Dusk is a short story by Saki (H.H. Munro) that relates a tale about three characters and the events that take place one fine evening in London. All three represent people who are failures or are defeated, and all three are portrayed differently. One is portrayed as accepting of defeat, one is portrayed as prideful and blind to his defeat, and one is portrayed as using it to his advantage. Cynicism is at the heart of this narrative, and it is written in a very descriptive manner.
Dusk | Summary
At dusk, about 6.30 pm, Gortsby sits on a bench in Hyde Park, staring out at the Rotten Row. The area around the park felt empty, though were many insignificant figures moving about shrouded in the darkness. According to him, dusk was a time for losers, those who had been defeated. The people who had failed no longer wanted to be noticed by the mass of people and would rather remain unrecognized.
On that day, he felt himself to be part of this group. The defeated did not want to be seen, so they choose this dark time of day to come out and relax, albeit sadly. Gortsby still felt himself to be better than the rest though, as he was not subject to the stereotypical money problems. He derived some pleasure in judging and making assumptions about all those that he came across that evening at the park.
He is seated with an old man and judges that the only value this man brings is the money he pays for his lodging. He assumes that the man is not respected and that he no longer enjoys the individuality and defiance that characterized his youth. When the old man left, a younger, better-dressed man flung himself onto the bench and swore loudly.
Gortsby, playing along, got into a discussion with his new bench mate. He listens to the young man describe his troubles, of losing his hotel, and his soap, and decides that the man is conning him. Norman, in his surety, calls him out, and the young man leaves in a huff.
He feels good about his cynicism and is proud of not being fooled by that young man. However, on his way to leave, he realizes his mistake when he sees a cake of soap on the ground near the bench. He rushes to find the man and gives him the soap and some money. Feeling sheepish, he returns to the bench, only to find his previous bench mate, the old man, searching for a cake of soap that he had misplaced.
Dusk | Analysis
Saki’s stories are characterized by his style of satire, twists, and humour. This story is no different. The author is known to satirize Edwardian style and culture, and we can see that the story is set in London. With Hyde Park Corner on the right, and a carriage drive right in front, Norman Gortsby stared straight across at the Row, that is, the Rotten Row. This is a track near London’s Hyde Park, where the upper-class sometimes go horse-riding.
The protagonist of the story is described as a cynic, so he is someone who believes that people are selfish, and all actions are to fulfil their own self-interest, and never for honourable reasons. This kind of man would probably say that his motto is “every man for himself” or even “the survival of the fittest”. His worldview is a reflection of himself, that is, he is a selfish man motivated only by his desires.
His assumption of the value of a person is not based on their humanity, but their accomplishments. Therefore, the ones he sees as failures are insignificant, invisible, and inferior.
“A King that is conquered must see strange looks; So bitter a thing is the heart of man”
The abovementioned line suggests that when someone fails, they are subject to the strange and weird looks of other people because humanity is uncaring and bitter. A king, when he rules, is treated with respect and reverence. However, once he is defeated, respect goes out the window, and people treat him as though he is just a common man. In the same way, someone successful is treated totally differently from someone who is seen as a failure, or unsuccessful.
The people who walk around during dusk do not want to be subject to the looks of men, and instead prefer to not be seen at all. They would rather live a life being unrecognized, than being recognized as a failure. So, they hide away in the shadows and only walk freely in the darkness.
The elderly man is a failure according to Gortsby, because the man no longer had any self-respect, nor did he have the respect of others. In his youth, he may have been loud and defiant, but in his old age, he is merely a faded version of that, whose defiance achieves nothing. He belonged to the chorus of people whose words fall on deaf ears and live out their lives being ignored and disrespected.
This man was replaced by a younger man on the bench. This man was the total opposite, and clearly full of life. His effort to disarm Gortsby immediately put him on guard, and he was ready to find the gaps in whatever story the man was about to spout. Gortsby was amused by this man, and played along, even pretending to be able to relate to his sorry state of affairs by telling the man a story of his own. However, the charade ended when the man asked for money, and Gortsby reminded him that he had no proof at all for his story, not even a cake of soap.
Gortsby felt gratified by his ability to weed out liars, and even sarcastically pitied the man for not truly thinking through his con. However, in his shock on seeing the cake of soap on the ground, all that pride dissipated. He anxiously searched out this man, and gave back his soap, with a little money too. His belief that he judged the man wrongly led him to wholeheartedly believe the young man, to the point where he saw the breath catching in the man’s throat as sadness, not joy. However, he soon realized that he had made a terrible mistake when he found the old man searching for the cake of soap that Gortsby had just given to the young conman.
The satirical element of this story, specifically irony, is that the cynic had the wool pulled over his eyes by his assumptions. In actuality, he had judged the young man correctly, and he still ended up being conned. Gortsby was right in equating himself to the people who prefer the dusk, as he became a loser that night too when he was defeated by a liar who was focused only on his own self-interest.
We can see that in this story, all characters are defeated at some point, and hence all of them belong in the dusk. The young man was initially defeated by Gortsby’s cynicism, Gortsby was defeated by his pride and presumptuousness, and the old man was defeated due to the loss of his cake of soap. The old man is the one who is accepting of his defeat, Gortsby is the prideful one who is blind to his failure, and the young man is the character who uses his defeat to his advantage.
Dusk | About The Author
Saki is the pseudonym of Hector Hugh Munro, also known as H.H. Munro. He was born on 18 December 1970, in British Burma.
He was a well-known British short story writer whose style was witty, and satirical. His stories usually dealt with the ridiculousness of Edwardian society and culture, written in a sarcastic manner.
Irony is a recurring device used in Saki’s short stories, and he is masterful in his art. He was greatly influenced by writers like Oscar Wilde and Lewis Carrol. He is hailed as one of the best short story writers and influenced A.A. Milne, and P.G. Wodehouse.
H.H. Munro was part of the LGBTQIA+ community, though he was forced to hide his homosexuality as it was seen as a crime during his time. Some of his notable works are “The Interlopers”, “Gabriel-Ernest”, and “The Toys of Peace”.
He died on 14 November 1916, in France.