I extend my sincere condolences to those of you who have never tasted the scintillating brilliance that is the prose of P.G. Wodehouse, and recommend that you go out at once to find one of his books before further damage occurs. The British author, who wrote scores of books from the turn of the last century on, is by turns witty, ironic, humorous, and just plain silly. However, as I last read him, I realized that hidden in this delightfulness are some important things to be realized about the way the world works. Here are some of them:
1. Art, like most other aspects of life, is not a purely serious thing. Wodehouse can make me hoot with laughter—he can make me cackle like a dying hyena—but never more so than when he interpolates a poem at an opportune moment—for example, when a erring peer, mistaken for a tramp and menaced by the village blacksmith out of town, is “Like one that on a lonely road / Doth walk in fear and dread; / And, having once looked back, walks on / And turns no more his head! / Because he knows a frightful fiend / Doth close behind him tread!” Poetry is high and beautiful; it can open our eyes to the sublimity of the world, and jar us out of the prosaic shells we so often retreat into; but this does not mean that it must always be treated with hushed solemnity. Taking great art and treating it as a joke shows a lack of respect, taste, or feeling; taking great art and using it as the basis for a joke simply shows a lack of idolatry. All good things ought to be enjoyed, without giving them single-minded reverence better reserved for other things.
2. Even if the people around us are scheming, harsh, or just plain foolish, we can’t get rid of them—after all, they’re probably family. Wodehouse seems especially to have an affinity for ferocious aunts and morally-questionable brothers. In Wodehouse’s books, “the course of true love never does run smooth”—mainly because one or two characters are too proud to accept a member of the middle class into their family, or are more interested in get-rich-quick schemes than the happiness of others. However, these characters never suffer anything worse than the thwarting of their plans. They are not cast out in the cold, they are not begrudged; prejudice and unscrupulousness are not allowed to win the day, but beyond that all is forgiven. Family is family, even if you disagree with it most of the time—and when we get down to it, aren’t we all family?
3. Being completely confused about what’s going on most of the time does not preclude living happily ever after. Wodehouse’s most famous series, Jeeves and Wooster, is narrated by the most perfectly befuddled member of the pre-war English upper class ever to brighten the pages of a novel—although some of Wodehouse’s other characters give him a run for the money. These young men may be well-intentioned, but they are neither bright, resourceful, nor self-aware. The subtlety of other characters and the complexities of life pass them completely by. However, this does not doom them to lives of helpless despair. They muddle along somehow, and things tend to turn out all right in the end. This is a decidedly refreshing viewpoint after being given story after story where only the strong and smart can save the day. No doubt heroism is often called for in our lives—perhaps more often than we find comfortable—but this does not mean that we have to be put together and on top of things on the time. Weakness is not the same as sin.
4. Even the most perfectly laid plans fail. They just do. Whether because of mistaken identity, well-intentioned meddling, or the odd household pet, the most elaborate ladders to perfect bliss always seem to have a wobbly rung or two—and the most intrepid climbers of said ladders always seem to end up sitting hard in the mud. This is not to say that failure is the end of the story. Things have a way of turning out all right in the end, but not until most things that can go wrong, have gone wrong. Failure, although frequently painful, doesn’t have to cause total despair—after all, we’re all in the same boat.
5. Cheerfulness—or perhaps I should say, charity—really is one of the great virtues. The most attractive characters in Wodehouse are those who, in the face of great difficulties, keep a cheerful face on the world—not a hypocritical false face, or a baseless and naïve optimism, but a steady knowledge that, however bad things get, there are always things to be thankful for. It takes a rare mind to write, “Until our private affairs go wrong, we never realize how bubbling over with happiness the bulk of mankind seems to be. Our aching heart is apparently nothing but a desert island in an ocean of joy.” And, having realized this, Wodehouse’s characters promptly go out and swim in that ocean, no matter how dry they may be feeling themselves. This point of view is, at its base, outward-looking. One’s own sorrows have to be borne, but they shouldn’t get in the way of the serious business of looking after one’s neighbor, and the best way to do that is not to wallow. Cheerfulness can, like most things in life, be taken to farcical extremes; but whatever else it is, it’s better than self-pity.