Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Monday, February 7, 2011

on Jeeves

Alex Massie is right to say that if you look at him in a certain light, the Inimitable Jeeves can be a rather sinister figure — or in any event, something less simple and straightforward than Bertie Wooster’s beneficent rescuer. Though he is that.
Given Jeeves’s sheer competence — and still more, the indefinable air of authority that he exudes, which is noticed by almost everyone, so that friends and family often “borrow” Jeeves to solve intractable situations — one must wonder why he chooses to work for Bertie Wooster, whom Jeeves himself acknowledges as “mentally negligible.” W. H. Auden explained this by envisioning Jeeves as an embodiment of Divine Grace in his love for the unworthy — and Bertie as an embodiment of the proper attitude of the recipient of such grace: he knows he doesn't deserve Jeeves.
However, there is a less generous way to read Jeeves’s apparent devotion to Bertie — especially when one considers that Jeeves’s elevated reputation as a problem-solver and all-around intellect derives from his skill in extricating Bertie from various astonishing messes. As Alex points out in his article, while Bertie creates many of those messes himself, or falls into them through no one’s fault, some are actually created by, or at least exacerbated by, Jeeves. Alex:
It is Jeeves who recommends Gussie Fink-Nottle attend [a fancy-dress ball] dressed as Mephistopheles. From this single suggestion flows all the drama and chaos of Right Ho, Jeeves. Plot considerations may demand it, but the fact remains that letting Gussie Fink-Nottle loose upon London dressed in red tights and sporting a false beard is tantamount to giving Disaster the seat of honour at the feast. Furthermore, it's a reminder that not all of Jeeves' wheezes hit the bullseye. Indeed, many of them are more complicated than seems sensible, especially given the quality of the men entrusted with putting them into action.
It is hard to imagine that Jeeves does not know that some of his advice is very bad advice, but gives it anyway in order to increase chaos — so that his own skills will appear all the greater when he steps in to make matters right. In this reading Jeeves remains a godlike figure, but not the embodiment of pure Grace: rather he becomes a trickster God, the kind that Thomas Hardy feared is running the universe.
Or, if that is too strong, then perhaps a model for Jeeves is the calculating Prince Hal, whose attachment to Falstaff may resemble that of Jeeves to Bertie. Would a Jeeves soliloquy sound like this?
I know you all, and will awhile uphold
The unyoked humour of your idleness:
Yet herein will I imitate the sun,
Who doth permit the base contagious clouds
To smother up his beauty from the world,
That, when he please again to be himself,
Being wanted, he may be more wonder'd at,
By breaking through the foul and ugly mists
Of vapours that did seem to strangle him.
If all the year were playing holidays,
To sport would be as tedious as to work;
But when they seldom come, they wish'd for come,
And nothing pleaseth but rare accidents.
So, when this loose behavior I throw off
And pay the debt I never promised,
By how much better than my word I am,
By so much shall I falsify men's hopes;
And like bright metal on a sullen ground,
My reformation, glittering o'er my fault,
Shall show more goodly and attract more eyes
Than that which hath no foil to set it off.
I'll so offend, to make offence a skill;
Redeeming time when men think least I will.
This is surely too solemn for the holiday world of the Jeeves stories. But if Wodehouse had ever stepped out of that holiday world and back into our darker one, that’s how he should have done it: with Jeeves revealing himself as a manipulative monster.


  • I don't think it's a matter of selfishness. I think it's quite true that Jeeves sometimes seems to rather deliberately put Bertie and his friends in some tight spots, but couldn't this be for other purposes than simply increasing his own command over them? Perhaps Bertie and the various Drones *need* to be put through the ringer now and then, for their own good.

    Grace, after all, sometime comes to us in the form of trials. Jeeves may well have foreseen the travails brought about by his Mephistopheles scheme, but that doesn't mean he didn't intend for them to work out all right in the end.

  • I think your interpretation might be possible, Ethan, in a fictional world in which is it possible for Bertie, Gussie Fink-Nottle, Tuppy Glossop, Catsmeat Potter-Pirbright and the like to change. But they cannot change. Not one whit. Such are the rules of the universe. They are uneducable pawns in the hands of godlike Jeeves. Which perhaps is better than being sinners in the hands of an angry God.

  • "Perhaps Bertie and the various Drones *need* to be put through the ringer [sic] now and then, for their own good."

    And there, Ethan, you betray yourself as a Glossop. Like the dreadful Honoria you appear to think that Bertie and his comrades require "saving" and nothing must stand in the way of this greater good.

    I do not call you a Stalinist but there is a Stalinist aspect to the Glossop worldview.

  • Would it be tedious for me to maintain that Jeeves represents the author? Not that Wodehouse is offering a self-portrait in the character, but that Jeeves performs the task of an author, taking the billowing chaos that Bertie and company have produced and guiding everything back to increasingly attractive status quo. Jeeves is a plotter, but in the most positive sense possible.

    Alex: I'm curious as to whether you would call St. Paul a Stalinist, since Romans 5:3-4 speaks of suffering producing character and hope. And then of course Jesus would be hopeless as well, with all his meddling seeking and saving those who are lost.

    I attended a speech by Mikhail Gorbachev several years ago at which he informed a crowd of Southern Baptists that Jesus was the first Socialist. Would it be too forward of me, Alex, to ask if you are, in fact, Mikhail Gorbachev?

  • I get what you're saying, Alan, but perhaps grace needn't be transformative in order to still be grace. After all, even in hell the damned are sustained in their existence through grace, even if they are beyond hope of redemption.

    Which is a rather highfalutin way of saying that what Jeeves does to his charges can be for their own good even if they are incapable of any meaningful improvement in character. It can make their immediate experiences better, even if by "better" we only mean "more narratively interesting," and not "more conducive to salvation."

  • Alex: I, a Glossopist? Forsooth!

    There is a great difference between saying that Bertie and co. need to be saved, and saying that they need to be improved. They most certainly need to be saved -- constantly, from the natural consequences of their actions. That is what Jeeves does, at every turn.

    But they are saved into the status quo ante, not into the Stalinist/Glossopist utopia. My position, that what Jeeves does for them is for their own good even when it leads to some short-term suffering, is not socialist but conservative. Rather than representing the utopian willingness to break some eggs to make a perfect omelet, it represents instead the acknowledgment that even in a world as light and harmless as Wodehouse's, there are discomforts and trials that cannot be avoided but instead must be faced and dealt with in order for normal life to muddle onward.

    The Drones need someone to stand in the gap to preserve them from destruction, not to make them perfect. Jeeves' intervention, even when he complicates their lives, does just that. No need for any Glossopism in this formulation.

  • Michael Straight said...

    I think Auden and anyone else attributing something like Divine Grace to Jeeves (as an actual motivation rather than as a symbol) are rather severely twisting his character.

    Jeeves is motivated by one thing: the drive to be The Ideal Butler. He loyally stays with Wooster because not out of some compassion for the poor fellow, but because that's the proper thing for an Ideal Butler to do.

    He's the kind of guy who, more than anything else, takes pleasure from knowing The Proper Thing To Do and doing it. Sure he could quit his job and use his brains to make more money doing something else, but he's doing what he enjoys.

    When Jeeves refuses to let Wooster wear that sash, he's not trying to "improve" him, and it's not because he cares one whit what others will think of dear old Bertie. It's because The Ideal Butler does not allow his man to go out dressed like that.

    I'm not claiming Jeeves is a monster who doesn't have any feelings for Bertie and his friends. He does betray some affection for them now and then. But that's not what drives him or why he stays.

    The one place I agree with Massie is when he says that Jeeves is "like the rest of that ilk, prone to making up the law as he goes along." He needs to believe that there is a Right Thing To Do in every situation, and that makes him fallible no matter how clever he is. And so I would say there's nothing more sinister to missteps such as the costume recommendation than that Jeeves isn't quite as perfect as he wants to be.

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