Tobermory Short Story by Saki Analysis

Tobermory” is a short story by Hector Hugh Munro, otherwise known as Saki. Anyone with a pet has probably wondered what that pet would say to you if it could talk. Many children’s stories have this premise, and this particular wish fulfilment fantasy. We imagine if our pets could talk they would say satisfying things.

Saki’s story, about a talking cat, reminds me of a cartoon in which a man wishes his dog could talk. But as soon as the dog starts talking the man is weirded out and says, “You’ve seen too  much.” He immediately takes the power of talking away from his pet.

Gary Larson has also mined this gag, also on dogs:

Man invents talking machine for dogs and they only say hey hey hey

But cats are thought to be more circumspect. We consider them haughty, knowing and at the top of their own hierarchy. The heterodiegetic narrator of Tobermory is like a cat himself, and as viewpoint character, sees through bluff and bluster of the assembled human party.

The reality is that cats are more social than we think:


The humour of Saki’s stories derives from an ironic gap between the highly formal register, most often used by the highly educated, and the subject matter, which is completely unbelievable. The register tips over into ostentatious and affected. Saki makes deliberate use of purple language such as ‘he expostulated’.

The comparisons he makes go way outside the bounds of the story itself. Here is a sentence which says ‘Cornelius Appin was crestfallen.’

An archangel ecstatically proclaiming the Millennium, and then finding that it clashed unpardonably with Henley and would have to be indefinitely postponed, could hardly have felt more crestfallen than Cornelius Appin at the reception of his wonderful achievement.

Australian author Kathy Lette writes in a similar fashion in some of her novels, such as The Boy Who Fell To Earth. This story gets a lot of its humour from its great many parenthetical asides.

It’s the ironic gap between register and subject matter that makes Saki’s humour feel irreverent. Add to that insights on human nature from his narrator and you have a wry social commentary. No better character than a talking cat to criticise humans.



The great shortcoming of this group of people is that they don’t really like each other at all, yet here they are, all forced to commingle. They’ve been saying nasty things about each other behind backs.


Each has their own conflicting desire which they bring to the dinner party:

  • Mr Cornelius Appin wants to demonstrate his wonderful invention (foiled because the invention is terrible)
  • Sir Wilfrid does not want to be taken for a fool (foiled because he is revealed to be a fool anyway)
  • Lady Blemley wants to be a good hostess (foiled by the cat)
  • Mrs Cornett wants to be regarded a beauty (though she spends much time with make-up to get herself looking presentable)
  • Miss Scrawen, ironically, doesn’t want everyone to know she leads such a good and virtuous life
  • Odo Finsberry wants to keep his private life private since he is meant to be reading for the Church
  • Agnes Resker wants to enjoy a free meal since she is experiencing financial hardship
  • and so on


The talking cat is the opponent, but only because the web of opposition has already been set up.


Sir Wilfrid suggests they put strychnine in the table scraps and leave them out for the cat to eat.

The rest of the party do their best to paper over that a huge rift has emerged between the neighbours of the Tower.


The Battle of cat eating poison and dying is subverted. The death happens off-stage in an unexpected fight with a Tom. On the other hand, this is entirely expected. We might imagine the cat was able to articulate nastiness to other cats as well as to other humans.


This story includes an entire cast of characters but Saki has chosen to home in on one character’s response to all this: That of Lady Blemley, who ‘sufficiently recovers her spirits to write an extremely nasty letter to the Rectory about the loss of her valuable pet’.

This is displaced anger, of course. And this is the reader’s revelation. People deal with humiliation by branching out with it. It’s called lateral violence, when it happens as part of a system.


Saki finishes in children’s picture book fashion (also utilised a lot by Paul Jennings) in which another similar story happens a second time, but with a different main character. This time it’s an elephant, and the reveal is that the elephant learned to talk and got sick of an Englishman who was trying German irregular verbs on it.

The joke is readily understood by any English speaker who has ever tried learning German verb conjugation. (Though English is far less regular than German.) Note that Saki has not waited until the final paragraph to mention the elephant — one of the characters suggested elephants at the dinner party, since elephants can’t sneak about under chairs and whatnot and therefore make a safe subject.

It’s a good idea to prepare the reader in this way if you mean to end your short story like this. This is how you get your ending to feel ‘both expected and surprising’. Otherwise, readers will complain that the ending feels ‘tacked on’.

Elephants are an excellent choice for this final episode. My father remembers a traveling circus coming to the small town of Amberley. This was the 1950s. He and another boy rode their bikes to see the animals before the circus opened, one evening in summer. The friend had nothing to offer the elephant, so offered it a stone. The elephant took the stone in its trunk, perhaps thinking it was a peanut. But after realising its mistake, the elephant heaved the stone at the boy. The elephant seemed to know it had been tricked, then exacted revenge.


The wonderful thing about cats is that they can be depicted in so many ways, from contemplative, gentle, silky creatures to mischievous tricksters to evil familiars.

Louis William Wain (1860-1939) Turkish Angora cat
Helen Allingham – Cat’s Cradle
Ralph Hedley (British, 1848-1913). “Blinking in the Sun,” 1881
Arthur Rackham, cat watercolor, 1911
Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), French painter, cartoonist and engraver of Japanese origin cat 2
Albert Dubout (French, 1905 – 1976)…and Little cat in a big white pillow
by Prince Francois de Baschmakoff for Givenchy Jewelry, 1958 black cat
An illustration of Carl the Cat from the book “No Funny Business” written by Edith Thacher Hurd and illustrated by Clement Hurd, published in 1962
Janusz Grabiański cat
Janusz Grabiański cat
Janusz Grabiański cat
Janusz Grabiański cat
Janusz Grabiański cat
Janusz Grabiański cat
Garth Williams (1912 – 1996) Harry Cat’s Pet Puppy, 1974 by George Selden
Garth Williams (American, 1912-1996) Harry Cat has brought home a puppy as a pet
Arthur Rackham (1867 – 1939) Cat and Mouse in Partnership (1909)
Géza Faragó – Slim Woman With a Cat, 1913
Bruno Liljefors – Cat with Bird in Its Mouth, 1885
Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen (French, 1859-1923) An illustration of his daughter, Colette Steinlen, and her cat.
Théophile Alexandre Steinlen, Pierrot and the cat, 1889
Halloween Lantern witch black cat
Albert Dubout, comic artist, illustrator, painter, sculptor 15 May 1905-27 June 1976 angry cat
Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), French painter, cartoonist and engraver of Japanese origin cat 3
Leonard Tsuguharu Foujita (1886-1968), French painter, cartoonist and engraver of Japanese origin cat 1
wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious  The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable
wood engraving by Tirzah Garwood Ravilious The Cat Wife, 1930 a LaFontaine fable
Clare Turlay Newberry (1903-1970), c. 1937 kitten

“Three kittens” V.Suteev (1963) Vladimir Grigorevich Suteev (5 July 1903 – 10 March 1993) was a Russian author, artist and animator


Compare “The Child” by Ali Smith, in which a woman finds a baby in her supermarket trolley. The child can talk, and it says nasty things.


On paper, things look fine. Sam Dennon recently inherited significant wealth from his uncle. As a respected architect, Sam spends his days thinking about the family needs and rich lives of his clients. But privately? Even his enduring love of amateur astronomy is on the wane. Sam has built a sustainable-architecture display home for himself but hasn’t yet moved into it, preferring to sleep in his cocoon of a campervan. Although they never announced it publicly, Sam’s wife and business partner ended their marriage years ago due to lack of intimacy, leaving Sam with the sense he is irreparably broken.

Now his beloved uncle has died. An intensifying fear manifests as health anxiety, with night terrors from a half-remembered early childhood event. To assuage the loneliness, Sam embarks on a Personal Happiness Project:

1. Get a pet dog

2. Find a friend. Just one. Not too intense.




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