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Analysis of plot, humor, suspense, and suspicion in "Dusk" by Saki


Saki's "Dusk" masterfully intertwines plot, humor, suspense, and suspicion. The plot centers on Gortsby's encounter with a young man who fabricates a story to gain sympathy. Humor arises from Gortsby's ironic realization and quick judgment. Suspense builds as the truth behind the young man's tale is uncovered. Suspicion permeates the narrative, highlighting themes of deception and human nature.

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What happens in "Dusk" by Saki and what elements of humor are present?

Norman Gortsby sits on a park bench at dusk, a time when, in his estimation, individuals who have experienced defeat in their lives can sojourn unrecognized. An elderly gentleman sits nexts to Gortsby, and Gortsby judges him to be a lonely person of no consequence. After a short time, the old man  leaves, and his place is taken by a younger man, better dressed than his predecessor but equally downcast.

The man tells Gortsby a sad story of having gone out to buy some soap, then not having been able to find his hotel. Gortsby responds that he had once done the same thing, only in a foreign country, to which the man rejoins that in a foreign land, one could go to the Consul for help, but here at home, there is no help to be had, unless "some decent chap" would believe his story and lend him some money. Gortsby says he will lend the man some money if he can produce the soap as proof that his story is true, but the man cannot, and walks away. Looking on the ground, Gortsby spies a new bar of soap, goes after the man, and lends him the money. When he returns to the park bench, however, the elderly gentleman who was sitting next to him originally is searching the ground for a lost bar of soap.

Two elements of humor that the author uses in this story are comic irony and satire. Comic irony occurs when the reader knows something that a character does not, and in this story is evidenced when the young man drolly ends his sad tale with a veiled request for mone. The man obviously has told his story to make Gortsby feel sorry for him and lend him some money, but Gortsby does not know for sure that his story is a lie. Satire is the use of humor to expose a human frailty. Gortsby's inability to judge his counterparts correctly is comically pointed out in his unstated chagrin when he discovers that, through his own miscalculation, he has allowed the young man to outwit him with his sad story of woe.

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What elements of suspense and suspicion are present in "Dusk" by Saki?

Saki writes:

The young man turned to him with a look of disarming frankness which put him instantly on his guard.

Gortsby is not an easy mark. He is a city dweller and, as the story indicates, he is a great observer of people. He suspects that this young stranger is a con artist and is going to try to tap him for money. Why else would a complete stranger sit beside him on a park bench and start putting on an act?

What is unusual in this story is the business with the soap. The reader is left wondering whether it was the young man or the elderly gentleman who was the con man. The elderly gentleman who had been sitting on the bench before was obviously the one who had lost the soap--but maybe he dropped it deliberately with the intention of coming back a bit later and telling Gorsby pretty much the same story that Gortsby had heard from the young man.

This could be more than a coincidence. It could be that this particular story was being used by a number of con men at that time because it was effective. Nowadays, one of the stories we often get from small-time con men is that they need money to make a phone call. Another is that they ran out of gas and need enough money to buy one gallon. But stories get worn out from overuse and have to be replaced with new inventions.

It seems quite possible that both the young man and the elderly gentleman were working the same scam--only the elderly gentleman was more experienced at his profession and had actually provided the cake of soap to show to the mark if he asked for proof to substantiate the story. The young man--assuming he is a con artist--will probably start carrying a bar of soap in the future. The elderly gentleman has a nice trick: he drops the bar of soap near the bench and then has an excuse to start up a conversation when he comes back to retrieve it. This elderly gentleman has probably tried his sob story before and has been asked about the bar of soap he claims to have left his hotel to purchase.

Really good panhandlers can make a lot of money if they pick the right locations. Stephen King writes about a man who was making hundreds of dollars a day panhandling at a perfect location in Lower Manhattan. This story is in King's book Hearts in Atlantis.

Why do two people pick on Gortsby within such a short time? It is probably because he is fairly well dressed and his body language makes him seem open to conversation with strangers. He is also fairly young--and young people are generally much easier victims of all sorts of predators!

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