Saki inverts the power of man over the domesticated pet cat by granting Tobermory the power of human speech. Unlike traditional battles between man and nature, this battle does not rely on physical prowess or smarts. Indeed, humans are quickly brought to the mercy of Tobermory at the mere suggestion that he can topple their reputations and reveal their deepest secrets. Additionally, Saki presents the humans in the story as fake and insincere while the cat is incredibly frank and authentic.
Cattiness as feminine
Many of Saki’s stories portray women as catty or gossipy. “Tobermory” features a number of spats between women at the party. Once Tobermory gains the power of speech he also uses the skill to engage in a great amount of gossip and snarky commentary.
Voices to the Voiceless
It is notable that, of all the human skills that Saki can grant Tobermory, he chooses the skill of human speech. Speech, it turns out, is the one skill that makes nearly all the party guests anxious. The suggestion that someone who has always been silenced will suddenly speak quickly threatens the entire social order. This theme of the silenced finding voice may also be historical as many marginalized groups in Saki’s society were speaking out and demanding equal treatment at the time that Saki wrote this story.
The Estate as Prison
Saki has many indictments of Edwardian England including the social customs of the upper class. Many of his short stories are set in the center of Edwardian social life: the estate. Here, the very sanctum of Edwardian society betrays its guests. The supposed private shelter becomes embarrassingly public when Tobermory gains the power of speech and threatens to disclose scandalous facts. Consequently, the guests confine themselves to the Estate until they are able to find and kill Tobermory.
Tame vs. Wild
Saki was a fan of Darwin and included evolution-based themes in many of his stories. In “Tobermory” he pits the human and feline species against one another (see “Man vs. Nature” theme) but he also contrasts the tame vs. wild animals. Both Tom from the Rectory and the elephant that ultimately kills Mr. Appin are wild animals and easily prevail over tame animals and humans. Tobermory straddles the tame and wild categories. His wildness allows him to lord over the humans once he gains the power of speech, but his domestication prevents him from prevailing in a fight with a wilder animal.
Scandal in High Society
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 extreme class divisions premised on the superiority of the higher classes. He does this by granting Tobermory the skill to reveal the sordid scandals in which even the wealthiest were engaged.
Like many of his social commentaries, Saki’s “Tobermory” blends satire with humor and the absurd. A talking cat tormenting the Lords and Ladies of England is at once comedic and absurd. However, the absurdity of the talking cat does not contrast overmuch with the absurdity of the party guests and their social norms. Through comedy, Saki is thus able to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy of Edwardian socialites.
Tobermory Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Tobermory is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
“And do you really ask us to believe,” Sir Wilfrid was saying, “that you have discovered a means for instructing animals in the art of human speech, and that dear old Tobermory has proved your first successful pupil?”
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...