A Handful of Dust

Introduction

A Handful of Dust is a novel by the British writer Evelyn Waugh. First published in 1934, it is often grouped with the author's early, satirical comic novels for which he became famous in the pre-Second World War years. Commentators have, however, drawn attention to its serious undertones, and have regarded it as a transitional work pointing towards Waugh's more substantial postwar fiction.

The story concerns the misfortunes of Tony Last, a contented but shallow English country squire who, having been betrayed by his wife and seen his illusions shattered one by one, seeks solace by joining an expedition to the Brazilian jungle, only to find himself trapped in a remote outpost as the prisoner and plaything of an insane settler. Waugh incorporated several autobiographical elements into the story, notably his own recent desertion by his young wife. In 1933–34 he had undertaken a journey into the South American interior, and a number of incidents and personalities from the voyage are incorporated into the novel. Tony's singular fate in the jungle was first used by Waugh as the subject of an independent short story, published in 1933 under the title "The Man Who Liked Dickens".

The book's initial critical reception was modest, but it was popular with the public and has never been out of print. In the years since publication the book's reputation has grown; it is generally considered one of Waugh's best works, and has more than once figured on unofficial lists of the 20th century's best novels.

Waugh had converted to Roman Catholicism in 1930, after which his satirical, secular writings drew hostility from some conservative Catholic quarters. He did not introduce overt religious themes into A Handful of Dust, but later explained that he intended the book to demonstrate the futility of humanist, as distinct from religious (that is, Catholic) values. The book has been dramatised for radio, stage and screen.


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