A Handful Of Dust – Planning Overview

Written by Dan

Last updated

Are you looking for a way to elevate your students’ reading and writing skills while teaching them a classic text? A Handful of Dust, by Evelyn Waugh, could be a perfect choice.

In this post, we’ll discuss why it is an excellent work to teach and provide teachers with helpful planning tips and resources so they can confidently move forward in their lesson planning.

This novel will enlighten your students on English literature and motivate them to become active readers, writers and thinkers.

Related: For more, check out our Planning Overview on The Matchbox Diary here.

planning a writing unit

Story Outline

A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh tells the story of Tony Last, a wealthy and bored English aristocrat who lives on his country estate with his wife, Brenda, and their young son. When Brenda becomes dissatisfied with their life together, she begins an affair with John Beaver, a shallow social climber.

Tony is devastated when he discovers the affair and files for divorce. He retreats to the jungles of Brazil in search of adventure and meaning, where he becomes trapped in a remote outpost and is forced to rely on a madman for survival.

Meanwhile, Brenda’s relationship with Beaver fizzles out back in England, and she finds herself trapped in a loveless marriage to an older man. She reaches out to Tony for help, but he refuses to return home.

Central Themes in A Handful Of Dust

The main themes explored in A Handful of Dust include:

  1. Betrayal: the novel explores the devastating effects of betrayal, both in romantic relationships and friendships.
  2. Isolation: many characters in the novel struggle with loneliness and isolation, despite their privileged lifestyles.
  3. Society and class: Waugh satirises British high culture and its values, highlighting the absurdity of their customs and traditions.
  4. Death and decay: the novel is filled with images of death, decay, and destruction, reflecting a sense of hopelessness about the future.
  5. The search for meaning: several characters in the novel struggle to find purpose or meaning in their lives, leading them to make questionable decisions or engage in self-destructive behaviour.

Main Characters

Here is a list of the main characters in A Handful of Dust and their impact on the overall story:

  1. Tony Last – The protagonist, a wealthy English aristocrat devastated by his wife’s affair, seeks adventure in Brazil. His journey highlights the emptiness of his privileged lifestyle.
  2. Brenda Last – Tony’s wife, who has an affair with John Beaver out of boredom and a desire for excitement. Her actions lead to the breakdown of her marriage and her eventual unhappiness.
  3. John Beaver – A social climber who becomes involved with Brenda but ultimately proves shallow and unfulfilling.
  4. Jock Grant-Menzies – A friend of Tony’s who introduces him to Beaver and inadvertently sets off the chain of events that leads to Tony’s downfall.
  5. Mr Todd is a madman Tony meets in Brazil and relies on for survival. His presence underscores the isolation and despair permeating much of the novel.
  6. Mrs Rattery – An older woman Brenda marries after divorcing Tony, highlighting her descent into a loveless existence.

These characters play vital roles in exploring themes such as betrayal, isolation, society and class, death and decay, and the search for meaning in life throughout A Handful of Dust. Their actions reflect the absurdity and tragedy inherent in human nature, making them compelling figures within Waugh’s satirical commentary on British society during the early 20th century.

Waugh’s Commentary on British Society

In A Handful of Dust, Waugh offers a scathing critique of British society in the early 20th century. By portraying characters and their interactions, he highlights the absurdity and emptiness of the upper-class lifestyle while exploring deeper existential themes.

One of Waugh’s main targets is the institution of marriage. Tony and Brenda Last’s relationship is portrayed as loveless and stagnant, with Brenda seeking excitement outside of her marriage through her affair with John Beaver. This reflects Waugh’s commentary that marriage was often seen more as a social obligation than a genuine emotional connection.

Waugh also satirises the British aristocracy’s obsession with tradition and customs. The various parties and events in the novel are described in great detail, highlighting their extravagance and superficiality. Characters like Jock Grant-Menzies represent this aspect of British society, clinging to outdated values despite evidence that they have little relevance to modern life.

Furthermore, Waugh explores themes such as isolation and meaninglessness, reflecting that many people in British high society struggled to find purpose or fulfilment. This is evident through Tony’s journey to Brazil, where he seeks adventure but ultimately finds himself lost and alone.

Overall, A Handful of Dust offers a bleak portrayal of human nature and society while providing biting social commentary that remains relevant today. By exposing the flaws and contradictions inherent in British high society during the early 20th century, Waugh invites readers to question their values and beliefs about what it means to lead a meaningful life.

Outdated Values

In A Handful of Dust, the consequences of characters clinging to outdated values are evident in their relationships and their overall sense of purpose in life.

For example, Jock Grant-Menzies is a character who clings to the traditional values of the British aristocracy. He is obsessed with maintaining his status and reputation, even sacrificing his relationships.

This is demonstrated through his introduction of John Beaver to Tony Last, ultimately leading to Brenda’s affair and the breakdown of Tony’s marriage. Jock’s inability to adapt to changing social norms causes him to isolate himself from others and ultimately leads to his unhappiness.

Similarly, Tony Last’s adherence to tradition and social expectations leaves him feeling fulfilled and lost. His journey to Brazil represents an attempt to break free from societal constraints and find meaning in life outside his privileged existence.

However, he ultimately finds himself alone and without direction, highlighting the emptiness that can come from clinging too tightly to outdated values.

Waugh suggests that holding onto outdated values can lead individuals to isolation and unhappiness. By refusing to adapt or question their beliefs, characters like Jock and Tony become trapped within their narrow worldviews, unable to connect with others or find a purpose beyond their social status.

Societal Expectations of Jock and Tony

In A Handful of Dust, Jock and Tony have contrasting reactions to societal expectations, highlighting how individuals can respond to social pressure.

Jock Grant-Menzies represents a character deeply invested in maintaining his status in British society. He is obsessed with tradition and customs, even if they are outdated or irrelevant to modern life.

This is evident in his introduction of John Beaver to Tony Last, a decision that ultimately leads to the breakdown of Tony’s marriage. Jock’s adherence to social expectations blinds him to the natural consequences of his actions, causing him to prioritise reputation over personal relationships.

On the other hand, Tony Last’s journey throughout the novel represents an attempt to break free from societal constraints and find meaning outside his privileged existence.

His decision to leave England for Brazil reflects a desire for adventure and a search for a purpose beyond his role as a member of the British aristocracy. However, despite this attempt at rebellion, Tony still struggles with feelings of isolation and aimlessness during his travels.

Overall, Waugh uses Jock and Tony as foils for each other, demonstrating that both positive and negative consequences are associated with adhering too closely or rebelling against societal expectations.

While Jock’s obsession with tradition leads him down a path of isolation and unhappiness, Tony’s attempts at breaking free from social norms highlight the struggle many people face in finding meaning beyond their prescribed societal roles.

Example Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan: The Consequences of Clinging to Outdated Values in A Handful of Dust

Year Group: A level


  • Understand the theme of societal pressure and its effects on characters in A Handful of Dust.
  • Analyse the opposite reactions of Jock and Tony to societal expectations.
  • Evaluate the consequences of holding onto outdated values.


  • Copies of A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
  • Whiteboard and markers
  • Handouts with discussion prompts and questions
  • Access to online research resources


  1. Begin by introducing the concept of societal pressure and how it can affect individuals. Discuss real-life examples, such as peer pressure or social media influence.
  2. Explain that in today’s lesson, we will analyse societal pressure in A Handful of Dust.
  3. Provide background information on the novel, including its setting, time, and notable characters.
  4. Assign students to read a selected portion or chapter from the novel that focuses on either Jock or Tony’s reactions to societal expectations.
  5. Lead a class discussion based on the handout with discussion prompts and questions to encourage critical thinking about the text. Possible questions include:
  • How does Jock represent traditional values? What are some examples?
  • What motivates Tony to rebel against societal norms?
  • How do Jock and Tony’s actions affect their relationships?
  • What broader message is Waugh trying to convey about societal pressure through these characters?
  1. As a class, create a chart or graphic organiser comparing and contrasting Jock and Tony’s reactions to societal expectations.
  2. Divide students into small groups for a research project where they evaluate different consequences associated with clinging too tightly or rebelling against outdated values. Students should present their findings creatively (such as a poster, slideshow, or video) highlighting key takeaways from their research.
  3. Conclude by discussing how this theme relates to modern society and encouraging students to reflect on their beliefs and values.


Students will be assessed based on participation in class discussions, completion of a research project, creativity in presentation format, and overall understanding of the consequences of holding onto outdated values.


For an extension activity, students could write an essay analysing how other characters in A Handful of Dust respond to societal pressure (such as Brenda or John Beaver). They could also compare this theme to other novels or media that address similar issues related to tradition versus progressivism.

Website Resources

  1. GradeSaver : GradeSaver provides a comprehensive analysis of “A Handful of Dust,” including a summary of the plot, character analysis, and a discussion of the themes and motifs in the story. The website also offers quizzes, study guides, and essay prompts. 
  2. CliffsNotes: CliffsNotes summarises “A Handful of Dust” along with a section on character analysis. The website also discusses the major themes and motifs in the story and offers study tips for students. 

About The Author

I'm Dan Higgins, one of the faces behind The Teaching Couple. With 15 years in the education sector and a decade as a teacher, I've witnessed the highs and lows of school life. Over the years, my passion for supporting fellow teachers and making school more bearable has grown. The Teaching Couple is my platform to share strategies, tips, and insights from my journey. Together, we can shape a better school experience for all.






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