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In his story “The Custody of the Pumpkin,” P. G. Wodehouse creates humor in a variety of ways. The story describes (among other things) Lord Emsworth’s frustration that his ne’er-do-well son, Frederick, has been flirting with the daughter of the estate’s gardener. Early in the story, the following passage, which is typical of the story’s humor, appears:
"Frederick!" bellowed his lordship.
The villain of the piece halted abruptly. Sunk in a roseate trance, he had not observed his father. But such was the sunniness of his mood that even this encounter could not damp him. He gamboled happily up.
"Hullo, guv'nor," said Freddie. He searched in his mind for a pleasant topic of conversation, always a matter of some little difficulty on these occasions.
"Lovely day, what?"
His lordship was not to be diverted into a discussion of the weather. He drew a step nearer, looking like the man who smothered the young princes in the Tower.
The humor of this passage depends on a number of factors, including the following:
- Use of the very forceful verb “bellowed,” especially when that verb is followed by the words “his lordship.” We don’t usually think of dignified English aristocrats as bellowing, and so this combination of words is funny partly because of the comic incongruity of the verb and the noun. The phrase would be far less amusing if it had been written “bellowed Emsworth” or even “bellowed the lord.” The words “his lordship” are especially cultivated and thus seem out of place when following “bellowed.”
- The description of Frederic as the “villain of the piece” is also amusing. Frederick is not evil or dangerous or malign. Thus Wodehouse uses comic exaggeration here and elsewhere.
- There is a comic contrast between the angry Emsworth and the love-smitten Freddie, who is still “[s]unk in a roseate trance.” As the phrase just quoted illustrates, the humor of the story dependence in part on comic overstatement. It would not be nearly so amusing if Wodehose had written that Freddie was “still thinking of his beloved.” The phrase “roseate trance” is a splendid example of ostentatious hyperbole.
- Use of comic verbs, as in “gamboled,” which implies a light-heartedness totally in contrast to the mood of Lord Emsworth.
- Use of comic slang, as when the son of an English aristocrat speaks to his father as if he were a cockney ("Hullo, guv'nor"). Such speech, designed to diminish his father’s anger, is only likely to increase it, thus providing an example of comic irony.
- Finally, one more aspect of the humor of this passage deserves attention: the use of a comic simile, when Emsworth is described as looking “like the man who smothered the young princes in the Tower.” This phrase is humorous for several reasons: it is exaggerated; it is vivid; it catches us by surprise; and it is highly inventive. (Imagine how different the effect would be if Wodehouse had merely written “like a man full of anger.”)
Wodehouse, then, uses a variety of standard techniques for achieving humor, most of which depend, in one way or another, on incongruity. The contrast between “Frederick” and “Freddie” is just one of many examples of the incongruous in this passage and in the story as a whole.
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