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Saki Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Saki is a writer whose great strength and great weakness lie in the limits he set for himself. Firmly rooted in the British ruling class that enjoyed “dominion over palm and pine,” Saki wrote about the prosperous Edwardians among whom he moved. His stories, comedies of manners, emphasize the social side of the human animal as they survey the amusements, plots, and skirmishes that staved off boredom for the overripe leisure class whose leisure ended in August, 1914, with the onset of World War I.

Just as Saki wrote about a particular class, so he aimed his stories at a comparatively small and select readership. Although he was indifferent to wealth, Saki subsisted by his pen; he was, therefore, obliged to write stories that would sell. From the first, he succeeded in producing the “well-made” story savored by literate but not necessarily literary readers of such respected journals as the liberal Westminster Gazette and the conservative Morning Post. His debonair, carefully plotted stories full of dramatic reversals, ingenious endings, and quotable phrases do not experiment with new literary techniques but perfect existing conventions. Without seeming to strain for effect, they make of Hyde Park an enchanted forest or treat the forays of a werewolf as an ordinary country occurrence. Like the Paris gowns his fictional duchesses wear, Saki’s stories are frivolous, intricate, impeccable, and, to some eyes, obsolete.

If Saki’s background, subjects, and techniques were conventional, however, his values and sympathies certainly were not. As a satirist, he mocked the people he entertained. His careful portraits of a complacent ruling class are by no means flattering: They reveal all the malice, pettiness, mediocrity, and self-interest of people intent on getting to the top or staying there. His heroes—Reginald, Clovis, Bertie, and the like—are aristocratic iconoclasts who share their creator’s distaste for “dreadful little everyday acts of pretended importance” and delight in tripping the fools and hypocrites who think themselves exceptional but walk the well-worn path upward. “Cousin Theresa,” a variation on the theme of the Prodigal Son, chronicles the frustration of one such self-deluder.

“Cousin Theresa”

In Saki’s version of the parable, the wandering brother—as might be expected in an age of far-flung Empire—is the virtuous one. Bassett Harrowcluff, a young and successful bearer of the “white man’s burden,” returns from the colonies after having cheaply and efficiently “quieted a province, kept open a trade route, enforced the tradition of respect which is worth the ransom of many kings in out of the way regions.” These efforts, his proud father hopes, might earn Bassett a knighthood as well as a rest.

The elder brother Lucas, however, a ne’er-do-well London bachelor, claims to have his own scheme for certain success—a refrain that, appended to a song and embodied in a musical revue, should catch the ear of all London: “Cousin Theresa takes out Caesar,/ Fido, Jock, and the big borzoi.” Fate bears out Lucas’s prophecy. Theresa and her canine quartet enthrall the city. Orchestras acquire the four-legged accessories necessary for proper rendition of the much-demanded melody’s special effects. The double thump commemorating the borzoi rings throughout London: Diners pound tables, drunks reeling home pound doors, messenger boys pound smaller messenger boys. Preachers and lecturers discourse on the song’s “inner meaning.” In Society, the perennial mystifications of politics and polo give way to discussions of “Cousin Theresa.” When Colonel Harrowcluff’s son is knighted, the honor goes to Lucas.

Saki’s parable offers two lessons: an obvious one for the “eminent,” a subtler one for the enlightened. If the reader takes the story as an indictment of a foolish society that venerates gimmicks and ignores achievements, that rewards notoriety rather than merit, he classes himself...

(The entire section is 1,532 words.)