The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold is a novel by the British writer Evelyn Waugh, first published in July 1957. It is Waugh's penultimate full-length work of fiction, which the author called his "mad book"—a largely autobiographical account of a period of hallucinations caused by bromide intoxication that he experienced in the early months of 1954, recounted through his protagonist Gilbert Pinfold.
Waugh's health in the winter of 1953–54 was indifferent, and he was beset with various personal anxieties that were stifling his ability to work. He was also consuming alcohol, bromide and chloral in large amounts. In search of a peaceful environment in which he could resume writing, he embarked on a sea voyage to Ceylon, but was driven to the point of madness by imagined voices that assailed him throughout the voyage. These experiences are mirrored in the novel by those of Pinfold, a successful writer in the Waugh mould who, as an antidote to his lassitude and chronic insomnia, is dosing himself with a similar regimen of drugs. This cocktail brings about a series of hallucinatory episodes during a sea voyage taken by Pinfold for the sake of his health; he hears voices that insult, taunt and threaten him. He leaves the ship, but his unseen tormentors follow him. On his return to England, his wife convinces him that the voices were imaginary, and his doctor diagnoses poisoning from the bromide and chloral mixture. Pinfold, however, also views the episode as a private victory over the forces of evil.
On the book's publication, Waugh's friends praised it, but its general critical reception was muted. Most reviewers admired the self-portrait of Waugh with which the novel opens, but expressed divided views about the rest, in particular the ending. Commentators have debated whether the novel provides a real-life depiction of Waugh, or if it represents the exaggerated persona that he cultivated as a means of preserving his privacy. The book has been dramatised for radio and as a stage play.Gilbert Pinfold is an English novelist of repute who at the age of 50 can look back on a varied life that has included a dozen reasonably successful books, wide travel, and honourable service in the Second World War. His reputation secure, he lives quietly, on good but not close terms with his neighbours; his Roman Catholicism sets him slightly apart in the local community. He has a pronounced distaste for most aspects of modern life, and has of late become somewhat lazy, given to drinking more than he should. To counter the effects of his several aches and pains, Pinfold has taken to dosing himself with a powerful sedative of chloral and bromide. He conceals this practice from his doctor.
Pinfold is very protective of his privacy, but uncharacteristically agrees to be interviewed on BBC radio. The main inquisitor is a man named Angel, whose voice and manner disconcert Pinfold, who believes he detects a veiled malicious intent. In the weeks that follow, Pinfold broods on the incident. He finds his memory beginning to play tricks on him. The encroaching winter depresses him further; he decides to escape by taking a cruise, and secures passage on the SS Caliban, bound for Ceylon. As the voyage proceeds, Pinfold finds that he hears sounds and conversations from other parts of the ship which he believes are somehow being transmitted into his cabin. Amid an increasingly bizarre series of overheard incidents, he hears remarks which become progressively more insulting, and then directly threatening towards himself. The main tormentors are a man and a woman, whose vicious words are balanced by those of an affectionate younger woman, Margaret. He is convinced that the man is the BBC interviewer Angel, using his technical knowledge to broadcast the voices. Pinfold spends sleepless nights, awaiting a threatened beating, a kidnapping attempt and a seductive visit from Margaret.
To escape his persecutors Pinfold disembarks at Alexandria and flies on to Colombo, but the voices pursue him. Pinfold has now reconciled himself to their presence and is able to ignore them, or even converse rationally with them. After a brief stay in Colombo he returns to England. On the flight home he is told by "Angel" that the whole episode was a scientific experiment that got out of hand; if Pinfold will keep silent about his experiences, he is told, he will never be bothered by the voices again. Pinfold refuses, declaring Angel to be a menace that must be exposed. Back in England, Mrs Pinfold convinces him that Angel had never left the country and the voices are imaginary. Pinfold hears Margaret faintly say,"I don't exist, but I do love you", before the voices disappear forever. Pinfold's doctor diagnoses poisoning from the bromide and chloral. Pinfold views his courage in the battle against the voices as a significant victory in the battle with his personal demons, and he begins to write an account of his experiences: "The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold".