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IDEX LYON 2016

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30 ans de l'ENS de Lyon
Among the numerous comic devices, and types of humour, both verbal and situational, in P. G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves and Wooster” stories, the subversive use and the proliferation of the “serious” literary and Biblical intertextual references is the most striking and recurrent aspect in the novels, notably in The Code of the Woosters (1938). Bertie Wooster, Jeeves’s aristocratic employer, is a socialite and a confirmed bachelor who appears as lowbrow (or at best “lower” middlebrow) compared with his very learned and highbrow valet. Bertie behaves in the frivolous, vapid way usually ascribed to women, and his only written achievements are the Scripture Knowledge prize he won at school and the paper he wrote for Milady’s Boudoir (his aunt Dahlia’s magazine) on the well-dressed man about town, both of which he often mentions proudly. He is fond of whodunits, for instance The Mystery of the Pink Crayfish and shuns “high” literature, particularly by female intellectual writers (such as Florence Craye). He is the falsely naive, ignorant first-person narrator of the stories, who evinces diffidence about his poor literary and classical knowledge while consistently quoting this daunting and time-hallowed intertext. Each time, he looks up to Jeeves as the highest authority, waiting for his confirmation on the (in)accuracy of the quotes. Indeed, either Bertie misquotes the “Great Tradition”, mostly Shakespearian (distorting it or mixing it with slangy or colloquial words and phrases) or he misapplies it, associating it with the most unlikely and incongruous contexts (usually trite or ludicrous ones). In both cases, the effect achieved is either burlesque or mock-heroic. Through this Candide-like narrator (and character) who unwittingly (it seems) collapses the boundaries between high and low, Wodehouse mischievously and polemically operates a series of iconoclastic (and comic) reversals and redefinitions. The treble-barrelled attack concerns gender (Bertie as no better than a “silly woman” while most of his female friends and relatives are his intellectual superiors), class (the servant as the mastermind of the stories) and the canon. Bertie’s pretended inferiority complex, and reverence for the pedestalized intertext ultimately depedestalizes it through irony, parodic distortion (Cf. Simon Dentith’s Parody), burlesque or mock-heroic debunking. The initial apparent distinction between comic levity and seriousness, popular and “noble” literatures, low and high modes or genres, minor and canonical, spells the death of traditional hierarchies and the birth of hybrid, comic “doubles” of the “Great Tradition”, the value of which is clearly though tacitly asserted throughout Wodehouse’s works. For all its hilariously comic surface, and because of the author’s impressive classical or canonical culture (something shared by his readers), the subtext of the Jeeves stories is more radical than it seems, echoing V. Woolf’s 1905 essay “The Value of Laughter”, and like it, redrawing gender, class and literary boundaries – particularly between the (male) serious voice and its authority and the (female) “voice of folly and frivolity”. There is, in both cases, a rehabilitation, and a legitimization of the “gift” and vital usefulness of laughter against “crude and ponderous knowledge”. Indeed, though “in disrepute” – as it is thought to issue from “the lips of children and silly women” and “gives no message, conveys no information” – as Woolf contends and Wodehouse more implicitly suggests (through Bertie), the comic spirit is undeniably very eloquent, “forever reminding us that we are but human”, and restoring “our sense of proportion”. It is the “bright little mirror” of our society and its values.

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Vanessa Guignery
Professor of English and Postcolonial Literature at the ENS de Lyon and member of the Institut Universitaire de France in Paris.
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Mise à jour le 2 juillet 2015
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