Thursday, February 7, 2013

Wooster Agonistes; or, What Does Bertie Want?

Perfect Buddhism would be the end of storytelling as we know it. That is, stories need some motivating desire--someone wants something, which often sets the story in motion. This may be the protagonist: "I'm sick of this job and want a promotion!" This may be the antagonist: "I will take over the world!" But that desire will incite the action of the rest of the story. (As long as there's conflict. "Man wants sandwich" is a fine motivating desire, but a terrible story unless there's something preventing him from getting that sandwich.)

But what about Wodehouse's Jeeves and Wooster stories? Bertie Wooster is a rich bachelor who just wants to go on enjoying the good things in life, such as his Aunt Dahlia's chef and his fine bespoke suits. Jeeves, like all good servants, has no particular desires of his own. So for any J&W story, the inciting desire will really have to come from outside--something external will have to break up the status quo.

One pleasant side effect of this lack of desire, as far as Wodehouse is concerned, is that Wooster never wants to change, which is why Wodehouse could have (theoretically) spun out story after story, as long as the market demanded them.

Which is another way of saying that Jeeves and Wooster aren't really the protagonists of their own stories. (At least in the stories I've read.) The archetypal J&W story begins with someone else coming in and demanding/requesting the intervention of J&W; it can be a friend wanting Bertie's advice about how to approach his rich uncle to introduce a fiancee that the rich uncle will disapprove of; or it can be one of his aunt's wanting Bertie's help in recovering a piece of antique silver.

Lesson: Status quo seeking protagonists need external incitement and active antagonists.

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