The Man With Two Left Feet by P.G. Wodehouse, 1916
The magic trick:
Giving the protagonist a memorable character quirk
We interrupt our month-long southern literature theme for a special occasion – my birthday. Every year on my birthday from now on it’ll be a P.G. Wodehouse story on the SSMT site.
I love Wodehouse stories. He is the funniest writer of all time, in my humble opinion. One of the things he does so well is assign an absurd obsession or quirk to his characters. Lord Emsworth has his prized pig. Gussie Fink-Nottle has his newts. In today’s story, Henry Mills has his encyclopedia.
Henry prefers the quiet life to dancing. His wife likes to go out, but he’d rather stay home reading. This is crucial to the plot. Now then, where another writer might settle in and think, ‘Hey, that’s a funny little scenario, I’m good to go,’ Wodehouse pushes further for the laugh. The books he gives his character to read are encyclopedias. Henry can’t wait to get home every night and pick up where he left off in the volume of the night before. It’s ridiculous, and it’s very funny. His line about skipping ahead to the last volume to “see how it all comes out in the end” literally made me laugh out loud.
That’s why we’re still reading Wodehouse 100 years later. That’s what we remember. He seemed to know that it was the details that made his stories special, not the stories themselves. And that’s quite a trick on Wodehouse’s part.
The ordinary man who is paying installments on the Encyclopedia Brittanica is all too apt to get overexcited and to skip impatiently to Volume Twenty-eight – Vet-Zym – to see how it all comes out in the end. Not so Henry. He meant to read the thing through, and he was not going to spoil his pleasure by peeping ahead.
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