The novel tells the story of Charles Ryder, who goes off to Oxford, befriends Sebastian Flyte, and falls in with the aesthete set, including Anthony Blanche and other homosexuals. There is a strong implication (“our naughtiness was high on the catalogue of grave sins”) that the two are lovers, but it is never disclosed. Charles loses touch with his family as he begins to adore the Marchmains, where he begins to paint as well. Eventually, Sebastian’s depression and alcoholism sideline him, and Charles continues to attach himself to the family via the sister Julia, who is married but divorced (unsuccessfully as it turns out). Charles returns to the house in the war to find it destroyed.
One of the most interesting things about the novel is how it self-destructs, driving Sebastian off to Africa, decentering the plot strands it has constructed, and ending in a half-hearted deathbed conversion by Mr. Marchmain and a lame marriage refusal by Julia in the name of godliness (as in Graham Greene). Thus, the prose parallels the imaginative experience of decay – Charles’ failure to replace his love for Sebastian with that of his sister, both practically and emotionally. The motif “Et in Arcadia Ego” signals the presence of death in the idyllic world Charles believes he has entered.
As in other postwar novels, the grip on ceremony and tradition seems to be a desperate and knowingly hollow grapple with a religion that is itself on its deathbed. When we arrive at Lessing’s The Golden Notebook, this becomes a political crisis of faith rehearsed in religious form.