P. G. Wodehouse on individualism

P. G. Wodehouse, a novelist of ideas? How absurd!

And it is true that most of his dozens of novels are bits of fluff, with no more intellectual content than the brain of Bertie Wooster, one of his most famous characters. But in some of his earlier novels, Wodehouse occasionally gets philosophical — as in this passage from the 1918 novel Picadilly Jim, where Jimmy, the wealthy twenty-something protagonist, comes to the sudden and unpleasant realization that he has been pretty self-centered for much of his adult life:

“…Life had suddenly taken on a less simple aspect. Dimly, for he was not accustomed to thinking along these lines, he perceived the numbing truth that we human beings are merely as many pieces in a jig-saw puzzle, and that our every movement affects the fortunes of some other piece. Just so, faintly at first and taking shape by degrees, must the germ of a civic spirit have come to prehistoric man. We are all individualists till we wake up.” [chapter 6]

Of course, Wodehouse was writing nearly a century ago. We have progressed further in the development of civic spirit since then: the jig-saw puzzles of the wealthy and the rest of the world are no longer connected to one another. If he were alive today, Jimmy could enjoy his wealth without having ever to wake up.

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