A Handful of Dust
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"A Handful of Dust" Summary

By Evelyn Waugh

fiction | 328 pages | Published in 2012

Selected by Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of the century, this "absolutely delightful" novel (New York Times) movingly and comically chronicles the breakdown of a marriage and the disintegration of English society in the years after World War I. After seven years of marriage, the beautiful Lady Brenda Last has grown bored with life at Hetton Abbey, the Gothic mansion that is the pride and joy of her husband, Tony. She drifts into an affair with the shallow socialite John Beaver and forsakes Tony for the Belgravia set. In a novel that combines tragedy, comedy, and savage irony, Evelyn Waugh indelibly captures the irresponsible mood of the "crazy and sterile generation" between the wars.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A man's life unravels in a series of tragic and absurd events after his marriage falls apart.


Welcome to this book summary page for "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh. In this article, we will provide a brief synopsis, discuss the main events and characters, explore the themes and insights of the novel, and provide some takeaways for the readers.

Brief Synopsis

"A Handful of Dust" is a satirical novel published in 1934 by British author Evelyn Waugh. The story is set in England between the two World Wars and exposes the hypocrisy and shallowness of the upper-class society of the time.

The novel primarily revolves around the life of Tony Last, a country squire who lives with his wife, Brenda, and their young son, John Andrew, in a beautiful but decaying house called Hetton Abbey. Tony is deeply attached to his ancestral home and spends most of his time there, while Brenda craves excitement and social interaction.

In search of adventure, Brenda embarks on an affair with John Beaver, a rather insipid social butterfly. Tony, oblivious to Brenda's infidelity, continues to live his life with contentment until tragedy strikes. While exploring the Brazilian rainforest, Tony becomes lost and presumed dead.


The story begins in the early 1930s in the British countryside, with Hetton Abbey serving as the primary setting. The second part of the novel takes place in London, where Brenda tries to reinvent herself after Tony's disappearance. The final part is set in the harsh and oppressive landscape of the Brazilian rainforest.

Main Characters

Here are the main characters in "A Handful of Dust," along with brief descriptions:

Tony LastA British country squire who represents the traditional aristocratic values and clings to his ancestral home
Brenda LastTony's wife, a beautiful but discontented woman who craves excitement and social interaction
John Andrew LastTony and Brenda's young son, who becomes a source of conflict between his parents
John BeaverA vapid socialite who becomes Brenda's lover
Mr. ToddA friend of Tony's who introduces him to the world of London's upper-class society
Mrs. BeaverJohn Beaver's domineering mother

Main Events

The novel is divided into three parts, each depicting a significant event in Tony's life.

In the first part, we are introduced to the Lasts' life at Hetton Abbey and their deteriorating marriage. Brenda, craving more excitement in her life, begins an affair with John Beaver. However, Tony remains oblivious to his wife's infidelity.

The second part focuses on Brenda's attempts to establish herself in London society after Tony's disappearance. She becomes involved with a group of shallow and superficial friends who value appearances over true connections.

The third part takes an unexpected turn when Tony is presumed dead after becoming lost in the Brazilian rainforest. He is held captive by Mr. Todd, who is operating an ill-fated business venture deep in the jungle. Tony's experience in the harsh wilderness offers a stark contrast to the luxury and superficiality he left behind in England.

Themes and Insights

Distorted Values of the Upper Class

One of the prominent themes in "A Handful of Dust" is the critique of the distorted values of the upper-class society. Evelyn Waugh exposes the shallow lives of characters who prioritize social appearances and material wealth over genuine relationships and moral values. The characters' pursuit of pleasure and status ultimately leaves them unsatisfied and disconnected from reality.

Betrayal and Deception

Another theme explored in the novel is betrayal and deception. Brenda's affair with John Beaver symbolizes the betrayal of marital vows and trust. Tony's obliviousness to his wife's infidelity highlights the theme of deception. The novel presents a world filled with false appearances, where trust is easily broken and relationships are built on illusions.

The Clash of Tradition and Modernity

Waugh also explores the clash between tradition and modernity in "A Handful of Dust." Tony represents the traditional values of the aristocracy, clinging to his ancestral home and the idea of duty. In contrast, Brenda symbolizes the modern desire for excitement, change, and freedom from social constraints. This clash ultimately leads to the disintegration of their marriage and the destruction of their lives.

Reader's Takeaway

"A Handful of Dust" is a powerful and thought-provoking novel that offers a scathing critique of the upper-class society of the time. Waugh's sharp satirical wit exposes the emptiness and hypocrisy of the characters' lives, leaving readers to question the values and priorities of their own society. The novel serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of pursuing superficial pleasures and the importance of genuine human connections.


In conclusion, "A Handful of Dust" by Evelyn Waugh is a compelling novel that presents a scathing critique of the upper-class society in pre-war England. Through its exploration of distorted values, betrayal, and the clash of tradition and modernity, the novel offers readers a deeply thought-provoking experience. "A Handful of Dust" serves as a reminder of the importance of authenticity, genuine connections, and the dangers of seeking fulfillment in shallow pursuits.

A Handful of Dust FAQ

  1. What is the main theme of 'A Handful of Dust'?

    'A Handful of Dust' explores themes of love, betrayal, and the disintegration of social values in post-World War I England.

  2. Who is the author of 'A Handful of Dust'?

    The author of 'A Handful of Dust' is Evelyn Waugh.

  3. What is the setting of 'A Handful of Dust'?

    'A Handful of Dust' is primarily set in England, both in the countryside and in London.

  4. Can you provide a brief summary of 'A Handful of Dust'?

    'A Handful of Dust' follows the life of Tony Last, an aristocratic Englishman, who finds himself trapped in a loveless marriage. He embarks on an ill-fated expedition to explore a remote region of Brazil, which leads to his ultimate downfall. The novel presents a satirical and tragic portrayal of the British upper class.

  5. Is 'A Handful of Dust' a standalone book or part of a series?

    'A Handful of Dust' is a standalone novel and is not part of a series.

  6. What is the writing style of 'A Handful of Dust'?

    The writing style of 'A Handful of Dust' is characterized by its wit, sarcasm, and satirical tone.

  7. What are some other notable works by Evelyn Waugh?

    Evelyn Waugh is known for his other notable works such as 'Brideshead Revisited', 'Decline and Fall', and 'Scoop'.

  8. Is 'A Handful of Dust' suitable for all readers?

    'A Handful of Dust' contains mature themes and some dark humor. It may not be suitable for all readers.

  9. Has 'A Handful of Dust' been adapted into a film?

    Yes, 'A Handful of Dust' was adapted into a film in 1988, directed by Charles Sturridge and starring Kristin Scott Thomas and James Wilby.