P. G. Wodehouse

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How does P. G. Wodehouse create humor in "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 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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How does P. G. Wodehouse mock the system of social class of Britain in his short story "The Custody of the Pumpkin"?

In his short story “The Custody of the Pumpkin,” P. G. Wodehouse mocks the system of social class in Britain almost immediately. Examples simply from the first few pages of the story include the following:

  • Lord Emsworth can’t see anything but blackness when he looks into his newly-purchased telescope; it is his butler who notices that the telescope’s cap is still attached. The butler, although inferior in social status, is clearly the more observant – and perhaps also the more intelligent – of the two.
  • Lord Emsworth, having ordered the butler to fetch his lordship’s hat, has the butler put the hat on his lordship’s head – as if he is too grand to do so himself, or perhaps too used to having others do even the most basic chores for him.
  • Lord Emsworth’s attitude toward his younger son, Freddie, is compared unfavorably to the attitude of a codfish toward its numerous spawn – a comparison that inevitably makes Lord Emsworth seems an object of humor.
  • Freddie, although from an aristocratic family, seems incapable of managing his money effectively; he gets into debt whenever he goes to London.
  • Freddie in general is presented as shallow and fatuous. His life of leisure and privilege has given him little incentive to develop very much as a mature human being.
  • Freddie’s way of speaking seems fashionably colloquial; he does not sound like a serious person, and this lack of seriousness is again probably attributable to the all-too-comfortable life he has led because of his lofty status in the system of British social classes.
  • Lord Emsworth’s anger when he learns that his son has become engaged to a commoner suggests the extent to which money, rather than love, is most important to his view of marriage.
  • Lord Emsworth’s gardener, though described as a man who seems both honest and intelligent, is Emsworth’s social inferior simply because Emsworth has more money and a longer pedigree:

Honesty Angus McAllister’s face had in full measure, and also intelligence . . .

Emsworth's son seems neither especially honest nor especially intelligent, but he outranks Angus McAllister in social class.

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How does P. G. Wodehouse mock the system of social class of Britain in his short story, "The Custody of the Pumpkin"?

This is an awkward question to answer because there are a couple of errors in the question itself. The first is that this is not a short story, though seemingly well anthologized, but a chapter from Wodehouse's novel, Blandings Castle. The anthologized portion is actually "Chapter 1: The Custody of the Pumpkin" of Blandings Castle (1935). Though anthologized, its origins and context need to be understood and recognized in order to have a fair perspective on it and in order to analyze it correctly.

The second error is in the use of the word "mock." This is a strong word that is better associated with bullies or anarchists who attack and blindly criticize than with world renowned humorists who amuse while painting revealing pictures of human foibles.

mock
verb
to tease or laugh at in a scornful or contemptuous manner (Oxford Dictionary)

scorn
noun
the feeling that someone or something is worthless or despicable; contemptible (Oxford Dictionary)

contempt
noun
the feeling that a person or thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn (Oxford Dictionary)

These definitions indicate that there is real underlying hatred in something that mocks. As a comparison, contrast Wodehouse's chapter to Jonathan Swift's biting essay mocking Britain's policies in Ireland, "A Modest Proposal." You'll see that while the one by Swift mocks with scorn and contempt, the other by Wodehouse amusingly satirizes the foibles of the fading post-World War I British upper class by pointing out the incongruities between aristocratic country life and modern life.

Having said this, what are some details of how Wodehouse humorously satirizes the country life of the landed Lord after one world war has raged? To start with, (1) Wodehouse shows Lord Emsworth as completely dependent upon his domestic servants to get by: e.g., Beach must give him metaphorical sight by removing the cap from his telescope; McAllister, with the waggling red beard, must raise his pumpkin. Additionally, (2) Lord Emsworth has no understanding of nor control over his son, the Honorable Freddie: Freddie gets into debt and is banned from London; Freddie goes gallivanting in bright morning sunshine with a strange American girl with no aristocratic background (and marrying her); Freddie speaks in a slang that the "guv'nor" is hard pressed to make sense of:

Dear Guv'nor,
Awfully sorry and all that, but couldn't hold out any longer. I've popped up to London in the two-seater and Aggie and I were spliced this morning. ... Aggie's guv'nor ... [is] coming to see you. He wants to have a good long talk with you about the whole binge. Lush him up hospitably and all that, would you mind, because he's a sound egg .... Your affectionate son, Freddie

Another very important way that Wodehouse humorously satirizes the landed, country aristocracy, that might be characterized as "dislocated," is by (3) satirizing their values as epitomized by Lord Emsworth's preoccupations with winning gardening prizes. His family has won prizes for tulips, for roses, for spring onions, but they have not won prizes for pumpkins and Lord Emsworth has committed himself to doing just that. His values are not remotely connected to the post-war world, which Donaldson, the American millionaire, is, in contrast, connected to:

"... conditions have changed very much in America of late. We have been through a tough time ... But things are coming back. ... I am a firm believer in President Roosevelt and the New Deal. Under the New Deal, the American dog is beginning to eat more biscuits. ... I an Donaldson's Dog-Biscuits." 

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How is the story, "The Custody of the Pumpkin" by P.G.Wodehouse a comment on upper class British society?

P.G. Wodehouse's hilarious satire, "The Custody of the Pumpkin" is the story of the honorable Earl of Blandings, Lord Emsworth: a man whose great rank and position in the highest class of society is juxtaposed to his lack of intelligence and common sense.

The qualities of ignorance and idleness are the keypoints upon which Wodehouse focuses in order to make the story a parody of the lives of the upper-class British society members. Lord Emsworth represents the idle upper-classes who live off their family names and fortunes, who attend Oxford or Cambridge merely to say that they have gone there, and who later in life become the epicenter of a shallow social circle of estate balls, hunting, or many other forms of mindless entertainment. Like his peers, Lord Emsworth is clearly a man with lots of money and very little ideas about what to do with it.

Parly due to his idle and unintelligent condition, Lord Emsworth employs endless hours into the tending of his beloved award-winning and massive pumpkin whom he named "The Hope of Blandings"; a lead competitor at the Shrewsbury plant show. Emsworth's equally worthless son, Freddie, has been around the house flirting with the daughter of Emsworth's top gardener, McAllister, thus infuriating the latter to the point of quitting his job at Blandings.

What happens fnext is pure mockery and satire towards the upper classes. Lord Emsworth wanders around Kensinton Gardens in a blur not knowing what to do about his contest, nor his son. Lucky for him, McAllister stumbles upon Lord Emsworth, who is nearly taken to jail for his wandering and for pulling flowers at the park. After the intervention of a Mister Donaldson, the story comes to a nice resolution: Donaldson offers to give Freddie a a job far away from his father, McAllister's daughter marries Freddie, and McAllister gets his job back with double pay. In the end, they end up winning the contest again. 

The whole plot is designed to make Lord Emsworth and his son completely devoid of reason or imagination. Compared to the common folk, such as McAllister and Mr. Donaldson, the aristocrats stand out for their silliness in behavior and thought. 

Also, notice how the upper-class men seem unable to do anything without the help of the common man. Lord Emsworth cannot raise his pumpkin without the intervention of his gardener, and Freddie does not seem to be able to make any useful form of employment until Mr. Donaldson shows up.

Therefore, the story presents the lifestyles of the rich in Post World War I England in all of its glamour and its stubborn adherence to old traditions; all this while the world outside the walls of Blandings are undergoing major social changes that, eventually, would affect the aristocrats, as a whole. McAllister and Donaldson represent that world outside the Blandings estate which can survive on their own, and is strong enough for change. Lord Emsworth and his son, contrastingly, represent the weakening upper classes who are slowly but surely deteriorating precisely for their lack of social survival mechanisms.

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