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In Norman Gortsby, Saki created a character who would serve to illustrate his moral, which is that charity is often a mistake. Gortsby is young. He has a lot to learn about life and people, although he considers himself urbane and sophisticated.
As the story begins, he is observing downtrodden humanity without sympathy.
Money troubles did not press on him; had he so wished he could have strolled into the thoroughfares of light and noise, and taken his place among the jostling ranks of thse who enjoyed prosperity or struggled for it. . . . for the moment he was heartsore and disillusionised, and not disinclined to take a certain cynical pleaure in observing and labelling his fellow wanderers as they went their ways in the dark stretches between the lamp-lights.
Saki uses an omniscient third-person narrative technique. It enables him to go inside Gortsby's mind and decribe his thoughts and feelings in detail. Gortsby is obviously intelligent and sensitive. He is unmarried and a loner. He has to be a bit of a philosopher and observer because the story is about humanity as perceived by one man who is Saki's creation. Gortsby has a better-than-average job but is by no means a wealthy gentleman of leisure. Otherwise, his loss of a sovereign to the young con man would not be so painful. It has to be painful to make Saki's point.
Gortsby notices the elderly gentleman on the bench beside him and understands his unhappiness without feeling any pity. Then when the old man leaves and the young man plops down beside him, he expects a hard-luck story and is prepared to reject the conclusion in a request for money. Obviously, Gortsby has heard so many hard-luck tories in this cold, heartless city of London that he has become a dispassionate connoisseur of people's real or pretended misfortunes. He listens patiently to the intricate and creative tale of the lost hotel. Then:
"Of course," said Gortsby slowly, "the weak point of your story is that you can't produce the soap."
When the young stranger has left in a huff and Gortsby finds the cake of soap on the ground, he feels guilty and ashamed. He rushes to find the con artist and give him a sovereign and the cake of fragrant soap as a bonus. He regrets the cynicism and skepticism he has developed as a protective shell. He will change his attitude. He will become compassionate, generous and understanding.
Then when he sees the elderly gentleman looking for his lost cake of soap all around the park bench, Gortsby realizes he has been swindled. He even suspects that the old man may have been planning to swindle him too, and with the same story about a lost hotel. The old man could have deliberately left the soap there with the intention of coming back to use it as a ploy to open a conversation with Gortsby, who in the meantime had found the soap and gone in search of the young stranger.
The moral of Saki's story is that you shouldn't be too trusting or too charitable. The world is full of crooks and otherwise undeserving people. You should look out for Number One and let others look out for themselves.
Saki has been described as a Tory and a reactionary. He may have been a Social Darwinist, who believed that the struggle for existence improved the human species. He undoubtedly opposed government handouts to the needy. His character Gortsby has learned a painful lesson. His cynicism was the right attitude in the first place. He will be even more cynical and skeptical about humanity in the future.
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