How does P. G. Wodehouse create humor in his story "The Custody of the Pumpkin"?

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The great basis of comedy is hyperbole or exaggeration. If understatement is the great tool of tragedy —the author or narrator getting out of the way so that readers can experience painful emotions for themselves—going over the top into outrageousness is what draws laughs out of people. If a person...

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The great basis of comedy is hyperbole or exaggeration. If understatement is the great tool of tragedy—the author or narrator getting out of the way so that readers can experience painful emotions for themselves—going over the top into outrageousness is what draws laughs out of people. If a person stumbling on a step might raise a laugh, a person tumbling down a flight of steps—as long as he bounces up unhurt—is worth a dozen laughs.

Wodehouse was a master of verbal hyperbole as way to draw out laughs and highlight the ridiculous. One example from the story comes from Lord Emsworth's distress at having a second son, followed by the idea that second sons (who won't inherit the estate) are not popular with aristocrats. Lord Emsworth's irritation with his second son is contrasted absurdly to the male codfish loving all of its millions of children:

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons ...

It is hard not to laugh at Lord Emsworth being compared to a codfish.

Another very characteristic way Wodehouse makes us laugh is through allusion to other works or traditions of literature. He assumes a shared educational background in his reader. Therefore, when he compares the hapless and less-than-poetic Freddie to the exalted vision of Greek shepherds from classical pastoral literature, the disjunction raises a laugh:

into the range of his vision there came the Hon. Freddie. White and shining, he tripped along over the turf like a Theocritan shepherd hastening to keep an appointment with a nymph

It's equally humorous when Wodehouse compares the moronic Freddie to Hamlet:

Hamlet's society at Elsinore must have had much the same effect on his stepfather as did that of Freddie Threepwood at Blandings on Lord Emsworth.

Wodehouse's use of allusion can also be dry, as when he uses a familiar quote about news of the birth of Christ to comment on Freddie's news of being engaged to an American girl named Niagara:

it scarcely fell into the class of tidings of great joy.

Finally, another classic device Wodehouse uses is social reversal, sometimes referred to as the carnivalesque. In this instance, Lord Emsworth, the grand and wealthy aristocratic, is the imbecile who can't think to take the cap off his telescope while his gardener is all competence.

It's important to note that while Wodehouse specializes in creating upperclass imbeciles, he does so kindly—they are generally good, well meaning people. Wodehouse can make us laugh, but he does so gently.

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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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