What role does the time of day make in the story "Dusk" by Saki?

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carol-davis | College Teacher | (Level 1) Educator Emeritus

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In “Dusk” by Saki, the protagonist is a man who thinks is understands people.  He is an observer of life. The time that he loves the best is in the early evening or dusk.  

Norman Gortsby liked to sit on a park bench and watch people.  He liked dusk because this was “the hour of the defeated.”  At dusk, the people who really did not want to be seen came out.  These people had lost something in their lives.  Gortsby included himself in this group.  The reader never knows why Norman feels this way although he does say that he has no money problems.

 Men and women, who had fought and lost, who hid their fallen fortunes and dead hopes as far as possible from the scrutiny of the curious, came forth in this hour of gloaming,,,and bowed shoulders and unhappy eyes might pass unnoticed.

A person can hide in the dusk. The author describes these people as nocturnal.  There was just enough light from the street lights, windows, and traffic. 

On this day, it was early evening in March.  Sitting next to him was an old gentleman who seemed defiant which may have been the only feelings that he had left. It was obvious that this man had given up on life. He soon left.

Norman’s next companion was a young man.  He was in a bad mood.  Engaging him in conversation, Norman learned that the young man could not remember where the hotel was in which he was staying.  The young man had gone out to buy some soap.   He left the rest of his money in the hotel room, so he guessed that he would have to spend the night out in the open air. 

He knew no one in London.  Obviously, the young man would have liked some money.  To prove that he was not telling the truth, Norman asked where the soap was.  After making an attempt to find it, he said that he must have lost it. 

When sitting alone on the bench, Norman analyzed the young man's story.  Norman observed to himself that if the young man had been clever, he would have had some soap to prove his story.

As Norman was leaving, he observed a package lying on the ground.  It was soap.  He decided that it must have fallen out of the young man’s pocket as he sat on the bench. Hurriedly, Norman chases down the young man and apologizes for his mistrust.  Norman gives him some money. 

Passing by the bench on his way home, Norman sees the same elderly man who had sat on the bench earlier.  The old man was looking for something.  Norman asked him for what he was looking.  The old man replied that he had lost some soap that he had bought.

The twist at the end is unhinging.  The reader would love to know how Norman reacted to learning that the soap belonging to the old man.  With his cynical approach to life, Norman may never trust anyone again.

Hopefully, Norman will learn some lessons from this encounter.  First, usually the first decision that is made turns out to be the best.  Something in the young man warned Norman not to trust him. 

Secondly, Norman allowed himself to be influenced by external forces.  Despite Norman thinking that he was a good judge of character, he did not follow up on his own beliefs. 

Even though Norman appears to be cynical, his behavior with the young man proves that there is good in every man.  He thought that he had wronged him, and he wanted to make up for it. It is a good quality that Norman felt the need to follow the young man and apologize and loan him money. 

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The title "Dusk" and the description of dusk in London have a practical purpose in addition to establishing a scene and a mood. The young con man who sits down beside Gortsby has supposedly been searching for his lost hotel for some little time. Now he has given up the search. It is getting dark. This gathering darkness is what thriller writers often call "a ticking clock." It will soon be much darker and much colder. Saki writes in the very first paragraph that the time is early in March. Both the young stranger and the elderly gentleman are wearing overcoats. Presumably Gortsby would be wearing an overcoat too. The gathering darkness and the growing cold make the young stranger's plight seem more and more serious. If he couldn't find his hotel in the daylight, how could he hope to find it at night? He tells Gortsby: 

"Unless I can find some decent chap to swallow my story and lend me some money I seem likely to spend the night on the Embankment."

This is it. This is the "touch." This is what the young grifter's hard-luck story has been leading up to--as hard-luck stories usually do. The Embankment, of course, is the bank of the Thames River, not a very healthy place for a gentleman to be spending a night, but a very good place to get mugged and even murdered. This young grifter has concocted his story in such a way that he supposedly doesn't even have enough money to sit drinking beer or coffee in some all-night "sawdust restaurant with oyster shells" (to quote T. S. Eliot). The young stranger only took enough money to buy a cake of soap and one drink, and now he has about twopence left.

So the gathering darkness makes the con man's plight seem more serious. It could be seen as a matter of life and death. Saki might have toyed with the notion of setting the time as even later than dusk. But he could see that it wouldn't be likely that a man like Gortsby would be sitting on a park bench when it was totally dark. The gathering darkness is making this young country gentleman feel so desperate that he is taking the extreme liberty, and suffering the extreme embarrassment, of approaching a total stranger in the hope of obtaining a small temporary loan. At least that is the picture of himself that the young con artist is is trying to present. This is the first and last time in his life that he will ever do such a thing!

Saki's description of London at nightfall brings to mind T. S. Eliot's poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." See the enotes reference link below.

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