The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith - Part Two - Notes & Observations
Pooter is a fictitious character and can be seen as an 'unreliable' or
'flawed' narrator, but the form of this type of writing requires exactly this
type of 'voice'. A diary has to be one sided and the events narrated or recorded
are always done so by a biased writer. His or her perceptions will inevitably be
one-sided and this is certainly the case with the Pooter narrative.
For example, the reader deduces that Pooter likes to drink quite often, but every time he drinks to excess, he records a perfectly innocent reason for his illness next day. He writes that the 'lobster mayonnaise' or a cold, or a chill are to blame, but we know that this is not the truth. Similarly, his opinions about his friends and his relationship with Carrie are 'edited', even obvious quarrels are played down. At one point his wife leaves him for ten days, but all he records is that she has 'gone away'. It is left to us to speculate as to why. He constantly deludes himself, and his delusions are part of the comic appeal of the book.
The reader knows that the diary form is not 'truthful', so we read between the lines and fill in the gaps Pooter leaves in his narrative. Because the incidents that happen are so ludicrous and because Pooter himself is so pathetically inept at seeing the obvious, the humorous effect on the reader is intensified. Lupin's late hours may be 'explained' by his father very innocently, but the reader always deduces what Lupin is up to when he stays out late or lies in bed for hours with a 'yellow' face. If Pooter does not always understand what is happening around him (sometimes under his very nose) the reader certainly does, but this is part of the charm of the novel and more often than not we end up feeling very sympathetic, even when Pooter is behaving like a complete idiot.
You will need to think about attitudes and value for the exam and as well as the social ones which are addressed in the novel you should look at Pooter's attitudes and values, too. He is a stereotypical late Victorian lower middle class man. The hallmarks of the Victorian era were respectability and decency. Pooter is a respectable man and he is also decent. In fact we could say that these qualities are almost painfully over developed in him. He is obsessed by 'form' and 'manners' - the right way of doing things. His aspirations are very modest - he wants a comfortable, middle class life and he wants to be happy with his wife and son. His greatest ambition is to have Lupin working alongside him in the office and he hopes fervently that Lupin will 'settle down' and 'follow in the footsteps of his father'. This was not an uncommon aspiration either then or now, but as we see, it is an unrealistic dream for Pooter, because the last thing Lupin wants is to be like his father. The character is so naive and clumsy that this ridiculous attitudes and blunders (almost always caused by unrealistic ideas) make us laugh, rather than despise him. Despite the pomposity and the snobbishness, Pooter is, at heart, a harmless soul. He is gullible and often foolish in his pretensions, but there is an innocence about him, even at his most inept, that makes us recognise him as a 'decent man'.
An interesting idea, which you might like to think about, is the way that the Grossmiths use a rather theatrical characterisation for the main character. As I have said in the general chapter-by-chapter notes, Pooter is a clown or buffoon - a kid of Charlie Chaplin figure and many of the situations where he is 'humiliated' have a very strong element of farce or slapstick humour - if there is something to trip over, Pooter trips over it - a cabbage to be slipped on and he slips - a Ballroom floor to slide on and over he goes, dragging Carrie with him. Of course the authors were both professional actors and would have been very familiar with stage 'business', so it is not surprising to find that they incorporate this into the narrative events, but also you might like to think about the universal appeal of Pooter's mishaps. They remain as funny to a present day audience as they undoubtedly were to the original readers.
Some points about style
You will notice straight away that many of the
colloquialisms, for example, are now out of use - fashion in language use
changes quite quickly with regard to slang. Lupin's language is quite shocking
to his father, who is not in the habit of using 'new' expressions and the
Victorian audience would have recognised words like 'bounder' and 'cad' and seen
them (like Pooter does) as examples of sloppy language use, but very much up to
date for the time. Unfortunately, they are now almost completely archaic -
although they have not become extinct. Note, too, the contemporary allusions to
popular music hall songs like 'See Me Dance the Polka' and famous characters of
the time, like Sir Henry Irving, which are no longer topical or recognisable.
The text then is for us, in some ways, inaccessible ,having lost the freshness
and topicality it originally had.
Similarly, the very formal register that Pooter employs makes the writing sound forced and less informal than we might expect from a diary. He almost never, for example, uses elision - he 'did not' or 'would not', rather than 'didn't or wouldn't'. This is in keeping, of course, with the characterisation and the grandiose ideas about his social station. A 'gentleman' would speak correctly, using correct grammatical forms and a degree of formality in keeping with his station in life, so Pooter, being in his own eyes, a 'gentleman' uses an appropriate register even in his most intimate personal journal. Note also, though that he tells the readers that he is writing for publication like the 'Somebodies' who publish their diaries, so that might also explain his choice of register. The thing you must notice, though is that he often descends into quite a common, demotic register, which is probably more in keeping with his background.
The lexis is also interesting. There is, as we
would expect, a fairly high Latinate content, but it is not sustained. Pooter
does use 'long words' and this is obviously intended as a conceit, so that his
audience can see how clever he is. The humorous thing is that he drops quite
quickly into very straightforward lexis, so that polysyllables become
monosyllables and this creates a bathetic effect. (Bathos is a literary
term that means an author, when striving to be 'sublime' over reaches himself
and becomes absurd) When he is trying to sound most learned and academic, Pooter
ends up sounding ordinary and common. The same thing happens with the syntax -
long, complex sentences are closely followed by very short simple ones
(especially at the end of paragraphs and chapters). Again this is for a bathetic
effect - to make the reader laugh and make the author sound silly and absurd.
Lupin, on the other hand, makes no attempt to 'speak properly', using a very colloquial register and a great deal of elision. If you compare the two the main characters you might like to think about which of them has the more 'honest' style of language use. Lupin has no linguistic pretensions at all. He speaks the slang of the day and enjoys doing it, especially when it causes upset and irritation to his parent. Note also the formality of chosen register between friends and acquaintances of the older generation (Pooter, Gowing and so on) and compare it to the informality of the way the young people speak to one another. This might be a common feature in all historical periods - it certainly illustrates very graphically the differences between the staid Victorian elders and the dashing young blades of the fin-du-siècle (the end of the era). Is it, though, very different today?
© V Pope 2003