A Handful of Dust
Brett and Brenda: Fallen Women
Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” and Ernest Hemingway’s “The Sun Also Rises” both feature memorable female characters. Lady Brett Ashley, of “The Sun Also Rises” is a strong and independent woman who refuses to commit to any one man. Brenda Last, of Evelyn Waugh’s “A Handful of Dust” is an unhappily married woman who engages in an extramarital affair. Both of these women have one defining feature: infidelity. While the unfaithful Brenda and the promiscuous Brett are similar in their flaws, they are also very different characters in their motives, their attitudes, and their eventual outcomes as fallen women. Brenda Last’s character is slow in development. We first only hear a few mentions of her when Mrs. Beaver refers to her as “lovely” (Waugh 6), and “people used to be mad about her when she was a girl” (7). A little while later, Jock refers to Brenda as a “grand girl” and “devoted wife” (11). Despite these complimentary references to Brenda, she is later revealed as far less than a devoted wife, and certainly not lovely to her husband and son. The first subtle but significant hint that Brenda is not what people imagine is that her room is named Guinevere. Although every room in the house is named with an Arthurian name, the fact that Brenda’s room is named after the queen who eventually betrays Arthur is no coincidence. And just as Guinevere and Lancelot’s relationship is what ultimately causes the fall of Camelot and the destruction of Arthur himself, Brenda’s affair with Beaver will ruin Tony emotionally and financially. Unlike the famous Guinevere however, Brenda’s affair with Beaver is not rooted in passion, but boredom and selfishness. “Brenda can find no real satisfaction in being a wife and mother. Bored by her marriage to Tony, who is decent and honorable, but dull, she beings an affair with John Beaver, a half-man who lives beside his telephone on the fringes of the fashionable world” (Nichols 53). Brenda’s discontent with Tony causes her to ignore the ramifications of an extramarital affair, and promptly moves to London to be near her lover. Brenda’s selfishness is largely due to her immaturity, which is hinted at early in the novel when she admits to her husband “You’re so much better at being serious than I am” (25), and makes no effort to discipline their son. Brenda is the center of her own universe, mixing with others that hold similar views. It is notable that Brenda, like Guinevere, is “untouched by her husband’s rectitude” (Auerbach 30), and therefore spends as much time as she can with women like herself. Brenda and her circle convert life into a kind of art to be judged only on aesthetic rather than moral grounds (Greenberg 370). Brenda’s friends see the death of little John Andrew as gossip for their circle, and Jenny narcissistically blames herself: “O God…. What have I done to deserve it?” (Waugh 157). An article in College English stated that “Brenda and her circle are heartless” (Nichols 55). Though capable of emotion, they are unnatural in their passive rejection of traditional roles such as faithful wives or loving mothers. Even Brenda’s mother seems to be consumed by triviality. The little we know of Brenda’s mother, Lady St. Cloud, is a possible hint as to how Brenda acquired such indifference to the awareness of the feelings of others. Lady St. Cloud’s personality is glimpsed in her ridiculous condolence letter:“…I shall not come down to Hetton for the funeral, but I shall be thinking of you both all the time and my dear grandson. I shall think of you as I saw you all three, together, at Christmas. Dear children, at a time like this only yourselves can be any help to each other. Love is the only thing that is stronger than sorrow…. (Waugh 170).” Although her mother’s absence does not hurt Brenda since she herself is not really affected by her son’s death, her mother’s clichéd sympathy letter reveals the pure silliness of the society in which Brenda mixes and was brought up in. Later, Lady St. Cloud says to Tony, speaking of Brenda,“Brenda must have felt a tiny bit neglected—people often do at that stage of marriage. I have known countless cases—and it was naturally flattering to her to find a young man to beg and carry for her. That’s all it was, nothing wrong. And then the terrible shock of little John’s accident unsettled her and she didn’t know what she was saying or writing. You’ll both laugh over this little fracas in years to come” (175). The very idea that the couple could ever laugh over such a serious matter is in itself absurd, even if they did reconcile later on. The death of a son and an affair that threatens to tear apart a marriage are no laughing matters. The bulk of Brenda’s character is most clearly revealed by her affair with Beaver. After years of being in a marriage with a man who is more in love with his house than his wife, Brenda looks for fulfillment outside of her marriage. She finds it in the person of John Beaver, a man whose only usefulness is in making up an even number at dinner parties. Brenda is not exactly attracted to Beaver: he simply arouses her curiosity by being similar but inferior to everyone she has ever known. John Beaver’s reputation even among Brenda’s friends is less than favorable, and he is referred to as “a dreary young man” (66). Brenda’s playful nature allows her to enjoy the games of trying to discover whether Beaver actually has any depth of character. Brenda says of her paramour “He’s second rate and a snob and, I should think, as cold as a fish…” (66). Later in the novel, Marjorie asks Tony not to divorce Brenda at least until she has found someone more reasonable than Beaver (174). Brenda’s sin therefore seems to be not that she has been unfaithful to her husband, but that she was unfaithful with John Beaver of all people. Brenda’s affair with Beaver may be the most revealing aspect of her character, but the most shocking characteristic of Brenda is revealed when she receives the news of her son’s death. When she hears that her son has been killed, she initially believes that Jock is speaking of Beaver. When Brenda realizes that it is her son and not her lover that has been the victim of the tragic accident, her response is “Oh thank God” (162). Jonathan Greenberg’s article “Was Anyone Hurt?” states, “That Brenda feels relief and thanks God that her son has died instead of her obnoxious lover clearly reveals her depravity. Her response to the news–unlike her reaction to the report of the strangled girl–is so shocking that whatever laughter it might provoke is overwhelmed by the revulsion a reader likely experiences” (360). Brenda’s reaction confirms Mrs. Rattery’s earlier comment to Tony that the news of the death might not upset Brenda as much as he fears: “You can’t ever tell what’s going to hurt people” (149). Brenda’s relief at hearing the news on the death of her son is by far the most memorable part of Brenda’s character that establishes her abnormal nature. Brenda is entirely unremorseful about deceiving her husband, and does not in the course of “A Handful of Dust” repent of her ways. James Nichols notes that Brenda is well aware of Beaver’s worthlessness, but to support her lover insists upon a divorce and a large settlement (54). Brenda’s demands guarantee that Tony will lose his house to meet her requirements but she is entirely unsympathetic to his plight. Quite the opposite, Brenda writes to Tony about her desire for a divorce as if it were only a mild inconvenience, asking him not to mind too much, and hoping they will be great friends (172). Brenda’s request is not only juvenile; it is completely illogical to think that after impenitently cheating on her husband and forcing him to sell his home for her divorce settlement, that they will ever be able to meet again. Although Jake Barnes is the protagonist of The Sun Also Rises, Brett Ashley serves as the novel’s center and objective focus because Brett is who all the men have in common. She is “the epitome of the modern woman” (Elliott 77). Her presence drives the action of the story, as well as the male character’s actions throughout the story. Brett is a strong, independent modern woman, “near-alcoholic and a near-nymphomaniac” (Rovit 156). She exerts great power over the men around her, as her beauty and charisma seem to charm everyone she meets. Moreover, she refuses to commit to any one man, preferring ultimate independence. Unlike Brenda, whose character is somewhat slower in development, Brett’s striking personality is apparent immediately. She is described by Jake Barnes, the narrator, as “damned good-looking. She wore a slipover jersey sweater and a tweed skirt, and her hair was brushed back like a boy’s. She started all that. She was built with curves like the hull of a racing yacht, and you missed none of it with that wool jersey” (Hemingway 30). Her entrance into the story is with a group of young homosexual men, establishing her character as a man’s woman. She’s one of the boys, as evidenced in her interactions with men, such as when she enters the Café Select and greets all the “chaps” (36). She is accepted as one of the chaps, but that does not shield men around her from falling in love with her. Where Brenda Last is in the company of ladies that are her mirror image, Brett has no woman friends. Brett even says of herself “I haven’t a friend in the world. Except Jake here” (65). What would be the equivalent of Brenda’s circle of gossiping women is Brett’s homosexual group of young men. “Homosexuals enjoy sporting with, or teasing, the ‘fallen’ woman. Her own ‘corrupted’ sexuality provides them with a nonthreatening plaything” (Elliott 81). Brett seems comfortable socializing with homosexuals, because unlike the other men throughout the story, they are not likely to fall in love with her. Brett may be defined by her sexual liberty, but her independence does not make her happy. She frequently complains to Jake about how miserable she is; “Oh darling, I’ve been so miserable” (32) she claims. Her wandering from relationship to relationship parallels Jake and his friends’ wandering from bar to bar, and although she is independent of any one person, she is dependent on always being in a relationship with someone at all times. As Jake remarks, “She can’t go anywhere alone” (107). Although “Brett is broke and relies on men to support her hedonistic lifestyle” (Onderdonk n.pag.), it is not fear of financial ruin that compels her activities, as shown when refuses the Count’s offer of ten thousand dollars to accompany him to Biarritz (Sprague 260). Brett carries herself confidently but is on the inside a broken and insecure woman, frightened to death of being alone. What is most remarkable about Brett is her utter modernity. Brett is not the least bit old-fashioned. If she were made real and somehow transported to high-society Paris, London, or New York of the present day, she would fit right in. Brett parties hard. She is unapologetically sexual and aggressively promiscuous. She even wears her hair cut short, like a man. She’s one of the boys, whether the boys are the group of gay men or Jake, Cohn, Mike, Romero, and the Count, all of whom she has attempted affairs with. And yet she strikes all those who meet her as attractively feminine. As a result, nearly all the men in the book fall in love with her. This does not mean that Brett is selfish, however, or narcissistic. She is merely realistic about, and accepting of, the power she has over men. Brett’s “unenviable time with her previous husband” (Rovit 156) “turned Brett into the freewheeling equal of any man” (Baker 83), incapable of long term commitment, and is therefore always involved with a man. Despite her reputation, men fall over her everywhere she goes, and Brett takes her pick. In “The Sun Also Rises,” it is clear that Brett has had relations with several of the male characters, leaving them wounded or heartbroken in some form. The most obvious example is Robert Cohn, whose obsession with Brett leads him to act violently towards his friends. Brett sexually rejects Cohn after a brief tryst in San Sebastian, and for weeks following, Cohn is in denial about the loss of the relationship (Onderdonk n.pag.). Cohn “idolizes Brett, and his ‘frank and simple’ nature cannot believe, in view of their affair, that his love is not reciprocated” (Scott 311). Brett is unlike the other women that any of the men have ever met, which is part of her mysterious attraction. Yet that same factor is the most bewildering aspect of her personality—Cohn does not comprehend that Brett drifts through affairs like the men drift through bars. It does not mean anything to her. The effect that her behavior has on Cohn is disastrous. Arthur Scott says in defense of Cohn’s reaction, “Only Brett has the power to ruin him. He has idolized her, been her lover, endured gross insults for her, and now he has fought for her. His ultimate reward is to have her call him ‘a ruddy ass,’ refuse his outstretched hand, and throw herself lovingly on the other man” (313). Brett, who has all the graces of aristocracy and is so full of class that she needs no title (see the Count’s comment on page 64), is no fantasy queen. The discovery of this truth is what pushes Cohn over the edge; “his glorious romantic illusion has finally been shattered irremediably. His queen has proven herself a sham, a fraud, a trumpery social gewgaw” (313). When Tony Last’s illusion of Brenda is shattered, his personal shock is quiet and submissive. When the emotional blow finally pushes him to the limit, he flees to South America rather than lashing out against those around him. Brett’s decision not to pursue a relationship with the young Romero for fear of ruining him follows this violent episode with Cohn, who had been ruined by being Brett’s lover once. If Jake was able to have sexual relations with Brett, it is certain that they would have had such a relationship at some point, but Jake is “a sexual cripple, incapable of ever escaping from loneliness into consummated love” (White 45). Part of the intrigue of the novel is wondering if Brett and Jake could have made each other happy if he had been able to satisfy her sexual needs, or if the stability of their relationship is based on the fact that it cannot be consummated. Jake tells himself that “she thinks she is in love with him because he is something that she cannot have. It is certainly true that her love develops after Jake’s incapacitating wound” (Rovit 156). It is possible that she may be attracted to Jake partly because he is a direct contrast to herself by being asexual. Brett’s unhappiness is rooted in three things. First, like Jake, Mike, and the Count, she is a war veteran. Second, there is no place in her society for a woman like Brett. Although Brett is a strong woman that is greatly desired by the men, her type is not socially acceptable at this time among other women. Finally, Brett is nearly as tormented by their unrequited love as Jake is. In fact, her serial affairs can be seen as attempts to fill the void created in her by Jake’s unavailability. Notice that immediately after Jake tells Brett he loves her, she says she is in love with Romero, as if to bury her powerful, mutual feelings for Jake. This scene is not the first time that Jake has confessed his love for Brett, but it seems to become more painful to Brett as the novel goes on. Unlike Jake, who is in the same position at the book’s conclusion as he was on the first page, Brett has changed somewhat by the end of The Sun Also Rises. First, she has grown truly capable of loving someone besides Jake—an important step if she is to live a life less than utterly miserable. But what is even more striking is that although she loves Pedro Romero—loves him madly, in fact—she ends their relationship because she knows to continue it would harm Romero’s career. Brett has demonstrated a capacity for generosity that was not apparent at the start of the novel. Although she leaves Romero, who she seemed to truly love, she still torments Jake by continuing to run back to him, despite the fact that they will never be more than what they are when the book ends; friends. The only hope for Brett is that she can learn to control her promiscuous behavior and settle down with one man, maybe even Jake if she could accept the fact that their relationship would never be sexual. The only hint that Brett may be able to redeem herself is her decision to leave Romero. Compared to Brenda Last, Brett takes an interesting role as a fallen woman. She fits the part more completely because of her numerous affairs, and furthermore carries the persona of a fallen woman in her appearance and behavior. She smokes and drinks heavily, and socializes strictly with men, most of who are past lovers. Yet despite her numerous sexual escapades, she recognizes that she has a problem. Brenda, on the other hand, never admits to having done anything wrong, and fully justifies her affair with Beaver, acting as if her affair was the most natural thing in the world, except that it’s inconvenient to her husband. Both women have affairs with younger men. Brenda is bored of the symmetry of her marriage to Tony, and engages in an affair with Beaver out of boredom. Beaver is not well respected or well liked in Brenda’s circle, so her choice of him as a lover is obviously not motivated by any deep feelings. Brenda never actually voices an excuse for her affair with Beaver. Brett, on the other hand, is fully aware of her problem, but engages in multiple affairs because she cannot control herself. These actions have led Brett to be called by critics a “compulsive bitch” (51) and “self destructive” (qtd. in Wagner-Martin 51). Most of the men she is with are at some point an object of fancy to her, but they do not keep her interest for very long. Brett’s problem is rooted in deep emotional pain that she fleshes out through sex, just as the men deal with their problems through alcohol. In Brett’s case, rather than discarding Romero like a normal lover, she leaves him because she realizes the potential damage she could do to him. Following the violent episode with Cohn, Brett decides that she cannot risk hurting Romero, whom she truly loves, the way Cohn was hurt. She realizes it would be “bad for him” (Hemingway 247). She refuses to be “one of those bitches that ruins children” (247), and for doing so, admits to Jake that “it makes one feel rather good deciding not to be a bitch” (249). In Brenda and Beaver’s relationship things do not last long after Brenda’s divorce from Tony. Due to their mutual lack of depth, it is unlikely that Brenda’s relationship would have wounded Beaver, but she never considers the possibility; for Brenda, having an affair is all about her. Both Brett and Brenda are well-liked in their respective circles. Brett socializes with men, many of whom become lovers, but she is a favorite of the locals wherever she goes, and slips into high society wherever she travels, with relative ease. Cohn refers to her as “remarkably attractive”, as well as seeming “absolutely fine and straight” (Hemingway 46). Brenda is mentioned favorably as well. John Beaver’s mother and Jock Grant-Menzies compliment her prior to her entrance into the novel. Although Brenda and Brett are found in very different circles, they are both popular in their own worlds. Returning to the point of Brett being a modern woman, this is one point where Brett and Brenda differ greatly. Brett is a modern woman in the way that she manages to by a hard drinker and party woman, but remains attractive and distinctly feminine. She is openly promiscuous, and is defined by her independence and ability to control the men around her. Brenda on the other hand still seems somewhat old-fashioned compared to Brett. Brenda is the stereotypical English lady of the house who makes trips to London and mixes with upper class women. Although Brenda is not remorseful about her decision to cheat on Tony, she is not known to be an unfaithful wife; therefore she keeps her affair low-key. Brenda is very much a lady, whereas Brett, although feminine, has distinct qualities about her that are undeniably masculine. Brett wears her hair short and sports men’s’ hats while ordering beverages deemed inappropriate for ladies. Brenda, though unfaithful, still fulfills her role as a wife and mother, and socially graceful lady of good breeding. Traditionally, fallen women come to a tragic end that serves as a moral for the reader. This is not the case with Brett Ashley or Brenda Last. While Victorian literature “ordains that a woman’s fall ends in death” (Auerbach 30), the change from Victorian literature to Modern literature marks a change in conventions. Brenda’s relationship with Beaver does not last long after her divorce, but she marries Jock Grant-Menzies as soon as Tony is declared dead. Brett’s ending is more ambiguous as she leaves Romero and decides to go through with her engagement to Mike, though the hope of a successful marriage is extremely dim. Since we know little of Jock Grant-Menzies, it is impossible to say whether or not his marriage to Brenda will last or not. It is possible that if Jock could be a little more attentive to his wife’s emotions and opinions rather than just giving her the money to do whatever she likes, there is a slight possibility that Jock and Brenda could have a happy marriage. Fallen women have become some of the most fascinating and famous characters in literature. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the French Lieutenant’s Woman, the Sound and the Fury, 1984, and countless other novels have featured women of all kinds from all walks of life. Sometimes these women are purely evil, but more often they are complex creatures with a background or pivotal circumstance that shaped them into their fallen state. For Lady Brett Ashley, it was losing her true love in the war and enduring two disastrous marriages. The experience of being a war nurse would have been harrowing enough in itself to cause severe emotional problems, without the personal losses she suffered. For Brenda Last, she had the misfortune to be married to a man that loves her, but loves his house more, and is entirely oblivious to her emotional needs. Brenda is “one of Tony’s chief illusions” (Cunningham n.pag.). The constant complacency of their relationship turns Brenda into a self-serving woman who ends her marriage for a ridiculous young man. Brenda suffers no real consequences for her actions because she cannot be touched by natural emotions. For most mothers, losing a child would be devastating. But Brenda is so unnatural that she is unlikely to see any turn of events that does affect her directly as a consequence. Brett suffers in daily misery and seems to be trapped by her own burdens. “The Sun Also Rises” ends with Brett deciding to marry Mike, though the marriage is unlikely to last. What Brett has learned that Brenda has yet to discover is that parties, drinking, and affairs amount to no more than a handful of dust. If both women could recognize this and in turn act upon filling their lives with meaningful pursuits, perhaps they would be on the road to redemption. At least it’s pretty to think so. Works CitedAuerbach, Nina. “The Rise of the Fallen Woman.” Nineteenth-Century Fiction 35.1 (1980): 29-52. Baker, Carlos, ed. Hemingway and his Critics. New York: Hill and Wang, 1961. 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New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1999. White, William, comp. Studies in the Sun Also Rises. Columbus: Bell & Howell, 1969.