Last week I wrote about the ways that P.G. Woodhouse uses overstatement and understatement for comic effect in his Jeeves and Wooster books (and particularly in Right Ho, Jeeves). The principle at work, I suggested, was a distortion of scale and proportion.
To speak of small things as if they were big and big things as if they were small is a tried-and-true technique for writing funny. Last week I focused on the ways this principle gets worked out at the sentence level. This week I want to look at some ways Wodehouse distorts scale and proportion at the larger story level, and especially in his characters’ motivations. Bertie Wooster and co. tend to miss the point by treating small issues as if they were big and big issues as if they were small. Then wackiness ensues.
A recurring theme in Right Ho, Jeeves is Bertie Wooster’s conflict with his valet Jeeves over a white mess jacket with brass buttons. Bertie likes it (he picked it up while on holiday in the South of France), but Jeeves, the soul of propriety, considers it inappropriate for polite English society.
Jeeves has stealthy ways of exerting his will. Bertie is more direct and forceful in his methods. When he hears a disapproving cough from Jeeves, he steels himself for action:
“I realized that another of our domestic crises had arrived, another of those unfortunate clashes of will between two strong men, and that Bertram, unless he remembered his fighting ancestors and stood up for his rights, was about to be put upon.”
Here’s how the first of several arguments about the white mess jacket goes:
“Yes, Jeeves?” I said. And though my voice was suave, a close observer in a position to watch my eyes would have noticed a steely glint. Nobody has a greater respect for Jeeves’s intellect than I have, but this disposition of his to dictate to the hand that fed him had got, I felt, to be checked. This mess jacket was very near to my heart, and I jolly well intended to fight for it with all the vim of grand old Sieur de Wooster at the Battle of Agincourt.
“Yes, Jeeves?” I said. “Something on your mind, Jeeves?”
“I fear that you inadvertently left Cannes in the possession of a coat belonging to some other gentleman, sir.”
I switched on the steely a bit more.
“No Jeeves,” I said, in a level tone, “the object under advisement is mine. I bought it out there.”
“You wore it, sir?”
“But surely you are not proposing to wear it in England, sir?”
I saw that we had arrived at the nub.
“You were saying, Jeeves?”
“It is quite unsuitable, sir.”
“I do not agree with you, Jeeves. I anticipate a great popular success for this jacket. It is my intention to spring it on the public tomorrow at Pongo Twistelton’s birthday party, where I confidently expect it to be one long scream from start to finish. No argument, Jeeves. No discussion. Whatever fantastic objection you may have taken to it, I wear this jacket.”
“Very good, sir.”
He went on with his unpacking. I said no more on the subject. I had won the victory, and we Woosters do not triumph over a beaten foe.
Bertie’s need to have his way in such a small matter as a mess jacket gets rolled into a more generalized need to exert his authority with Jeeves, which leads him to insist on usurping Jeeves’s role as Solver-of-Everyone’s-Problems. But since Bertie is worse than incompetent when it comes to solving anyone’s problems (including his own), things get a whole lot worse (and more hilarious) before Jeeves wades in and makes them all better. Such hyperbolic treatment of minor matters, which then exaggerates relatively minor problems into major problems, is the warp and woof of the Jeeves and Wooster stories.
But at crucial moments, Bertie gets things wrong in the other direction, treating the most serious matters not seriously enough—or, in any case, misunderstanding which of two competing concerns is the more relevant concern. Every time he gets mistakenly engaged to be married (I think it happens at least once in every Jeeves and Wooster book, and sometimes more than once), a mistaken sense of chivalry keeps him from getting out of it, as when Madeline Bassett writes to accept a marriage proposal he hasn’t actually made:
If the Bassett, in the belief that the Wooster heart had long been hers and was waiting ready to be scooped in on demand, had decided to take up her option, I should, as a man of honour and sensibility, have no choice but to come across and kick in….All the evidence, therefore, seemed to point to the fact that the doom had come upon me and, what was more, had come to stay.
Wodehouse plays all of this for laughs, of course, but there are a couple of points here that are relevant beyond humor writing…
Point #1: No conflict is too small to be of interest to a storyteller.
The conflict over the mess jacket isn’t the main conflict of Right Ho, Jeeves. There are larger issues at play, including whether bashful lovers will get engaged, whether estranged lovers can be reconciled, whether Bertie Wooster can get un-engaged, and who will hand out the awards at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School prize-giving. But the conflict over the mess jacket adds texture to the story. Slight as it is, this little conflict is an additional layer of interest.
To write a complex, layered story, you don’t necessarily have to invent big new storylines or come up with additional plot twists. It’s more important that you get all the goodie out of the plot that you do have. Explore those minor concerns, those minor conflicts that burble along underneath the surface of the bigger concerns and conflicts. No one layer has to be especially beefy; if you can track several (slight) layers in a story, that story starts to feel complex and textured. A cord of three strands is not easily broken.
I’m not opposed to beefy subplots and shocking plot twists, by the way. I’m just saying that you might be surprised at what you can accomplish when you pay attention to your characters’ small concerns.
Point #2: Small concerns and conflicts are the same as big concerns and conflicts—only smaller.
As I mentioned above, Wodehouse plays Jeeves and Wooster’s power struggle for laughs. But a power struggle is a power struggle. The same dynamics are at play whether the struggle is over a mess jacket or over control of a company, a church, or a political party. Why does the struggle over the mess jacket seem more ridiculous? Only because the stakes are lower.
Bertie’s injured pride is a source of comedy in Right Ho, Jeeves. In Othello, Iago’s injured pride is a source of tragedy. For that matter, in Paradise Lost, Satan’s “sense of injur’d merit” motivates him to set in motion every tragedy that has ever occurred in human history.
Small concerns are different from large concerns only in degree, not in kind. Small acts of courage, small sorrow, small angers—none are too small for the storyteller.
P.G. Wodehouse’s Right Ho, Jeeves is widely considered to be the best and most representative of his Jeeves and Wooster books. Our narrator is the lovably dunderheaded, overprivileged, never-employed Bertie Wooster. His good-hearted but bumbling attempts to solve his friends’ and relatives’ problems (not to mention his own) always make matters worse, until his exceedingly capable valet Jeeves wades in and puts everything to rights.
In Writing with Jeeves and Wooster, we will read Right Ho, Jeeves in order to understand exactly how Wodehouse creates such a unique voice, such a tight (if formulaic) plot, such lovable characters. Then, through weekly writing exercises and mutual feedback and discussion with your colleagues, you will apply Wodehouse’s principles and techniques to your own writing.
There will be separate cohorts for adults (college-age and up) and students (high-school and middle-school). This class is included in the Habit Membership. If you are a member, you don’t need to register. (Please note that the membership is for adults, college age and up.)