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Last Updated on September 6, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1019

“The Mouse” was published in Saki’s second collection of short stories, Reginald in Russia, in 1910. It is one of the first of his stories to feature an animal in a prominent role, but he was to publish many more, particularly in his 1914 collection, Beasts and Super-Beasts. Even the pseudonym he chose for publication, though it is usually taken to refer to the cupbearer in the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, may just as easily be a reference to the South American Saki monkey. Indeed, a “long-tailed monkey from the Western hemisphere” appears in another of his short stories, “The Remoulding of Groby Lington.”

Saki’s real name was Hector Hugh Munro, and he had a brief but productive literary career before being killed in the First World War at the age of forty-five. His stories are admired for their ingenuity, their urbane, witty prose style, and their lack of sentimentality. He is often compared to his American contemporary O. Henry, for the twists at the end of his stories. But whereas O. Henry often shows a taste for sentimental moralizing, Saki’s biting wit has no place for either sympathy or preaching. Despite the decorative flourishes of his Edwardian prose style, Saki displays a kinship with his modernist contemporaries in his depiction of a pitiless world. His Victorian predecessors often wrote about animals and children in a romantic manner, regarding them as sweet and innocent. Saki’s stories often feature animals and children for precisely the opposite reason: he sees them as cold, calculating, and realistic, without the comforting illusions and hypocrisies of the adult world.

“The Mouse” features a feeble and effete adult protagonist. The story is structured like a joke, with a final punchline. Theodoric, however, is too self-serious to see any humor in the situation, and his solemnity in facing his plight increases the humor for the reader. Saki’s ironic use of language underscores the point that Theodoric is continually aggravated by minor difficulties. He has been staying at a country vicarage, the epitome of respectability. Yet the narrator, reflecting Theodoric’s thoughts, describes its inhabitants as “inmates,” as though it were a prison, and grudgingly admits that they are “neither brutal nor bacchanalian.” This instance of litotes seems to indicate that a rural clergyman and his family are the most riotous company Theodoric can handle.

In an era when riding horses was an integral part of country life for the upper classes, Theodoric regards it as a terrible imposition to have to enter a stable, and he is still fretting about the smell as he gets on the train. The contest between man and mouse is then described, with the narrator ascribing more tenacity and valor to the mouse “whose motto, indeed, seemed to be Excelsior.” This is likely a reference to Longfellow’s poem “Excelsior,” often learned by Victorian children, in which a valiant young man disregards all warnings of danger to bear his banner onwards and upwards through snow and ice. The fact that the mouse is described in such heroic terms presents an ironic contrast with the weak Theodoric, who bears the name of a legendary king of the Ostrogoths but has none of his martial qualities.

The lady in the railway carriage is, like the mouse, a far more robust character than the protagonist. Her lack of nervousness is emphasized by her dozing quite happily as a strange man enters the carriage. When she wakes up, she shows solicitude for his invented illnesses and companionably offers him a drink of brandy. Although this is proffered for medicinal purposes, it is still an offer of...

(This entire section contains 1019 words.)

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strong spirits to an unknown man in a railway carriage, suggesting a disregard for propriety and appearances. Theodoric expects the lady to be scandalized by the sight of a man in partial undress or even one inexplicably covered by a rug, but it is he who gives a fastidious display of modesty. The author mentions that he cannot even bring himself “to the mild exposure of open-work socks” in the presence of a woman. It is notable, too, that in his distress and self-consciousness he does not recognize her blindness. Once again, the expected roles are metaphorically reversed: Theodoric is more mouse-like than a mouse and more helpless than a person who is blind.

The story of “The Mouse” could be told very succinctly. A nervous gentleman on a train, finding that a mouse had got into his clothing, is forced to disrobe to get rid of it. To his intense embarrassment, the only other occupant of the railway carriage, a woman, wakes up while he is still in a state of undress. To his great relief, however, he discovers that she was blind. This is an anecdote of sorts and is even structured as a joke, though the punchline falls flat in this version. The brilliance of Saki’s story lies in the rich details and overwrought language with which he embellishes such a straightforward narrative. The humorous images and references alone makes it worth reading. Theodoric is “a Rowton House”—that is, a cheap motel—“for vagrant mice.” The mouse is not only a questing knight but a reincarnated “member of the Alpine Club.” Theodoric’s distraught state of mind and his state of undress come together in the author’s description of his “dismantled person.”

The language becomes ever more florid as Saki identifies, without sympathizing, with his protagonist’s perspective. Embarrassment takes on the proportions of gothic horror in Theodoric’s mind:

All the blood in his body seemed to have mobilised in one concentrated blush, and an agony of abasement, worse than a myriad mice, crept up and down over his soul. And then, as reflection began to assert itself, sheer terror took the place of humiliation.

Such passages are satirical, but they also build up the story to a crescendo which, in the tradition of the shaggy dog story, highlights the final anti-climax. It is precisely because the ending is bathetic that a long and elaborate build-up is required, emphasizing the extent of Theodoric’s needless panic.