It is a cold, rainy, August day, and since hunting season is over, several people gather at Lady Blemley’s house for a party. Mr. Cornelius Appin is among the guests. Though not a close friend of Lady Blemley’s, he received an invitation because Lady Blemley heard he was clever and hoped he’d use this trait to entertain her guests. However, by teatime Lady Blemley finds herself wishing she’d never invited Mr. Appin, and concludes that the man is not clever at all but rather “homely” and “negative” (91).
During teatime, Mr. Appin declares to all in attendance that he made a remarkable discovery and taught Tobermory, The Blemley’s pet cat, “the art of human speech” (92). 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 of success” (92). Finally with Tobermory, a “‘Beyond-cat’ of extraordinary intelligence," Mr. Appin reached his goal of successfully teaching an animal to talk (92).
While Appin explains his feat, Clovis, one of the party guests, mouths the word “rats” to express how preposterous he finds Mr. Appin’s claim (92). Another guest, Miss Resker, asks whether Mr. Appin taught Tobermory how to speak in monosyllabic phrases. Mr. Appin scoffs at this and clarifies that he taught Tobermory to speak in full sentences. At this, the guests become more incredulous and Lady Blemley urges Mr. Appin to bring Tobermory into the room to display his supposed new skill.
Sir Wilfrid searches for the cat in a neighboring room and moments later returns pale and excited declaring that Mr. Appin’s story is true: Tobermory can indeed speak. Sir Wilfrid recounts the encounter to the rapt audience and explains how Tobermory spoke to him in a “most horribly natural voice” (93). Tobermory enters the room just as Sir Wilfrid finishes his story and everyone falls silent.
Lady Blemley is first to test Tobermory by asking him whether he would like any milk. To her surprise, Tobermory replies affirmatively. Lady Blemley experiences such shock that when she attempts to fulfill his request and pour him some milk she has great trouble steadying her hand. Tobermory criticizes her clumsiness. Miss Resker next asks whether Tobermory experienced difficulty learning the human language. Tobermory finds this question too simple to justify a response and refuses to answer.
Mavis Pellington asks Tobermory his opinion on human intelligence. The question sparks Tobermory’s memory of a discussion he overheard between Lady Blemley and Sir Wilfrid about Mavis’ intelligence. Without hesitation Tobermory discloses the details of that conversation during which Sir Wilfrid told Lady Blemley that Mavis was “a most brainless woman” (94). Lady Blemley agreed with the assessment and confessed that she only invited Mavis because she had been “idiotic enough” to purchase Lady Blemley’s car, which was so old that it could not make it up a hill without being pushed from behind (94).
Abashed, Lady Blemley denies ever speaking these words, but her protestations ring false—especially since just that morning she had asked Mavis whether she’d be interested in purchasing the faulty car. To break the tension between Mavis and Lady Blemley, Major Barfield asks about Tobermory’s affairs with the cat from the stables. Offended by the probing and personal question, Tobermory wonders aloud how Major Barfield would feel if Tobermory exposed the details of his numerous affairs in front of all the party guests.
Several guests appear panicked at this suggestion and begin to fear that Tobermory will expose all of their scandals. Odo Finsberry, a student of the clergy, becomes so anxious either at having his secrets revealed or at the possibility of bearing witness to unholy scandals that he flees the room. Meanwhile, Clovis quietly considers whether he might be able to buy Tobermory’s silence by bribing him with a box of mice.
When Miss Resker asks out loud why she even came to the party, Tobermory reminds her that she told Mrs. Cornett she came specifically for the food despite the fact that she thought the Blemleys were the “dullest” people (95). Just as he begins explaining how Mrs. Cornett repeated this to Bertie von Tahn (who also came for the free meal), Tobermory spots the tomcat from the rectory in the window and bolts out of the room to chase him.
With Tobermory’s departure, the guests turn in anger toward Mr. Appin, whom they hold responsible for endowing the cat with such a dangerous ability. The guests discover that Tobermory may have passed his knowledge on to the cat in the stables, and they demand that both cats be killed. Lady Blemley agrees to this despite her supposed fondness for the family pet. Indeed, Mr. Appin is alone in protesting the destruction of his first successful subject. Mrs. Cornett advises Mr. Appin to turn his attention to animals that are under more control like the elephants at the Zoological Gardens, since they won't have access to as many private conversations and activities as household pets.
Tobermory does not return by dinnertime and the guests cannot enjoy their meal because they are so anxious. Tobermory is still at large at two in the morning and Clovis urges everyone to go to bed and wait again in the morning. But Tobermory is still missing when they awake. After a tense breakfast, a gardener enters the dining room with a limp Tobermory in his hands. The bites on Tobermory’s throat and tufts of yellow fur remaining in his claws suggest that he’d perished in a scuffle with the tomcat from the rectory. Relieved, the guests depart the Blemley house confident that their secrets died along with Tobermory.
Weeks after the party the newspaper reports on the death of Cornelius Appin, who was attacked by an elephant in the Zoological Gardens. Clovis remarks that Appin deserved to be killed if he was attempting to teach the elephant irregular verbs in German (97).
“Tobermory” is a comedic, satirical story about a talking cat; in it, Saki exposes the hypocrisies of Edwardian society. In this regard, it is similar to Saki’s other short stories. Saki frequently employs either children or animals as foils for adult ignorance, and in this piece he focuses on the latter of these devices. When the Blemley’s cat, Tobermory, learns to speak, he quickly discloses all the secrets and scandals he’s had the privilege of witnessing, causing panic among all the party guests. Tobermory’s voice amplifies the hypocrisy Saki saw in Edwardian society, a high-class society that prided itself on social customs of modesty, civility, and elegance, and whose members engaged in the very type of indecorum they openly disdained.
Several scholars have noted the importance of Saki choosing a cat as the feature animal in this story. Saki commonly associates cats and cattiness with femininity. Conversely, he associates dogs with men and masculinity (Gibson 175). When Tobermory gains the ability to speak he behaves in a ‘catty’ way similar to the demeanor of the other women in the story. Though he is a male cat, Tobermory uses his power of speech to engage in a type of behavior common to the women in Saki’s stories: he begins disclosing the secrets of other party guests and openly gossips about attendees (Gibson 175).
Saki also expresses deep respect for cats in an essay entitled “The Achievement of the Cat,” which helps readers better understand Saki’s treatment of Tobermory in this short story (Gibson 176). Though Saki saw that cats were tamed, he respected that they retained some of their wild nature even once they’d been domesticated (Gibson 176). In contrast, Saki considers dogs to be completely submissive to the will of humans since they allow themselves to be “kenneled [and] harnessed” (Gibson 176). Saki also admires cats' “innate savage spirit[s]” and “torture-instinct[s]” (Gibson 176). Readers can observe this “torture-instinct” in Tobermory, who resolves to embarrass and shame his captive human audience as much as possible with his newly acquired skill (Gibson 176).
An admirer of Darwin, Saki enjoyed writing about competitions between different species (Frost 447). In these competitions animals—especially wild animals—often prevail over humans. Though Tobermory dies at the conclusion of this story (arguably because he falls victim to the power of a more wild cat – the tomcat from the rectory), Saki still characterizes him as a creature that lords over human beings, even if for only a short while. Tobermory derives this power in his transformation from a voiceless being that nobody takes seriously into a vocal being that suddenly threatens to topple everyone’s normal life and reputation.
Some claim that Saki endowed Tobermory with the particular human skill of speech to make a political statement about the uprisings occurring in many marginalized communities in society (Frost 200). When “Tobermory” was published, communities of women, laborers, colonized peoples, and gay individuals were resisting various forms of oppression they experienced in society (Frost 199-200). Tobermory can be seen as a symbol of many of these previously silenced groups of people finally finding their voices. However, if Tobermory is meant to represent such peoples then it is unclear why Saki had him meet such a sudden death. It is worth noting that Saki does not allow Tobermory to perish at the hands of the plotting humans, but rather arranges a valiant death for him in a battle with an equal. Additionally, while Saki championed cats for their ability to resist even as they were domesticated, he frequently mocked suffragette women who were fighting politically and socially to resist their own domestication and achieve equality (Gibson 176).