Everyone who has read contemporary fiction in any great volume has enjoyed, and suffered through, a thousand stories that end in what Joyce dubbed the “epiphany.” Rather than ending in a confluence of plot threads or a climax of character arcs–an art taken to its extremity in Dickens novels–the protagonist rises briefly out of the ebb and flow of the apparently meaningless stream of events in order to receive a vision of the mysterious interconnectedness of all things. Think of the end of “The Dead,” Mrs. Dalloway, or Go Down Moses. Some might argue that the epiphany is too often a mere bandaid on the gaping wound of poorly wrought, narrative-less fiction. Others with a mind to do so might take the trope as an opportunity for satire.
Evelyn Waugh’s early novel Decline and Fall features a certain Captain Grimes, a public-school man who finds himself constantly “in the soup” with the authorities for various indiscretions. The protagonist Paul Pennyfeather ends up “in the soup” himself after taking the fall for his wealthy fiancee’s human trafficking business, and meets up with Grimes in prison, recently arrived for bigamy.
It is not long before Grimes is chomping at the bit, and he makes an escape attempt one day while returning from the quarry. His escape is traced to Egdon Mire, but the hounds cannot follow the path any further, and his hat is found floating in the most treacherous part. But later, Paul considers poor Captain Grimes and the inevitability of death. He wonders about the mysteries of life, and comes to a sudden epiphany:
Paul knew that Grimes was not dead. Lord Tangent was dead; Mr. Prendergast was dead; the time would even come for Paul Pennyfeather; but Grimes, Paul at last realized, was of the immortals. He was a life force. Sentenced to death in Flanders, he popped up in Wales; drowned in Wales, he emerged in South America; engulfed in the dark mystery of Egdon Mire, he would rise again somewhere at sometime, shaking from his limbs the musty integuments of the tomb.
Surely he had followed in the Bacchic train of distant Arcady, and played on the reeds of myth by forgotten streams, and taught the childish satyrs the art of love? Had he not suffered unscathed the fearful dooms of all the offended gods of all the histories, fire brimstone, and yawning earthquakes, plague and pestilence? Had he not stood, like the Pompeian sentry, while the Citadels of the Plain fell to ruin about his ears? Had he not, like some grease-caked Channel swimmer, breasted the waves of the Deluge? Had he not moved unseen when darkness covered the waters? (269-70)
Excelsior, Captain Grimes! Once more into the mire!