In his study of Waugh's literary life, David Wykes describes A Handful of Dust as "a courageous and skilful act of fictional autobiography", driven by the trauma of the writer's divorce without which, Wykes maintains, the book would not have been written. Waugh, says his biographer Martin Stannard, was "dredging the memory of his personal agony" in documenting the breakdown of the Lasts' marriage. The critic Cyril Connolly, whose first reaction to the work had been negative, later called it "the only book which understands the true horror of the withdrawal of affection in an affair from [the point of view of] the innocent party".
Wykes believes that, of the novel's three central characters, only Tony is representative of his real-life equivalent—Waugh in his pre-Catholic irreligious state. Brenda is portrayed in the novel as typical of many of the women in Waugh's early stories—well-bred, trivial and faithless—but Wykes argues that she is not a representation of Evelyn Gardner, "neither in inward nor outward qualities". Nor, he asserts, is Beaver intended as an accurate portrayal of Evelyn Gardner's lover, the "dreadful nullity" of Beaver being a form of literary revenge on the erudite Heygate. There is general agreement among commentators that other characters are drawn from life: Mr Todd is clearly based on the eccentric but rather less sinister Mr Christie; Dr Messinger, the incompetent explorer, reflects W.E. Roth, the curator of the Georgetown museum whom Waugh considered accompanying into the jungle, only to be dissuaded by reports of Roth's irresponsibility and disregard of danger. Thérèse de Vitré, the object of Tony's forlorn attempt at a shipboard romance, was named "Bernadette" in the original manuscript; the change was made as a reference to Waugh's platonic friend Teresa Jungman. Thérèse announces her destiny to marry a rich Catholic, and in an echo of Jungman, recoils from Tony when she discovers that he still has a wife. The culmination of Tony's misfortunes, his enslavement to Mr Todd and Dickens, is foreshadowed in Waugh's life by his father's habit of reading his favourite literature aloud to his family, three or four evenings a week: "... most of Shakespeare, most of Dickens, most of Tennyson ... stepping about the room and portraying the characters ... he held us enthralled".
Satire and realism
"Are [my] books meant to be satirical? No. Satire flourishes in a stable society and presupposes homogeneous standards ... It is aimed at inconsistency and hypocrisy. It exposes polite cruelty and folly by exaggerating them. It seeks to produce shame. All this has no place in the Century of the Common Man where vice no longer pays lip service to virtue."Evelyn Waugh in 1946, answering questions from American readers.
Critics and commentators have generally acknowledged that A Handful of Dust stands apart from Waugh's other prewar fiction. Philip Toynbee describes it as a turning point in Waugh's journey from outright satire to disillusioned realism: "Much of this book is in the old manner, funny-preposterous laced with funny-bitter, but the whole tone and atmosphere are violently changed when the little boy is killed". Likewise Gerald Gould in The Observer, reviewing the book's initial publication in 1934: "Here was the old gorgeous, careless note of contempt and disillusionment. Gradually, implacably, the note changes and deepens". A later critic, John Cunningham, recognises that stylistically, the book in a different category from Waugh's other 1930s novels, both more ambitious and more ambiguous. Although, says Cunningham, "[i]t provokes as much knowing laughter as Waugh's other satires of manners", it is a significant step away from its predecessors, towards the Catholic "comedies of redemption" that would become the principal focus of his writing life.
In his introduction to the 1997 Penguin edition, Robert Murray Davis suggests that in part, the book reflected Waugh's reconsideration of his position as a Catholic writer, in the light of the recent Oldmeadow furore over Black Mischief. He may have developed a more serious tone to pre-empt further criticism from that quarter, although Stannard maintains that Waugh's beginnings as a serious writer date back to 1929, when he was completing Vile Bodies. Waugh's own comment, in 1946, was that he was not, according to his own understanding of the term, a "satirical" writer, and that in writing the book he was merely "trying to distil comedy and sometimes tragedy from the knockabout farce of people's outward behaviour".
William Plomer, writing in The Spectator after the book's first publication, thought it mistaken "to regard Mr Waugh's more surprising situations as farcical or far-fetched; they are on the whole extremely realistic". However, the mixture of genres was not immediately understood or appreciated by some of Waugh's admirers; Connolly's initial thought was that Waugh had been "destroyed as a writer", by snobbery and association with country-house living. In Sykes's view, the fleeting appearances in the book of characters from Waugh's farcical world, such as Lady Metroland, are awkward and intrusive—the world of A Handful of Dust is not outlandish: "Evelyn would have done better to have forgotten Lady Metroland and her world altogether".
Religion and humanism
Cunningham sees A Handful of Dust as a pointer towards Waugh's later, avowedly Catholic novels, although what religion is in it is either presented farcically (Mr Tendril the Anglican vicar's sermons), or dismissively (Tony's admission that he had never really thought much about God). Instead, Christianity is evoked by presenting the awfulness of life without it; according to the writer and critic Frank Kermode, "[T]he callousness of incident and the coldness of tone work by suggesting the positive and rational declaration of the Faith". The reader, Stannard says, "is never allowed to forget man's primal bestiality ... God is the key that has been thrown away in this purely secular world". John Raymond in the New Statesman refers to Waugh's "unique type of moral vision", and calls the novel a "powerful twentieth century sermon on the breakdown of a Christian marriage".
Tony's doomed quest in the Brazilian jungle is framed in biblical terms; the relevant chapter title, "In Search of a City" alludes to Hebrews 13:14: "For here we have no continuing city, but we seek one to come". However, Waugh remarked of the novel that it was "humanist, and said all I wanted to say about humanism". He believed that the essential 20th century conflict was between Christianity and Chaos, and chose to present a chaotic world to demonstrate that civilisation did not have in itself the power to survive. Thus, in the Brazilian jungle, Tony encounters what Davis terms "power without grace ... secular feudalism unredeemed by the saving grace of Christianity". Todd is the symbol of humanist, irreligious power.
The critic Bernard Bergonzi refers to Tony Last as "a doomed Gothic hero", echoing Waugh's explanation to his friend Henry Yorke that the theme of the book was "a Gothic man in the hands of savages—first Mrs Beaver etc, then the real ones". According to Stannard, Waugh tended to judge a civilisation by its art, and especially by its architecture, his particular interest being English Gothic which is a major leitmotif of the novel. Tony's recognition of the extent of Brenda's betrayal is described as "a whole Gothic world ... come to grief". Later, Tony finds purpose in his otherwise pointless voyage when he hears of the fabled lost city from Messinger; he visualises it as Gothic in character, "a transfigured Hetton ... everything luminous and translucent; a coral citadel crowning a green hill top sewn with daisies". When at the end of his quest he first catches sight of Todd's settlement, in his delirium he sees, instead of the reality of mud huts and desolation, "gilded cupolas and spires of alabaster".
Although devoted to original English Gothic, Waugh had mixed views on Gothic Revival architecture, preferring what he called "pre-Ruskin" to the "stodgy" late 19th century style in which he places Hetton. He instructed the artist responsible for the frontispiece in the first edition of the book to "design the worst possible 1860" style to depict the house. The guidebook description of Hetton which opens the second chapter reveals that, "formerly one of the notable houses of the county, it was entirely rebuilt in 1864 in the Gothic style and is now devoid of interest". Thus, Tony's devotion is shown to be to a false ideal; his deposition and replacement in his domain by middle-class heirs represents what the writer Brigid Brophy terms "a bourgeois sack of a fake-Gothic Rome".