish that parody (modern, postmodern or otherwise) is an important structural principle in Waugh’s early work. Although various critics have commented on isolated allusions and conventional themes, few have observed that the very structure of Vile Bodies pointedly subverts the conventions of comic romance. Only when we recognise this aspect of Waugh’s technique do the plot-twists and mood-swings of the novel begin to make aesthetic sense.