British Irony and the American Imagination: A Brief Examination of the Influence of Evelyn Waugh on Twentieth-Century American War Literature

Jennifer Sijnja

Upon the publication of Put Out More Flags in 1942, Alan-Pryce Jones wrote: “[t]he plot [of the book] does not matter; it imposes a vague pattern on selected instances of incompetence, lying, theft, graft, fornication, unkindness, ineptitude, snobbery, cowardice, drink and unnatural vice during the first year of the war” (216). The review, itself unkind, of Evelyn Waugh’s sixth complete novel is indicative of the majority of responses to its mid-war appearance. But paying it even this kind of attention is somewhat of a concession, given the telling omission of the book from volumes of later criticism. It is a collective and enduring omission that suggests, erroneously, that the novel contributes not at all to our present understanding of Waugh as a British satirist of the highest order. The goal of recovering the status of Put Out More Flags should be pursued with a view not only to rounding out the relative weight that ought to be given to each of the novels within Waugh’s early stable, though. In addition to painting a wonderfully bitter portrait of the ageing Bright Young Things, the work sits illuminatingly on a trajectory of a type of ironic literary response to war that begins with Ernest Hemingway and carries through to Joseph Heller. More than their combat experience, Hemingway, Waugh, and Heller have in common a predilection for the use of wicked and cruel ironies in their literature. Due consideration of four of their novels in relation to one another reveals that the development of an American kind of irony, employed in response to disillusioning military engagements, depends heavily upon a brief British interlude. Put Out More Flags is informed by ironic aspects of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926) and A Farewell to Arms (1929), and, in turn, informs many of the same features of Heller’s Catch-22 (1960). Waugh’s too-often overlooked work, in updating and anticipating trends in an existential American irony, forms the lynchpin in the development of the relationship between irony and the war mentality from Hemingway to Heller.

Put Out More Flags finds the surviving figures of 1930’s Vile Bodies scattered throughout London in the early days of World War Two. In it, Waugh examines the different ways in which the war disrupts their plans, and catalogues the varying methods they use to deal with it. The focus of the novel falls most strongly upon the outrageous fortunes of Basil Seal and Ambrose Silk, one a crafty rake hoping to get rich quick from the war who tricks the other into writing a fascist tract in order to advance his own progression through the Ministry of Information. But of course, being a “war novel,” in addition to the dandy and the profiteer we find the type of the soldier. And, in their depictions of soldierly figures, A Farewell to Arms and Put Out More Flags reflect changing concerns with obligation and outward forms from one war to the next. Frederic Henry eschews obligation and scorns his uniform, getting out in “a separate peace” (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms 206), a process that is reversed when Freddy Sothill is obliged to put the uniform back on and get back in. The global conflict is reignited and it is perhaps appropriate to approach this second war in a less reverent manner. Fittingly, then, Waugh approaches with much more levity what Hemingway suggests should be taken seriously.  And in this serious vein we find Hemingway’s Frederic on a train to Mestre, reflecting upon his narrow escape from the Italian army. After noting that his obligation to the army ended when the officer in charge of executions grabbed him by the collar, he thinks,

I would like to have had the uniform off although I did not care much about the outward forms. I had taken off the stars, but that was for convenience. It was no point of honour. I was not against them. I was through. I wished them all the luck. …But it was not my show any more and I wished this bloody train would get to Mestre. (Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms 206)

Frederic, “for convenience,” takes off the stars and in the second war Freddy Sothill, rather more inconveniently, feels obliged to get back into “acutely uncomfortable… ten-year-old trousers” (Waugh 4). Freddy’s obligation is much more humorous than Frederic’s, and in the interwar years was forgotten to the point that his military equipment was mistaken for childish toys and theatrical props.

His pistol, in particular, had been a trouble. He had had the whole household hunting it, saying fretfully, “It’s all very well but I can get court-martialled for this,” until, at length, the nursery-maid found it at the back of the toy cupboard. (Waugh 4)

The irony of a deadly weapon being found hidden among children’s toys is prefaced by Freddy’s acknowledgment of the humour implicit in the misuse of military equipment, in games. This heightens the humour of his “but I can get court-martialled for this”: the lack of distinction between the play of children and the play of grown-ups is driven home in the earnest exclamation that lacks any maturing punctuation. The Freudian notion of humour is here remarkably clear. For Freud, the “essence of humour is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and dismisses the possibility of such expressions of emotion with a jest” (162). The intention of the humour is to suggest that the world – seemingly such a vicious place – is no more than a child’s game, and well worthy of the jest (Freud 166). The entire household joins in the hunt for the pistol, and the whole thing resembles a game of hide and seek. Echoing Frederic’s earlier, much more deadly version, Waugh updates the terror of war to a general inconvenience, but the point he makes is no less salient than Hemingway’s. The concept of obligation gives rise to countless ironies as the outward forms of military men become increasingly uncomfortable.

The line of irony from Hemingway to Waugh involves, too, the depiction of a regressive revolution in the patriotic approach to language. In Put Out More Flags, Waugh takes aim at the shallow patriotism of the older characters. In a typical scene we find Lady Seal (the mother of Basil Seal, the novel’s main rogue) contemplating “history” (which she has been taught to believe is “a simple tale of the maintenance of right against the superior forces of evil”) as “the battle honours of her country rang musically in her ears.” Included among these are Crécy, Agincourt, Blenheim, Gibraltar, and Inkerman, where “England had fought many and various enemies with many and various allies, often on quite recondite pretexts, but always justly, chivalrously, and with ultimate success” (Waugh 16-17). Lady Seal’s complacent approach to Britain’s martial past is revealed through free indirect discourse; her reverential listing of the names of these places shatters the sincerity of Hemingway’s Frederic Henry’s much more memorable declaration that he

was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious, and sacrifice and the expression in vain….There were many words that you could not stand to hear and finally only the names of places had dignity. (A Farewell to Arms 165)

Frederic turns away from empty rhetoric and finds solace in the names of places. But the names of places, it turns out, are not incorruptible, since Lady Seal is able to use them to conjure up images of “chivalrous” battles. While one could not justly accuse Lady Seal of robbing the names of the places of battle of dignity, a kind of ironic deflation is certainly achieved by having a character of her type, and in her situation, spout received (and unquestioned) wisdom about the glories of Britain’s military past. Lady Seal’s intoxicated patriotism destroys Frederic’s sober declaration that stable meaning is to be found only in the concrete. Waugh’s irony supplants Hemingway’s sincerity and on its own stands as indictment of patriotic cant.

In A Farewell to Arms we find a world at war, where “[y]ou did not know what it was about”, where “[t]hey threw you in and told you the rules and the first time they caught you off base they killed you” (289). The first of the American texts here under consideration to posit a method for surviving in a post-war world is Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. Following after Frederic in a fictional chronology we find that novel’s Jake Barnes updating Frederic’s sentiment to reflect the changes in their respective situations. “I did not care what it was all about,” Jake says. “All I wanted to know was how to live in it” (Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises 156). The fact of not knowing what it was all about is by now a given; it does not matter. The new struggle is to figure out how to survive in an irrevocably changed world, and the most successful method Jake finds is the ironic one. He employs irony as a means to get by while incurring minimal emotional trauma, and by the novel’s end we see how skilled a practitioner he has become. Unable to consummate his relationship with Brett, the woman he loves, for various reasons, in the ending of the book we see him come to terms with it.

“Oh, Jake,” Brett said, “we could have had such a damned good time together.”
Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly pressing Brett against me.
“Yes.” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” (Hemingway 216)

No obvious clue in Jake’s last line exists to reveal unequivocally the tone of his response. The flat and innocuous “said” in place of a more illuminating verb contributes to the sense that the reader must look beyond the words themselves to glean Jake’s true meaning. But knowing what we do about Jake’s chosen method of “living in it” – the ironic method – we cannot ignore the strong possibility that contained in his “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” is not assent but a bitter dissent expressing all of the frustration he has felt watching Brett sleep with one of his friends after the other. Arnold and Cathy Davidson note the “perfectly sustained ambiguity” of that final line and suggest, too, that “[a]ny final meaning [of the novel] hinges…on something as undefined as the vocal inflection of the written word.” The sentence belongs as much to the reader as it does to Jake: once given it, we are asked to decide whether Jake is “a sadder and wiser man or a man still hoping against hope that, in another time, another place, happiness might yet be possible” (Davidson 104-5, emphasis in original). That is, the sentence must contain two possible meanings. Is Brett aware that Jake is having a well-earned dig at her, or does she accept his sentence at face value? If the sentence belongs to the reader, so too does the responsibility of choosing the colder meaning.

Hemingway’s novel was published eight years after the close of the First World War, and there is a tangible sense of something having come to an end with the characters having to come to terms with what comes after that end. Put Out More Flags, on the other hand, was both written and published while the Second World War was still being fought. Waugh composed his novel in the summer of 1941, on his return to England after the defeat by the Germans of the Allies at Crete, an event that dealt a big blow to British morale. The turning point for the British did not come until the Second Battle of El Alamein in October 1942, and the ambiguity of the novel’s ending – like Hemingway’s, “perfectly sustained” – contains space within it for a reflection of the contemporary sense of pessimism. In this ending Lady Seal has just told her confidant, Sir Joseph Mainwaring (an oblivious cog in the political war machine), of Basil having left the War Office to join a corps d’élite. Mainwaring at first is wary, thinking he will once again be called upon to help, but he is eventually convinced otherwise.

The grey moment was passed; Sir Joseph, who had not ceased smiling, now smiled with sincere happiness.
“There’s a new spirit abroad,” he said. “I see it on every side.”
And, poor booby, he was bang right. (Waugh 286)

This final note of optimism, then, rings false – and it is the reader who should be wary, for it is the reader who, as in The Sun Also Rises, is given a final sentence that cannot be as straightforward as it seems. Mainwaring has never been right, let alone “bang right,” and of course the interpretation of any of Basil’s actions as being representative of a collective “new spirit” is rather wide of the mark. The danger is, once again, that the reader takes the final sentence at face value. The warning not to do so comes both during and after Mainwaring’s pronouncement, with his false optimism ironically reinforced by the narrator. In Hemingway’s text, Jake’s response is indicative of the irony that lies at the cold heart of the novel. Even if on the surface it does seem pretty, it is all so damned miserable. But the tenor of Waugh’s irony shifts the focus from impossibility to misinterpretation (or, at least, misguided interpretation) and the reader laughs at Mainwaring as they second-guess his blustering announcement. In Hemingway’s ending, Brett employs the subjunctive mood only to be mocked by Jake’s irony, and the irony in Waugh’s ending emerges once again in a reframing of Mainwaring’s final declaration. Britain is only mid-way through the war and the “new spirit” abroad could well be one of despair.

Close examination of the evolutionary line of irony running from Hemingway to Heller reveals that, for the American mind, the attempt to forge a post-war mentality by building upon the ironic method established in Hemingway’s early work (which itself owes a debt to the work of nineteenth-century ironists like Ambrose Bierce and Stephen Crane) ultimately proved unsuccessful. As time passes and one can no longer say with any certainty or stability “what it is about,” the ways in which irony is employed to enable one “to live in it” change accordingly, and the character of irony shifts. By the time we get to Heller’s text the tenability of the ironic position has been almost destroyed, along with any notion that one could ever really escape the condition of war. In its evolution from Waugh to Heller the line of irony picks up contextual concerns of logic and mechanisation, with Catch-22 presenting in its entirety an illogic that was inchoate in Put Out More Flags, and illustrating the sinister aspect of the relentless march of “progress.” The illogical catch that forms the centre of Heller’s novel can here be plainly seen:

Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to.

Waugh’s is an influence on Heller well documented in Tracy Daugherty’s biography of the younger man.[i] Heller’s novel, of course, gave rise to the notorious “catch-22” but the prototype for this kind of illogic appeared almost twenty years before that novel’s publication, in Put Out More Flags.

There was a young man of military age in the studio; he was due to be called up in the near future. “I don’t know what to do about it,” he said. “Of course I could always plead conscientious objections, but I haven’t got a conscience. It would be a denial of everything we’ve stood for if I said I had a conscience.”
“No, Tom,” they said to comfort him. “We know you haven’t got a conscience.”
“But then,” said the perplexed young man, “if I haven’t got a conscience, why in God’s name should I mind so much saying that I have?” (Waugh 47)

In the middle of the second war, individuals seek to be reassured that they are not, in fact, in possession of a conscience. Perplexity arises not from any attempt to solve complex moral problems, but when an unwelcome ethical sense threatens to emerge. The immense utility of the ironic method in war literature is here revealed; the episode is conducted against the background of shifting ideals, morals and duties precipitated by the collapse into the Second World War. Though the ironic modes they chose were different, through irony these writers can reveal their distrust of wartime morality – or disgust for the expediency with which notions of what constitutes right behaviour are appropriated. For Waugh’s characters, the way “to live in it” is to make a virtue of necessity and deny all affirmative human attributes in self-defense against the corruption of these same characteristics. Similarly distrustful of the notions of progress and modernity, Waugh, in a representative construction, says of the yeomanry: “they had recently been mechanized, in the sense that they had had their horses removed” (12). He presents in one breath “progress” and in the next the cynical explanation for it, effortlessly rendering contempt for the whole concept. If all ostensible markers of development were followed by a comma and a qualification – “in the sense that” – we would perhaps realise that we actually haven’t come that far at all. The distance between what once was and what is now is merely superficial. The sense of futility that saturates Catch-22 is also hinted at here: “they had had their horses removed”: things are always (only) vulnerable to external forces, and never able to exert force of their own. The number of missions required of each member of the squadron in Catch-22 climbs relentlessly higher and there is not a single thing the men can do about it. But there are a range of options for these men to choose from in order to be able “to live in it”: Yossarian begins to walk backwards so no one can sneak up on him from behind, Major Major Major Major only allows people to see him in his office when he is not in his office, and Milo Minderbinder, failing to see the error in his reasoning, sacrifices loyalty to his brother officers to make money for his syndicate. For, after all, “what’s good for the syndicate is good for the country” (Heller 220). But the ironic method is no longer an attractive option when irony itself can no longer stand on such shifting semantic foundations.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” General Dreedle had exclaimed hoarsely, his shaggy gray menacing eyebrows beetling in recognition. “Is that a chaplain I see over there? That’s really a fine thing when a man of God begins hanging around a place like this with a bunch of dirty drunks and gamblers.”
Colonel Cathcart compressed his lips primly and started to rise. “I couldn’t agree with you more, sir,” he assented briskly in a tone of ostentatious disapproval. “I just don’t know what’s happening to the clergy these days.”
“They’re getting better, that’s what’s happening to them,” General Dreedle growled emphatically.

“That’s a fine thing,” General Dreedle growled at the bar, gripping his empty shot glass in his burly hand. “That’s really a fine thing, when a man of God begins hanging around a place like this with a bunch of dirty drunks and gamblers.”
Colonel Cathcart sighed with relief. “Yes, sir,” he exclaimed proudly. “It certainly is a fine thing.”
“Then why the hell don’t you do something about it?” (Heller 326, 327)

These two interactions occur on facing pages. The word “fine,” like Jake’s “pretty,” is an ideal vehicle for irony, and Colonel Cathcart’s first response to General Dreedle’s use of it suggests how commonly these positive adjectives are used pejoratively. Tricked by his first misunderstanding into a second, Cathcart is once again made a fool of, this time for believing that the meaning in an utterance repeated verbatim would remain the same. We would do well to recall here what the Davidsons had to say about the ending of The Sun Also Rises: that its meaning depends “on something as undefined as the vocal inflection of the written word.” In the first interaction Cathcart incorrectly reads Dreedle’s hoarse exclamation as indicative of a non-literal meaning. The character of the speech used by Dreedle to then close the first conversation and cement the misunderstanding – his emphatic growl – is again employed to open the second miscommunication. It is hard to see between a growl and a hoarse pronouncement a difference meaningful enough to indicate a semantic polarization. No wonder Cathcart is trapped. By Hemingway and Waugh, Heller has been informed that linguistic stability is just the latest in a long line of military casualties.

War for the Americans in the “post-war” (that is, post-World War II) world was very far from over. While the British turned their focus to the creation of the welfare state and a further dismantling of their empire, the Americans continued to fight. Beginning with Catch-22, in the 1960s American war literature began to reflect the paranoid consciousness developed in response to the ever-present (but always unseen) operation of war. The line of irony that began with Hemingway had to end with Heller when the ironic position was no longer an efficient mode of survival. In addition, the divergent purposes of irony in the British and American imaginations after the close of the Second World War historically cement the end of the line.

[i] As is Hemingway’s. See Tracy Daugherty, Just One Catch: A Biography of Joseph Heller (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2011), in particular 120 and 186.


Davidson, Arnold E., and Cathy N. Davidson. “Decoding the Hemingway Hero in The Sun Also Rises.” In New Essays on The Sun Also Rises, ed. Linda Wagner-Martin, 83-107. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987. Print.

Freud, Sigmund. ‘Humor.’ Trans. Joan Riviere. Scribd. Sean Springer, 19 July 2010. Web. 30 June, 2015.

Hemingway, Ernest. A Farewell to Arms. London: Vintage, 1999. Print.

—. Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises. London: Vintage, 2000. Print.

Heller, Joseph. Catch-22. With an introduction by Howard Jacobson. London: Vintage, 2005. Print.

Pryce-Jones, Alan. Untitled review of Put Out More Flags (‘New Statesman,’ 11 April 1942, 245-46). In Evelyn Waugh: The Critical Heritage, ed. Martin Stannard, 214-16. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984. Print.

Waugh, Evelyn. Put Out More Flags. London: Penguin Classics, 2004. Print.