Close Reading Series – “A Twitch upon the Thread” – The Pull of Conversion

Written on November 9th, 2018 by Emily Kate Marticello, Class of 2019

The LUCatholic is excited to announce its new Close Reading Series where students share their interpretations an analyses of texts through a Catholic lens. Our first entry is senior Emily Kate Marticello’s close reading of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisted with a focus on the theme of conversion. 

From Richard Blake’s chapter “Catholic Imagining” from his book, After Image, we learn of many Catholic anecdotal identifiers such as the importance of the physical and sacramental as well as the presence of devotional activities, but one sign of a Catholic narrative missing from his analysis is the theme of a dramatic conversion. Dating back to the early days of Christianity, stories of conversion were told as signs of faith and mercy. Notable conversions include that of St. Paul, St. Augustine, and St. Ignatius of Loyola. All three men lived a life of abhorred sin, but experienced profound conversions that lead to a devout relationship with their Lord. In his novel, Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh develops the theme of conversion through the characters Sebastian, Lord Alex Marchmain, and the protagonist Charles Ryder.

The idea of a thread of a fisherman of God originated in the Old Testament of the Bible with the story of Tobit, Sarah, and St. Raphael the Archangel. St. Raphael is the patron saint of healing and travelers, and is often depicted in the Catholic Imagination with a silver fish or a thread connecting two lovers. From St. Raphael emerges stories of long journeys to faith and guidance through healing. As Catholic authors, both Waugh and Chesterton evoke this theme of inevitable conversion present in the historical and literary narratives dating back to the Old Testament. The thread is a metaphor originally found in G.K. Chesterton’s The Innocence of Father Brown, where the priest describes a repenting “vagabond” as being brought back by this twitch of a spiritual fishing line. The final book of Brideshead Revisited is titled “A Twitch Upon the Thread” is a direct allusion to Waugh’s literary use of conversion and return. Cordelia recalls Father Brown’s story when Charles asks if she wishes to convert him to Catholicism. She fondly retells the story of her mother reading Chesterton and reflects on her siblings Julia and Sebastian, “But God won’t let them go for long, you know.” (Waugh, 254). Cordelia effectively foreshadows the transformative exile that will lead Julia and Sebastian back to the faith of their childhoods.

However, no one character could have foreseen the truly unimaginable death-bead conversion of Lord Alex Marchmain. Through Marchmain, Waugh concretely seals the thematic importance of religious conversion in a Catholic literary piece. In Lord Marchmain’s death scene, Charles joins Julia and Cara in praying for Alex in his final moments. Charles’ entire tone contrasts his usual air of denial and superiority. Here, he prays, “O God, if there is a God, forgive him his sins, if there is such a thing as sin,” (Waugh, 390) and believes this to be a simple and small an act. But then, with the final movements of Lord Marchmain, the thread holding each character to their Lord receives the most profound twitch, leading Julia, Marchmain and even Charles Ryder to a quiet but meaningful conversion.

… But there was no need for fear; the hand moved slowly down his breast, then to his shoulder, and Lord Marchmain made the sign of the cross. Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom. (Waugh, 390).

In Brideshead Revisited, Waugh creates a disillusioned world trapped between two wars, where the character’s only anchor is their thin thread connecting them to their inevitable turning back to God. The thematic emphasis for Waugh is on both the lack of, fervent devotion to and the profound conversion toward religion. The story ends with the now Officer Ryder stepping into the Art Noveau chapel off Brideshead Castle and reflecting on the foundations of the castle returning to its ancient origin, with the sanctuary lamp burning once again for soldiers, “It could not have been lit but for the builders and the tragedians, and there I found it this morning, burning anew among the old stones.” (Waugh, 402). With this line, the story of the Castle itself, the setting and source for all other narratives within Brideshead Revisited, becomes converted to its source and purpose. It too is affected by the twitch upon a thread.

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