‘Cousin Teresa’ by Saki or Hector Hugh Munro: Short Story Analysis
‘Cousin Teresa’ is a satirical short story penned by the master of Edwardian satire, Hector Hugh Munro, or Saki, as he was popularly known. Saki was a British writer. He wrote this short story to satirize how sometimes the most useless things or ideas become so fashionable in society that it affects politics, culture, language, music, foreign affairs, and literature. Saki chronicles how Lucas, the unremarkable son of Colonel Harrowcluff, becomes a sensation in Britain because of one line of an operatic song that had no possible meaning in it at all. The song appealed to the senses of the audience and became a hit. Lucas received a place in the Honors list. This short story is highly Edwardian, satirical, and has two narrators: the omnipresent main narrator and the comic Clovis Sangrail, who adds a bit to the story by his mere presence. Clovis Sangrail appears in many of Saki’s satirical fiction. ‘Cousin Teresa’ is indeed an ironic piece on the sensationalism of the latest things that garner society’s attention.
The story starts with Basset, the younger Harrowcluff brother. The name is chuckle-worthy because it alludes to the ‘basset hound.’ Basset is worthy of being on the honor’s list. He had done an excellent service to the nation by opening trade routes, calming down a mutiny, solving business issues in British colonial lands, et al. Colonel Harrowcluff was sure that Basset would make it into the honors list. Maybe Basset would have if his elder brother had not butted into the whole business. Lucas is called a man of ‘activities’ more than a man of ‘action’ because he was fickle-minded and got bored with his bright, sensational ideas over time. He was a failure as a person but a lucky winner where fate was concerned. One day, he got up with the idea of creating a song called ‘Cousin Teresa’. The song’s very first line itself is inane. It goes like this:
“Cousin Teresa takes out Caesar, Fido, Jock, and the big borzoi.”
That is an inane and senseless line, but Lucas added more to it, something exasperatingly silly. No one in the Harrowcluff family expected the song to work, but it did. It became a bestselling song. It indicates how some people, due to luck or because they are in the right place at the right time, achieve success without any plausible reason, which is precisely what happened to Lucas. He was as shallow a person as they come. Saki used to love to pen short stories describing the British elite and upper-middle-class families’ shallow and pretentious lives. Lucas liked to keep the company of stage and publishing personalities. He wanted grand ideas on which he could talk at length at even more lavish dinner or lunch parties. Lucas, the pretentious personage, became the national sensation because of plain simple luck. He also became a sensation because of the British people’s fickle-mindedness who like different things to entertain themselves and who took readily to the song ‘Cousin Teresa’.
If you wonder who ‘Caesar’, ‘Fido’, ‘Jock’, and a borzoi are, well, they are all dogs but not quite. They would be used in the opera created by Lucas but as wooden dogs on wheels flitting from one part of the stage to the other as the inane song was being sung. Saki’s detailed description of the ridiculous opera makes you laugh out loud. It is revealed to us that the whole idea of this song succeeding was impossible, but not improbable. The narration is tongue-in-cheek, crisp, and is in Saki’s usual hilarious style. The narrators are omnipresent and seem to tell the saga of how Lucas, the man of activities, became the man behind the greatest creation of that day, ‘Cousin Teresa’ from where we get the title of the short story.
A borzoi is a large Russian wolfhound of a breed with a narrow head and silky, typically white, coat. Saki satirizes that the other dogs in the song though of different breeds became so famous that even the preacher in the church spoke about the theological perspective of ‘Cousin Teresa’. On a serious note, this indicates how we, as human beings, are ready to absorb the sensational and highly suggestable at the hands of someone who is a master at selling crap. When something inane is told to us, we dwell more on it than something that can aid another person to a better life. Lucas’s success and ‘Cousin Teresa’ is the tale of the success of unique ideas that manage to permeate society and through the diffusion of ideas in society becomes a success.
Concerning the lyrics, an older woman of high repute and intelligence mentions how deep the song’s meaning is. This is indicative of the fact of how we seek meaning, even in things that have no deep sense. I recently read a book about how we make this same mistake when we read deep meaning in simple literary works. The book’s title is How to Read Literature and the author, Terry Eagleton, does an excellent job of explaining this standard human error in perception. Do check out the review of this book for your reference.
Everyone, including milkmen, messenger boys, and philosophers, repeatedly views the performance and makes a worthless and stupid opera into something that it is not. It is a potent message to us that we must not be so suggestible as the populace. With a discerning mind, we must understand the reality behind what we read, watch, and hear. We should be able to analyze and distinguish between a fact and a lie. Use your discernment even if the whole world seems to have gone barking mad because if one rice grain can tip the scale, even one person’s sound reasoning can make or break society’s rationality.
Ironically, Lucas, and not Basset, is knighted and comes into the honors list because of’ Cousin Teresa’. Colonel Harrowcluff gets to see the name of one of his son’s, though the least deserving, in the honor’s list. He wouldn’t have been glad about it, but then again, his docility as a person compounded the problem. When something is going majorly wrong in society, and you know something about it or the actual truth, don’t sit back and distance yourself from society. Don’t be like Basset and the Colonel but speak and make the fact known so that a firm judgment on the matter can be made. Ironically, ‘Cousin Teresa’ assures Lucas, a place in literature. Don’t create more idiots in places of power like Lucas; get the Bassets on the honors list now.
I have always loved Saki’s short story, ‘Cousin Teresa’. It is one of the best modernist Edwardian short stories that befits our present times and political situation. I genuinely believe that a good piece of writing evolves with different meanings over time, and so does Saki’s literature. I have reviewed many of Saki’s short stories on my blog; do check them out for your reference. I hope to review and analyze more of Saki’s short stories soon. If you want to know more about my analysis of the situation we are currently in, you can check out my short story on Amazon titled ‘Coronavirus: Little Boys, Big Toys’. It reveals what my idea of real democracy is. If you want to know more about my life, you can check out my memoir on the products page titled Scenes of a Reclusive Writer & Reader of Mumbai. Do check them out; you’ll not regret it.
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