One of Waugh's comic masterpieces, Decline and Fall stands as a hilarious meditation on the calamities imposed on the support players in a superficially dignified world. Waugh's brief first novel is a scathing send up of 20th century aristocracy and its institutions, beginning with public (i.e., private, in Britain) boarding schools and progressing on, uproariously and yet somehow logically, to the British prison system.
All the stylistic reserve and precision of Waugh's later works are in place in this novel, the earlier sections of which are loosely based on the author's brief stint as a teacher at an all-boys school. But Tom Brown's School Days this isn't. Mad deans, criminal instructors, worldly lads and promiscuous parents all provide gusts of absurd comedy that keep this whirlwind of absurd happenstance and hypocrisy twisting. Protagonist Pennyfeather blithely ricochets between charges of indecency and pimping with little notion of his own culpability--indeed, there is none. When, at the novel's end, his fortunes run full circle, the valuelessness of aristocratic standing is confirmed, as is Waugh's early promise as a satirist of the first rank.