Keeping it from Harold


P.G. Wodehouse

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Morality and Hypocrisy Theme Analysis

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In “Keeping it from Harold,” the adults in ten-year-old Harold Bramble’s life are greatly concerned with morality. The fact that Harold’s father, Bill Bramble (a.k.a. “Young Porky”) boxes for a living is considered so indecent that Bill is willing to withdraw from one of the most important matches of his career to avoid confessing his double life to his precocious son—a confession, the adults believe, that would offend young Harold’s righteous spiritual principles. Yet throughout the story attempts to abide by dictates of respectability lead only to deception, while the supposedly immoral act of boxing takes on an air of nobility in that it helps the Brambles provide for their son. As such, Wodehouse satirizes pretentious sensibilities that are only concerned with the appearance of morality, and, in fact, do little more than encourage hypocrisy.

While the Brambles consider Bill’s boxing career to be dishonorable, it is not so objectionable a vocation that they feel bound to renounce it altogether. In fact, boxing proves an invaluable source of income. Upon learning that Bill won’t proceed with the match, Jane Bramble admits that while she’s never liked her husband’s profession, “it’s earned you good money and made it possible for us to give Harold as good an education as any duke ever had, I’m sure.” Boxing, then, no matter how supposedly offensive, has allowed the Brambles to build the best life they can for their child.

What’s more, Bill’s decision to stop boxing is presented not as a moral or spiritual awakening so much as a practical resolution to an increasingly difficult problem (that is, of keeping the nature of his work hidden from Harold). Major Percy, Jane’s brother and a missionary of the Salvation Army, takes credit for helping Bill see the sinfulness of his profession, yet Bill insists that it was not Percy’s spiritual arguments that convinced him to skip the match. Instead, it was the fact that the press coverage had become impossible to hide from Harold: “it was Harold that really made me do it.” Bill doesn’t reject boxing for the sake of his divine soul, but for mundane, earthly reasons. Excessive hand-wringing over the sinful nature of boxing, then, comes across as silly and overwrought, pushing characters further from honesty and deeper into more obvious moral transgressions.

To be sure, had Bill truly been concerned for his soul he would also have ceased another allegedly wicked practice—lying to his son. Yet even the devout Percy doesn’t suggest that Bill come clean and repent; on the contrary, Percy tells Bill, “I hope you are keeping it from Harold. It is the least you can do.” Condemning boxing while condoning lying seems fairly hypocritical, but the Brambles readily agree with Percy: “They were lovers of truth, but they had realized that there are times when truth must be sacrificed.” Even the “senior curate of the parish” urges Bill to lie to his son rather than quit boxing; evidently the clergyman doesn’t view Bill’s occupation as truly immoral, or he also would have counseled him to cease fighting. The inconsistent judgment of religious figures on the subject of Bill’s matches subverts their authority on the matter. 

Percy comes across as especially sanctimonious, despite presenting himself as a deeply religious man and, it follows, an arbiter of moral justice. For one thing, he is notably dependent on his sister for money (which, of course, comes from Bill’s boxing career). When Percy announces that he has metaphorically out-wrestled Bill, his physical form is ridiculed: “‘You!’ said Mrs. Bramble, with uncomplimentary astonishment, letting her gaze wander over her brother’s weedy form.” Unlike a typical “Major” in the military, Percy cowers and hides from confrontation rather than stand his ground, “diving underneath the table and coming up the other side like a performing seal.” Bill and his wife, for their part, are presented as weak-willed and simple-minded, lacking independent thought or conviction. Wodehouse’s depiction of all of these adults suggests none are great models of moral authority and skewers the broader religious conceptions of right and wrong that shape their hypocrisy.

Even Harold, whom the adults believe to be a model of innocence, undermines the moral objection to boxing when he defies their expectations and expresses pride in his father’s profession. Harold’s bookish, spiritual nature is taken for nobility of character that the adults around him would hate to sully. He sings in the church choir and attends “Sunday-school with a vim which drew warm commendation from the vicar.” As the narrator puts it, “You simply couldn’t take a boy like that aside and tell him that the father […] was affectionately known to a large section of the inhabitants of London as ‘Young Porky.’” Bill says of his son, “He’d die of the disgrace of it. He ain’t like you and me, Jerry. He’s a little gentleman.” But rather than becoming upset upon hearing the news that his father is a boxer, Harold is more disappointed that Bill plans to drop out of the match: “‘It’s thick,’ he said, in the crisp, gentlemanly voice of which his parents were so proud.” His “gentlemanly” demeanor doesn’t stop him from enjoying the “disgraceful” sport in the least. He studies it as intently he studies his classics and his Bible: “I’ve made a study of [boxing] since I was a kid […] All the fellows at our place are frightfully keen on it.”

It’s clear that Harold doesn’t view boxing as obscene or depraved, but rather relishes it. In fact, he even places bets on matches—revealing that even the story’s most outwardly righteous figure takes joy in a secret vice. This story thus at once illustrates the hypocrisy of the adults who lie to Harold while comically undercutting the moral case against boxing in the first place.

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Morality and Hypocrisy Quotes in Keeping it from Harold

Below you will find the important quotes in Keeping it from Harold related to the theme of Morality and Hypocrisy.
Keeping it from Harold Quotes

He cleared his throat and fixed his eyes upon the cut-glass hangings of the chandelier.

“‘Be good, sweet maid,’” he began, with the toneless rapidity affected by youths of his age when reciting poetry, “‘and let who will be clever’—clever, oh yes—‘do noble things, not dream them’—dream them, oh yes—‘dream them all day long; and so make life, death, and that vast f’rever, one’—oh yes—‘one grand, sweet song.’”

Related Characters: Harold Bramble (speaker), Jane Bramble
Related Symbols: Glass/Goggles
Explanation and Analysis:

And then Harold had come into his life, and changed him into a furtive practiser of shady deeds. Before, he had gone about the world with a match-box full of press-notices, which he would extract with a pin and read to casual acquaintances. Now, he quailed at the sight of his name in print, so thoroughly had he become imbued with the necessity of keeping it from Harold.

Related Characters: Bill Bramble (speaker), Harold Bramble
Explanation and Analysis:

“He’s seen the error of his ways,” cried Percy, the resilient. “That’s what he’s gone and done. At the eleventh hour it has been vouchsafed to me to snatch the brand from the burning. Oh! I have waited for this joyful moment. I have watched for it. I—”

Related Characters: Major Percy Stokes (speaker), Harold Bramble, Jane Bramble, Bill Bramble
Explanation and Analysis:

“Goodness knows I’ve never liked your profession, Bill, but there is this to be said for it, that it’s earned you good money and made it possible for us to give Harold as good an education as any duke ever had, I’m sure. And you know yourself you said that the five hundred pounds you were going to get if you beat this Murphy, and even if you lost it would be a hundred and twenty, was going to be a blessing, because it would let us finish him off proper and give him a better start in life than you or me ever had.”

Related Characters: Jane Bramble (speaker), Harold Bramble, Bill Bramble
Explanation and Analysis:

“There’s a fellow at our school who goes about swanking in the most rotten way because he once got Bombardier Wells’s autograph. Fellows look up to him most awfully, and all the time they might have been doing it to me. That’s what makes me so jolly sick. How long do you suppose they’d go on calling me ‘Goggles’ if they knew that you were my father?”

Related Characters: Harold Bramble (speaker), Bill Bramble
Related Symbols: Glass/Goggles
Explanation and Analysis: