Wodehouse’s humor highlights the ridiculousness of the social and literary conventions of romantic love. In moments of heightened emotion, Egbert and Evangeline play out the traditional roles of characters in a grand romance. However, each time their emotions swell, the narrator undercuts them with a moment of absurdity for comic effect. While this humor pokes fun at the characters’ sentimentality and mindless adherence to social conventions, the narrator seems fond of Egbert and Evangeline despite his condescending tone. Even as Wodehouse pokes fun at his characters, he makes them likeable.
In the first scene with Egbert and Evangeline, the setting is romantic, and Egbert seems nearly paralyzed by emotion. When the narrator interjects humor, however, the sentimentality seems suddenly ridiculous. The two characters are standing on a pier together on a quiet moonlit night, a scene that evokes those of the popular romance novels Egbert so distinctly loathes. They hear the sound of the town band playing part of Tannhäuser, an opera about romantic love, only for the music to become “somewhat impeded by the second trombone, who had got his music-sheets mixed and was playing ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll.’” The incongruent trombone punctuates the lovers’ sincere conversation, highlighting the silliness of the way love is portrayed in popular literature.
Wodehouse punctures romantic expectations yet again as Egbert prepares to ask Evangeline a question “very near to his heart,” his voice husky and his body “strangely breathless.” The strong suggestion is that he is about to ask her to marry him. It turns out, however, that he is about to ask whether she has ever written a novel—an objectively absurd thing to get so worked up about, and a bait and switch that makes the subsequent fervent expression of love feel all the more overwrought. Here, it is a social convention—the ritual of the marriage proposal—that is made to look ridiculous.
Similarly, the description of Evangeline’s suffering near the end of the story is played for laughs. Evangeline cries “a Niagara of tears” and flings herself onto the sofa, experiencing “an ecstasy of grief.” The narrator’s description of her emotional distress is hilariously over the top. She literally chews the scenery (in the form of a sofa cushion), and she gulps “like a bull-pup swallowing a chunk of steak.” Just as Wodehouse undercuts the seriousness of Egbert and Evangeline’s conversation on the pier, he uses an absurd simile to highlight the silliness of Evangeline’s clichéd and melodramatic performance of grief.
Although the narrator clearly thinks the main characters’ conventional sentimentality is silly, his sense of humor is good-natured rather than viciously satirical. Egbert’s uncle Mr. Mulliner, who is telling the story, says that he has “a particular interest” in Evangeline’s work, suggesting that he cares enough about his niece and nephew to follow their achievements. Writers often use descriptions of characters in pain as a way to elicit sympathy, and giving readers direct access to the characters’ emotions further heightens this effect. By the beginning of the final scene, when Egbert arrives at Evangeline’s home to find her looking “drawn” and “care-worn,” it’s obvious that the narrator is rooting for these characters even as he pokes fun at the way their relationship follows the conventions of sentimental romantic novels. Wodehouse also gives his characters a happy ending—Egbert and Evangeline find a way to solve their problems, and in the final lines, they express their love for one another. Their silliness, then, does not seem to have any lasting negative consequences.
Wodehouse uses humor to demonstrate the ridiculousness of romantic conventions both on the page and in society more generally. The narrator repeatedly develops an atmosphere of romance and heightened emotion only to deflate it—with hilarious results. His characters are made to look silly on nearly every page. At the same time, Wodehouse depicts his characters sympathetically (if also condescendingly); their silliness is presented as an amusing foible rather than a major character flaw.
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The Absurdity of Romantic Conventions Quotes in Best Seller
From far away in the distance came the faint strains of the town band, as it picked its way through the Star of Eve song from Tannhäuser—somewhat impeded by the second trombone, who had got his music-sheets mixed and was playing “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.”
Evangeline’s “Oh, Egbert!” had been accompanied by a Niagara of tears. She had flung herself on the sofa and was now chewing the cushion in an ecstasy of grief. She gulped like a bull-pup swallowing a chunk of steak.