A reading of a classic cat story
The cat is the perfect subject for a Saki story. There is something catlike about many of his young protagonists: aloof, urbane, poised, louche, and yet underneath it all there is a feral streak. So it comes as little surprise that Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), better known by his pen name ‘Saki’, wrote a wonderful cat story, ‘Tobermory’ (1911). Even better, it’s about a cat that is taught to talk. You can read ‘Tobermory’ here.
Talking cats go back a long way in English literature: one of the books we discuss in our whistle-stop tour of forgotten literary curiosities, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, is a sixteenth-century English novel which features talking cats. But Saki puts his own stamp on this small but rewarding genre of animal tales. In summary, a man named Cornelius Appin has managed to teach a cat, Tobermory, to talk. Tobermory belongs to his friends, the Blemleys, and it is at Mrs Blemley’s house party that Appin reveals that he has managed to teach Tobermory the power of speech. At first, the party guests are naturally incredulous, but when Sir Wilfred Blemley fetches Tobermory in from a neighbouring room, it soon becomes clear to everyone present that Tobermory has indeed learned to talk.
The guests start to ask Tobermory questions: whether he’d like some milk (yes), was it difficult learning human language (he doesn’t deign to answer that one), and what he thinks of human intelligence. The woman who asks this last question, Mavis, gets more than she bargained for, with Tobermory replying that he overheard the Blemleys discussing Mavis, and Sir Wilfrid described Mavis as a ‘brainless woman’. (His wife agreed, adding that Mavis was so idiotic that she’d agreed to buy a useless old car off Lady Blemley.)
Seeking to change the subject, another guest, Major Barfield, asks Tobermory about his ‘affairs’ with the ‘stable cat’. Tobermory turns the question around, asking the Major how he would like it if Tobermory told everyone about his affairs (implying that Tobermory knows about the Major’s extramarital dalliances). Fearing that Tobermory knows all about their lives and will expose all their darkest secrets, the guests begin to grow nervous. Tobermory goes on to reveal that one of the guests had admitted that she had only come to the Blemleys’ party for the food, and she found them dull company. Before he can cause any more embarrassment among the guests, Tobermory spies an old adversary of his, the tomcat from the nearby Rectory, outside, and in a flash ‘he had vanished through the open French window.’
After he’s gone, the Blemleys discuss what to do about Tobermory. Deciding that he cannot be kept alive now he’s acquired this new gift of speech – as he’ll reveal everyone’s secrets – they resolve to have him ‘destroyed’ by lacing the food scraps Tobermory eats with some strychnine. However, although Tobermory dies, he meets his end not by ingesting the poison but by being mortally wounded in a fight with his deadly nemesis, the big Tom from the Rectory. Cornelius Appin, the man who had taught Tobermory to speak, tries to impart his teachings to an elephant in Dresden Zoo, but the elephant, evidently not in a hurry to learn about verbs and nouns, lashed out and killed him.
‘Tobermory’ is arguably one of the funniest short stories in the English language, partly because it is about exposing the hypocrisy of those upper-middle-class people whom Saki, in some of his other short stories, deems ‘respectable’ (the adjective is not meant to be taken as a compliment). Everyone is two-faced at the Blemleys’ party, except for Tobermory, who tells the truth. This gives him his power – like the child-protagonists in Saki’s other classic stories, ‘The Lumber-Room’, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’, and ‘Sredni Vashtar’, he cuts through the adult world of lies and ‘respectability’ exposing it for the sham it is. For doing so, he has to die, but even here he eludes the deceitful adults’ plan to poison his food. He dies a hero, vanquished but with his dignity and integrity intact.
Critics have analysed ‘Tobermory’ as a satire on various political groups who were active at the time, chiefly the female suffragette movement. But this seems unlikely, or, if it was his intent, it is barely evident in the story, where male and female guests at the party are exposed for all sorts of social hypocrisies, and political issues per se are not touched upon. It seems to make more sense to interpret the story as an attack on hypocrisy itself, with Saki firmly siding with the animal, as he always does (or, in some stories, with the child-character). And first and foremost we shouldn’t forget that the story is delightfully funny, not just because of its fantastical concept of a talking cat, but because it shows ‘civilised society’ (which is always uttered with a wry sneer in Saki’s stories) as, fundamentally, something of a sham. It is the still-faintly-feral Tobermory, in his scrap with the Rectory tomcat, who is the real thing. Even learning to talk in the manner of the ‘respectable’ adults cannot make him forget this.
You can pick up all of Saki’s wonderful stories in the affordable collection, The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics).
Continue to explore Saki’s wonderful stories with our short analysis of his ‘The Lumber-Room’. For more cat-themed literary fun, see these great literary quotations about cats and our pick of the best cat poems.