Thank You, Wodehouse: The Comic Genius of Jeeves and Wooster

I just recently finished reading Thank You, Jeeves by the English writer P.G. Wodehouse, and I must confess, it was my first Wodehouse novel. For some reason, in my experience as an American, Wodehouse is not so widely read or popular or well known. Perhaps it is because he is not considered one of the heavyweights of English literature whom we read, such as Dickens, Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, or even the modern master, Ian McEwan. However, I found it an extremely enjoyable experience, and would like to offer some praise for Wodehouse. Let me first add the disclaimer, though, that the whole blackface incident in the novel is by current American standards very backward, offensive, and racist. No modern American—-or even British—-writer would dare to do such a thing today. Let me also mention, to those highbrow literary types, that yes, I do find there is a certain flat, cartoony quality to the characters in the book. The characters are there to serve a purpose in Bertie’s story, and we do not know their inner workings or inner lives. We scarcely see anything of Jeeves, except that which is shown to us through dialogue.

But let us evaluate Thank You, Jeeves for qualities other than bad racial stereotypes and popularity, and we shall see that he is quite a brilliant writer; there is a reason his novels are still read today around the globe. First of all, the novel is funny. In a world where novels are often grim, dealing with terrorism, family dysfunction, mental illness, or trauma, here, there is a lighthearted sense of humor that pervades. Once the reader gets into the particular rhythm of Wodehouse’s language, s/he might find her/himself actually laughing out loud: when was the last time you actually laughed out loud when reading a novel? Writing comedy is not an easy task, as numerous comedians, script-, and screenwriters will tell you. Wodehouse’s output is extremely large, as he was a prolific writer up to the end of his life. He had even written screenplays, and so the structure of his book follows very traditional plot lines. Just when one episode or character arc seems to be resolved, some sort of crisis arises that creates more tension in the story. The fact that Thank You, Jeeves was serialized meant that it had to keep the readers entertained for each episode, and then leave them waiting for the next. This understanding of how to write structure is an extremely important skill for any fiction writer to have.

The prose is clear and it flows smoothly; I read the novel over 3 or 4 days. Wodehouse’s dialogue is also a marvel, seemingly representative of its era. Naturally, there is a rather mannered nature to his language that seems quaint or a bit stilted today, just as the language in films from the 1930s and 40s. But Wodehouse has mastery of language; he uses it with great skill to generate humor through convoluted descriptions of things or people. We know that Bertie finds Master Seabury (even this name is quite comic, given the character’s youth) to be a repulsive brat with ears that stick out through his verbose descriptions of the little boy: “He continued to regard me with that supercilious gaze which had got him so disliked among the right-minded. He was a smallish, freckled kid with aeroplane ears… In my Rogues’ Gallery of repulsive small boys I suppose he would come about third…” With a description like that, who can’t laugh?

But if we take it for what it is, and are aware of the time period in which it was written, we must admire its merit. It’s like watching a good old-fashioned 1930s or 40s screwball comedy (or perhaps an Ealing Comedy?) full of slapstick, errors, mixups that fortunately get resolved in the end. And therefore, we have to keep in mind the tradition of the English Comedy of Errors, from the time of Shakespeare through to modern era. I would even argue that Thank You, Jeeves also follows in the vein of earlier English novels such as Fielding’s Tom Jones or Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey, with clever narrators and comic mishaps. Bertie Wooster also plays the role of the bumbling fool that we see featured in English popular culture with such personages as Mr. Bean, Charles in Four Weddings and a Funeral, or even the awkward Jim Dixon in Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim. And if we were to step outside of the English tradition, we might relate Bertie and Wooster to none other than Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as they go through a series of scrapes together, the latter ever loyal to the former. Panza helps the Don through all of his mishaps, just as Jeeves always comes to the rescue with a better idea for Bertram Wooster.

Naturally, there is always the issue of class differences, which are so prevalent in British society. Though Jeeves is quite intelligent and appears well read, he is still in the subservient position of the butler. Wooster, in order to escape, has to pretend he is one of the black minstrels who are entertaining the aristocrats’ party. Master Seabury seems to be a sort of urchin that the Dowager Lady Chuffnell has picked up somewhere and is not therefore positioned to be the heir to a title or fortune. And certainly, the central financial problem of the book is Lord “Chuffy” Chuffnell’s inability to maintain his ancestral home, and the need for the American Stoker to purchase it and thereby relieve him of his monetary woes. Wodehouse had lived in America for much of his life, and so he was able to render the differences between the cultures to humorous effect.

True, Thank You, Jeeves is not a work of literature that will change one’s life or leave a profound impact upon the reader. But one must give due credit to the craft of writing in the book, and also admire Wodehouse’s great wit. It is not a serious work à la One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, but sometimes a cheery tonic in the form of a comic novel is exactly what we need.

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