“Of course I have experimented with thousands of animals, but latterly only with cats, those wonderful creatures which have assimilated themselves so marvelously with our civilization while retaining all their highly developed feral instincts.”
Mr. Appin explains his previous attempts at teaching animals to speak. He echoes Saki’s praise of cats for retaining their wild ways even in the face of domestication. This relates to the theme of wild v. tame animals. Tobermory’s possession of both qualities allows him to be more receptive to Mr. Appin’s instruction than other animals.
“A sudden hush of awkwardness and constraint fell on the company. Somehow there seemed an element of embarrassment in addressing on equal terms a domestic cat of acknowledged dental ability.”
When Tobermory first enters the room the party guests are unsure how to interact with him. This relates to the theme of giving voice to the voiceless. As Tobermory (who can be seen as a symbol of marginalized people in Edwardian society) gains voice the party guests experience awkwardness and embarrassment. They are unaccustomed to having to treat a previously subservient being as an equal. This discomfort becomes intolerance once this previously subservient being threatens to disrupt their social order.
“Another silence fell on the group, and then Miss Resker, in her best district-visitor manner, asked if the human language had been difficult to learn. Tobermory looked squarely at her for a moment and then fixed his gaze serenely on the middle distance. It was obvious that boring questions lay outside his scheme of life.”
When Tobermory enters the room the guests ask a stream of questions which Tobermory answers with an air of superiority. In this instance he doesn’t even respond because he finds the question so simplistic. Not only has Tobermory gained an equal power of speech, but he also uses this power to exert superiority over the party guests. He treats the crème de la crème of Edwardian society as mere servants in his presence.
“‘How about your carryings-on with the tortoise-shell puss up at the stables, eh?’”
Major Barfield asks this question and almost immediately regrets it because Tobermory takes such offense. He regrets it also because Tobermory has much more to gossip about than the Major. This relates to the theme of scandal in high-society because the Major tries to point out the scandals in what he presumes to be a lesser being than him. However, newly armed with the power of speech, Tobermory is actually able to expose the many scandals occurring among the high-class party guests.
“‘One does not usually discuss these matters in public,’ said Tobermory frigidly. ‘From a slight observation of your ways since you’ve been in this house I should imagine you’d find it inconvenient if I were to shift the conversation on to your own little affairs.’
The panic which ensued was not confined to the Major.”
After Major Barfield asks about Tobermory’s affairs, Tobermory threatens to reveal information about the Major’s affairs. This is a turning point in the story when the party guests cease being amused with Tobermory’s new skill and instead become very anxious and worried. Suddenly Tobermory presents a threat to their reputations and social status and therefore a threat to their power.
“‘Adelaide! said Mrs. Cornett, ‘ do you mean to encourage that cat to go out and gossip about us in the servants’ hall?’”
Mrs. Cornett is first to verbalize the greatest fear among the party guests: that their servants will find out about their deepest secrets. This is a fear in part because of the threat it presents to their reputation and their status.
“‘Judging by what you said to Mrs. Cornett on the croquet-lawn yesterday, you were out for food. You described the Blemleys as the dullest people to stay with that you knew, but said they were clever enough to employ a first-rate cook; otherwise they’d find it difficult to get any one to come down a second time.’”
Again, Tobermory exposes the gossip of the party guests. Saki uses him to point out the hypocrisy of Edwardian society. Though they don’t even enjoy one another’s company, they nevertheless continue to attend one another’s parties. Furthermore, honesty has no place in society when it can be seen as impolite.
“‘Tobermory may be a valuable cat and a great pet; but I’m sure you’ll agree, Adelaide, that both he and the stable cat must be done away with without delay.’”
The party guests quickly decide to end Tobermory’s life as soon as he threatens to sully their reputations. This is ironic because the guests are intent on presenting themselves as moral and polite but very quickly resort to violence as soon as the truth about their immorality emerges. They are so threatened they even resolve to kill the stable cat even though they are not even certain she presents a threat at all.
“From the bites on his throat and the yellow fur which coated his claws it was evident that he had fallen in unequal combat with big Tom from the Rectory.”
Tobermory dies in a fight with a bigger and wilder animal. This relates to the theme of wild vs. tame because it illustrates yet another example of wildness beating out domesticity. Though Tobermory possesses both the traits of a wild and domestic animal, he cannot win against a foe that retains more wild traits than ‘civilized’ ones.
“Public opinion, however, was against him – in fact, had the general voice been consulted on the subject it is probable that a strong minority vote would have been in favour of including him in the strychnine diet.”
Mr. Appin tries to convince the guests that they cannot destroy his only successful subject. The narrator reveals that not only is Mr. Appin losing the debate but that he may have endangered his own life by arming Tobermory with the power of speech. This relates to the scandal in high society theme. It also illustrates the hypocrisy of a group intent on presenting themselves as moral and civilized that nevertheless resorts to violence when presented with the mere possibility that their reputations will be harmed.
Tobermory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tobermory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
In my opinion, Tobermory is a lesson on hypocrisy. If you don't want to become a part of the problem or an object of scrutiny..... keep your mouth closed. Let's face it..... you never know who might be listening.
Mr. Appin explains to the unbelieving party guests that he spent the last seventeen years trying to teach animals of all kinds to talk, with little success. However, in the last few months Mr. Appin focused only on cats and experienced “glimmers...
Saki satirizes the bourgeois nature of Edwardian society in “Tobermory” by upending the ‘prim and proper’ portrayals of the upper class in order to reveal a scandalous underbelly. Saki points out the hypocrisy of the...