An Honest Delusion: Gilbert Pinfold’s Modern Paranoia

Honesty speaks for itself; it is tacit, easily discernible, and many applaud its virtue. Whilst one would correctly interpret Honesty as a corollary to something sincere or authentic, there is required, to reach this corollary, a process wholly without standard definition, a process that could be indeed entirely without honesty. Evelyn Waugh’s The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold depicts the darkly comic nightmare of reclusive Catholic novelist and chronic insomniac Gilbert Pinfold, and his progression into the worlds of paranoia, delusion, and acute schizophrenia. Through the synthesis of a guilelessly intimate characterization of Gilbert’s neuroses, and the techniques of unreliable narration befitting of such a character, Waugh both comments on his zeitgeist and renders a surreal story about the inescapable plight of the Modern artist in middle-age. In an interview with Waugh ( transcribed for and located in the back of the Back Bay Books edition of the novel), upon the interviewer’s first question regarding whether “Pinfold is an account of [Waugh’s] own brief illness,” Waugh responds with a hauntingly “Almost exact.”

The novel begins with a predominantly expository chapter that, with the subtle yet steadily strengthening undercurrent of latent paranoia, depicts the origins of Pinfold’s neuroses. One’s suspicions might first find arousal during Pinfold’s fearful impression of “The Box.” A piece of small machinery that ostensibly deals with the curing of ailments and illnesses, The Box, Pinfold opines as “An extremely dangerous device in the wrong hands,” even suggesting it as “sorcery.” Henceforth, the narrative becomes rapidly more self-critical, reporting that Pinfold finds “he had made no friends in late years” and concludes “he must be growing into a bore.” Thereafter, one receives more insight into Pinfold’s main psychological motivators: “His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, and jazz—everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime.” Thus far, I’m on-board with Pinfold, feeling the friendship grow with each passing line.

This abhorrence for contemporary life and Romantic yearning to exist in a time other than his own are suggestive of a kind of psychological dissociation all too familiar to artists of a certain ilk, which notion is further bolstered by Pinfold’s distant, God-like description of “his exalted point of observation” and, as if he himself operates in the third-person (the narration style of the book), the detached way he enacts “the part(s) for which he casts himself.” This is what yours truly likes to call The Floating Disembodied Eye, and I observed in this manner for most of my twenties. One reads that Pinfold would “look at his watch and learn always with disappointment how little of his life was past, how much still lay ahead of him.” The symptoms of psychological unrest pester on, as one gleans that “Mr. Pinfold slept badly” and that “For twenty-five years he had used various sedatives.” Pinfold requires on “even the idlest day…six or seven hours of insensibility[,]”suggesting a strong aversion to gregariousness and other more shallow versions of Modern camaraderie. A man after my own heart.

The opening chapter closes with a B.B.C interview with Pinfold., wherein Pinfold describes the young interviewer as “commonplace…slightly sinister…accentless… [having an] insidiously plebian voice… [and] menacing,” making clear his distrust and distain for the younger, blander, globalist generation. Hear, hear. Pinfold also suspects that he can “detect in the interviewer an underlying malice.” After the interview, Pinfold renders a rib-tickler about a recently deceased celebrity whom the interviewers were next to pursue: “Cedric Thorne has escaped you. He hanged himself yesterday afternoon in his dressing-room.” The interviewers, for some reason, were bothered by this humorous take on demise. Then, Pinfold reassures the interviewers that he himself is “free of the fashionable agonies of angst.” Waugh’s quiet diatribe against Modernity’s usurpation of quaint English life, however conveyed through the lens of neuroticism, does not make it a false diatribe; indeed, it is riddled with truths.

Accurately described pathways into psychosis aside, Pinfold’s true mastery of The Paranoid is through Waugh’s complete mastery of craft. He depicts said neurological diversity through prose techniques, chief of which is his not entirely objective rendering of character interactions whilst aboard the SS Caliban, on which Pinfold’s neuroses completely take over.

Pinfold’s paranoia is on full display. He is constantly misinterpreting the words, thoughts, indeed the entire demeanor of everyone with whom he interacts. During a tete-a-tete with a woman who yesterday much enjoyed the conversation she had with Pinfold, Pinfold continues thusly: “I’m afraid I was an awful bore last night… All that nonsense I talked… I shan’t hold forth like that again.” To which, the woman responds, “Not while you were with us…I was fascinated…Please do.” Pinfold overhears further conversations in which he is discussed as a drinker and as addicted to sleeping pills—all such conversations taking on a sinister and highly accusatory manner. Pinfold’s interpretations are indeed ludicrous. And the effect is a humorously dark one (90+% Cacao).

Pinfold often reports auditory hallucinations that occur in his personal compartment aboard the ship. His hallucinations, which he claims to hear through the wires or the vents, range from hearing a priest strongly reprimanding a boy for having “pictures of girls stuck up by [his] bunk,” to the unforgettable hooligans who threaten to “wait until he’s asleep…then…pounce,” call him “a Jew,” and thusly also the apt “Mr.Peinfeld.” It is also through the vents that Pinfold also takes part in a marriage ceremony between his doppelgänger and a young girl named Margaret. 

Perhaps most unsettling is that the scenes are quite effective on readers due to their preying on foibles about which many people become occasionally paranoid, perhaps leading one to empathize with Pinfold, a character one might perceive as insane. 

Waugh’s Pinfold masterfully coalesces the elements of extreme unreliability of narration and extreme honesty of subject matter. Far from pulp sensationalism or tales of The Strange, Pinfold seeks what T.S. Eliot considered to be the most important thing for each generation’s literature: find that era’s Realism. It seems that the only way to convey some truth in today’s effortlessly absurd Clown World is to abstain from suggesting rational, ethical, sane characters to be the best representatives of both individual psychology and common personality at large. It is likely more honest to posit that the denizens of today all share more in common with insomniacs, paranoids, and neurotics, share more with people like Gilbert Pinfold. The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is Waugh’s haunting promise of the inevitability of the artist’s mind. That, with each passing hour, one hears growing louder the devil’s laughter. 

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