Abstract: The devices and limits of comedy. An analysis of P.G. Wodehouse's Ukridge stories

Johan Svedjedal, Litteratur och samhälle 15:1, 1979

This paper is an attempt to identify and analyse the different modes of escapism in a group of short stories by the Anglo-American writer P.G. Wodehouse (1881–1975). It also aims at describing the construction of the stories. The protagonist, Ukridge, is a young bohemian: always hard up, but never short of ideas about how to make a fortune. He first appeared in the novel Love among the chickens (1906, rewritten 1921), then in 19 short stories, published between 1923 and 1966. An analysis of the Ukridge stories covers both the changes in Wodehouse's style and its basic structure. In this paper only the short stories are discussed.

The escapism in the stories is mostly carried through on a stylistic level. Wodehouse's most frequent device is to outline a certain structure, and then change the pastiche into parody. He manipulates and distorts quotations, allusions, and cliches. He also parodies the style of other authors, most recognizably that of Conan Doyle in the Sherlock Holmes stories. This, together with startling metaphors, makes the reader look with astonishment at familiar expressions and styles.

On the narrative level, the paper concentrates upon the construction of the stories and the devices used by Wodehouse to unite them. He provides Ukridge with a certain jargon, and models every story on the same basic plot: Ukridge gets an idea, forms a plan, stages it, fails, and is still in need of money. The reader knows that Ukridge will fail but not exactly how.

Wodehouse's writing for the stage had taught him to look upon his fictitious persons as actors, and consequently the stories contain more descriptions of looks and actions than attempts at psychological analysis. Moralism, when it appears, is more parodical than serious, but it is never satirical. The ordinary Anglo-Saxon values underlie and generate the action of the stories: the fundamental urge is to earn money; friendship with men is esteemed, while women are both adored and mocked at. A kind of escapism is also manifest in Wodehouse's standards, most obviously in his treatment of biological facts. Sexuality is never mentioned, children and old people are treated with disapproval or scorn.

This set of values remains unchanged throughout the story cycle. Wodehouse's style, however, undergoes certain changes. In the later stories it seems to be somewhat more repetitive, though still very inventive.