P. G. Wodehouse World Literature Analysis - Essay

P. G. Wodehouse World Literature Analysis

(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Between 1902 and 1974, Wodehouse published more than ninety books—novels, collections of stories, and memoirs. His fiction, set mostly in London and the country houses of England with frequent excursions to the United States, bears little resemblance to real life in any place or time. Wodehouse creates a unique comic universe crammed with aristocrats, servants, secretaries, clerks, clergy, poets, police officers, judges, thieves, and, significantly, musical comedy performers.

With the emphasis on plot and two-dimensional characters, Wodehouse’s fiction resembles nothing so much, as the writer himself observed, as musical comedy without the music. The stories and novels concern chiefly romantic and financial difficulties, with all problems resolved by the conclusion.

The only occurrence of anything resembling political commentary is the portrait of Roderick Spode as the founder of a fascist organization ludicrously known as the Black Shorts in The Code of the Woosters (1938). Wodehouse ridicules Spode further by making him a secret designer of ladies’ underwear. Such episodes seem to place Wodehouse’s fiction in a particular time, since foreign and domestic fascism was a threat to Great Britain in the 1930’s, but most of Wodehouse’s characters and events seem drawn from an England that has changed little since the start of the twentieth century. His characters are slightly modified Edwardians. Anachronisms abound in the later novels and are fitting since they add to the comic absurdity.

More than half of Wodehouse’s fiction deals with continuing characters: Uncle Fred, Mr. Mulliner, Ukridge, Psmith, Lord Emsworth, Jeeves, and Bertie Wooster. The most significant of these are the last four. Psmith becomes Wodehouse’s first notable adult character. He is rich in Psmith in the City: A Sequel to “Mike” (1910) and Psmith Journalist (1915), poor in Leave It to Psmith (1923), but regardless of his economic circumstances, he is bored by ordinary life and longs to take risks. These chances, from operating a New York newspaper and running into gangsters to posing as a Canadian poet, lead to typically complicated Wodehouse plots. Psmith is a smarter version of Bertie Wooster, a fast-thinking swindler who talks himself both into and out of trouble. Throwing himself rashly into situations with little regard for the consequences, his sole purpose seems to be to start something.

Ronald Eustace Psmith prefigures later characters in frequently quoting poetry and in speaking in characteristic metaphors. Tea is never simply tea but “a cup of the steaming.” Rather than resort to a cliché like “in the soup” to indicate trouble, Psmith uses phrases such as “consommé splashing about the ankles” or “knee-deep in the bouillon.” Such verbal silliness is indicative of P. G. Wodehouse’s style at its best.

Wodehouse writes about Lord Emsworth and the goings-on at Blandings Castle in ten novels from Something Fresh (1915) to A Pelican at Blandings (1969; also known as No Nudes Is Good Nudes). These farces feature dotty Lord Emsworth devoting as much time as possible to his flowers or pigs, his sister Lady Constance trying to run his life for him, and assorted ninnies such as his brother Galahad Threepwood. Everything at Blandings Castle appears to be in flux, with numerous characters running down corridors or across terraces in pursuit of or in flight from mischief. Lord Emsworth keeps firing his secretary Rupert Baxter, and Lady Constance constantly rehires him. Baxter longs to impose order on the chaos of Blandings.

Wodehouse’s greatest triumph is Jeeves and Bertie Wooster, who appear in eleven novels and more than fifty stories published between 1917 and 1974. The basic plot involves Bertie getting into trouble, making matters worse by trying to extricate himself, and finally relying upon his valet Jeeves to resolve the situation. The problems are often created by Bertie’s stern Aunt Agatha or his blustery Aunt Dahlia, by such friends as Bingo Little or Tuppy Glossop, or by someone to whom Bertie is engaged and who is determined to reform him. Through all of these misadventures, Bertie remains cheerfully optimistic.

Having Bertie narrate the stories and novels is a stroke of genius by Wodehouse. Bertie is an ironic narrator who never realizes the ramifications of the events that he is describing. Unusual for a first-person narrator, Bertie is not merely an observer but the central participant, since he influences almost all that happens. Jeeves narrates one Bertie story and one non-Bertie novel, and the effect is not the same. One of the virtues of Bertie as narrator is his use—or misuse—of the language. Combining jargon, slang, clichés, and mangled quotations from literary giants with his absentminded eccentricity, Bertie speaks in a style all his own:It is pretty generally recognized in the circles in which he moves that Bertram Wooster is not a man who lightly throws in the towel and admits defeat. Beneath the thingummies of what-d’you-call-it, his head, wind and weather permitting, is as a rule bloody but unbowed, and if the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune want to crush his proud spirit, they have to pull their socks up and make a special effort.

Bertie is Dr. Watson to Jeeves’s Sherlock Holmes, for the only...

(The entire section is 2209 words.)