Published in the year 1911, H.H Munro’s (pen name, Saki) short story named, Tobermory, is a wonderful knit satirical comedy around upper-class individuals.
Tobermory | Summary and Analysis
The story begins with a beautiful description of the setting of the plot: “a chill, rain-washed afternoon” on a “late August day” at a house party, hosted by Lady Blemley (a pun on the word ‘blemish’?). The readers are immediately introduced to the character of Mr. Cornelius Appin within a third-person narrative. All the other guests that are present at the party are already known and invited for their reputations, except Mr. Cornelius, who had the “vaguest reputation” among them. Even the hostess could not discern the “cleverness” hidden behind this man and as a matter of fact, the guests now reduced him to merely, Mr. Appin, in the assumption that the name Cornelius was just “a piece of transparent baptismal bluff”. But it’s not until tea time, the narrator informs us, that the readers would know about the man for his intellectual achievement.
Among the crowds, we hear Mr. Appin boasting about his “miracle” that can even downgrade the achievements of science. The miracle is precisely, the bestowal of animals with the “art of human speech”. Experiments with thousands of animals were conducted, but unfortunately, none of them saw success, until recently he experimented with cats, Mr. Appin says. For him, cats are intellectually superior, wonderful creatures that can embody the “civilized” language of human beings. Surprisingly, Lady Blemley’s pet cat named Tobermory, the eponym to the title of the short story, becomes the “Beyond-cat” that is portrayed to have such an “extraordinary intelligence”. But to Mr. Appin’s disbelief, none of the guests believed or were skeptical about whatever he had postulated. As a result, one of the characters called Sir Wilfrid, in challenging the veracity of this story, goes to confront Tobermory. Shockingly, such a nonsensical disclosure of Mr. Appin turns out to be true.
From here on, Tobermory is confronted with several questions that contained excitement about new knowledge. But following this, the plot of the short story undergoes a little twist and goes downhill creating a ruckus between the characters. Unaware of the straightforward and outspoken characteristic of a cat, all the answers to the questions thrown at Tobermory, become abundant with his wittiness and sarcasm but more than that, truths that were quick to shame and expose the pretentious upper-class characters. In their “awakened interest”, they had remained forgetful of the fact that the now transformed reminiscent intellectual cat, was once a mute cat who was present during all of their supposedly secret conversations. One such instance of reminiscence of events happens, when one of the characters called, Agnes Resker asks, in between all the chaos, “Why did I ever come here?”. To this, Tobermory responds, by saying that she came for consuming food and that she told Mrs.Cornett that the Blemleys were the “dullest people to stay with” but “they were clever enough to employ a first-rate cook; otherwise they’d find it difficult to get anyone to come down a second time”.
As the narration moves along, we witness the relationships between the guests being ruined, until the big yellow Tom from the Rectory appears, causing Tobermory to jump out of the window and vanish suddenly. Realizing that Tobermory has become a threat to them, the characters plan to kill the cat by infusing strychnine, a type of poison, into his food. The narrator tells us, “A plateful of carefully dosed fish scraps..” was waiting to be eaten by Tobermory, but he never appears in the scene after he ran behind the other big cat. At night, one of the characters called Clovis disperses the other guests as he announces that the cat won’t appear again tonight. Following this, the next thing that the readers are informed about is the corpse of Tobermory, who died fighting an “unequal combat” with the big Tom. The story does not offer the readers any sympathetic narration of the fate of Tobermory, except for Lady Blemley’s “extremely nasty letter” to the Rectory for the cause of her loss of the lovable pet cat.
The short story ends with a sorrowful yet comical death of Mr. Cornelius Appin, apparently killed by one of the elephants in the Dresden Zoological Garden, onto which the writer adds a serious comment, told by Clovis, on the terrifying progress of human civilization. An intellectual comment disguised within a humorous one: “If he was trying German irregular verbs on the poor beast, he deserved all he got”. To digress a little, the final lines of the short story immediately remind me of the idea put forth by the Greek philosopher, Aristotle. He acutely points out that the precision of knowledge is whatever nature permits and henceforth, the concept of absolute knowledge is impossible. In Munro’s short fiction here, such a theme on the limitation of knowledge may be suggested, particularly embodied in the character of Mr. Cornelius Appin. It is impossible here to dismiss the fact that Mr. Cornelius carries and evokes the same name as the magician Cornelius Agrippa, who is portrayed as one of the magicians that helps Doctor Faustus, a character in Christopher Marlowe’s play. In the play, Doctor Faustus falls into the hands of horrible death in the process of attaining unlimited knowledge.
Coming back to the short story, as Mr. Cornelius brags about his invention, the writer on the other side, offers an insight into the gibberish invention of injection of the possibility of an apparent humanized civilization among the animals. Such an idea is brought forth by Mr. Cornelius, as he says this about cats: “…wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvelously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts”, reminding one of the intelligent horses called Houyhnhnms in Jonathan Swift’s satirical book called Gulliver’s Travels. The retention of “feral instincts” in the short story is witnessed by the readers, as Tobermory jumps out of the window and vanishes to fight with the big cat. In other words, their civilized manner might not be learning the art of human speech but remaining in their wild, impulsive, poise, and quick-witted characteristics. But can we dismiss such a nonsensical invention as all a fantasy?
The shocked belief received from the guests as they come to know that Tobermory can communicate in the language of human beings can suggest the fear taking over the characters of the possible chance of animals being the center of intelligence and civilization. Such fear is expressed in the “element of embarrassment in addressing equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged mental ability”. Moreover, as the cat creates an intensified commotion and ruckus among the human beings, they become more worried about the chances of Tobermory bestowing his learned gift to other cats, as suggested in the question asked by one of the characters, “Could Tobermory impart his dangerous gift to other cats?”. The horror of animals taking over the civilized world of human beings is put forth by the writer in these instances. This is given more ground when the guests realize the threat of Tobermory and decide to kill the pet.
The so-called progressive and moving forward civilization as juxtaposed with the thirst for unlimited knowledge in the short story is highlighted by the pretentiousness of the upper-class characters. The writer skillfully weaves the use of wit and sarcasm to emphasize the hypocrisy of the bourgeoisie, reminding one of their discreet and yet undisguised pretense, suggestive of the Edwardian era that Munro wrote in. One such instance we look at is at the time Tobermory speaks out the truth about the characters. The narrator gives insight into the character of Mavis Pellington, who inquires Tobermory about her intelligence: “When your inclusion in this house party was suggested, Sir Wilfrid protested that you were the most brainless woman of his acquaintance and that there was a wide distinction between hospitality and the care of the feeble-minded”. In addition to this, Tobermory straightforwardly blurts out the truth about Major Barfield’s affairs, who at first questioned the affairs of Tobermory. The latter responds by saying-
“From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs”.
All of the above dialogues are extremely suggestive of the double life led by all the characters. In the name of poise and civilization, the characters disguise their pretentious and uncivilized way of living. Interestingly, the writer bravely juxtaposes the “nine lives” of cats or simply their characteristics of living several lives to that of the different lives led by the conspicuous and ostentatious upper-class members. In addition to this, as the short story employs an abundant use of sarcasm and irony to ground the pretentious characteristic of the upper-class characters, at the same time the author rejects the idea of civilization to connect with the bourgeoisie.