Brideshead Revisited follows Charles’s search for a love that endures. As a young man at Oxford, Charles begins a search for love when he first goes to lunch in Sebastian’s rooms. Sebastian opens his eyes to a world of color and decadence but also encourages him to experience unsustainable excess. Charles finds an outlet for his love of beauty in the study of art, which turns into a career path, but Sebastian refuses to grow up, escaping into alcoholism. The loss of Sebastian throws Charles into emotional tumult, and he deems Brideshead a world of illusion. He pledges to live in the “real” world of the senses and marries Celia, whose social graces make her an expedient match for an aspiring artist. Their relationship, based on social status, cannot last. He next falls for Julia because of her physical resemblance to Sebastian and his longing for the heritage and tradition of the Marchmain family and Brideshead Castle. His desire to reclaim his love of beauty leads him to force Julia to choose between passion and her soul. When Lord Marchmain repents on his death bed, Charles recognizes the spiritual truth of Catholicism, at last finding a love that offers lasting, sustained wisdom.
Throughout the novel, Charles must navigate between his belief in modernity’s inherent shallowness and the reality that he cannot avoid the world he lives in. At Oxford, Charles brushes off Jasper’s practical concerns, focusing on the gillyflowers beneath his window and galivanting with Sebastian. Just as the gillyflowers wilt, so does Charles’s ability to live at Oxford without focusing on real-world issues like money. In his affair with Julia, Charles believes he can ignore social censure as long as they’re together. However, Anthony Blanche reveals that gossip has overshadowed Charles’s art exhibition. Charles attempts to ignore the approach of World War II, leaving the dinner table whenever Rex and his political friends discuss the conflicts in Europe. Of course, Charles cannot escape the war, just as he could not escape growing up. Ultimately, Charles finds purpose in the experience of a cold, modern world through religion. His relationship with Julia dissolves not because of public opinion but because he recognizes their marriage would doom her soul. He finds hope even in Brideshead’s use as an army bunker because this causes its chapel to reopen. Charles learns to see modernity as a spiritual test, the ineffable suffering built into God’s plan.