‘Down Pens’ by Saki or Hector Hugh Munro: Short Story Analysis
‘Down Pens’ is a satirical short story penned to ridicule the way upper-middle-class families used to send shallow thank-you notes to each other. The story is set during the Edwardian era and is written by Saki (Hector Hugh Munro), one of the great masters of early twentieth century short stories. Saki was fond of satirizing the British elite and their many quirks. I have reviewed other short stories by Saki, which you can refer to on my blog. This story satirizes the conventional formality of sending thank-you messages for the gifts received at Christmas and other occasions. Not only are such thank-you notes insincere but random gifts are chosen without considering the preferences of the receiver. Humor is at the heart of this story, and the story is set in an upper-middle-class home in Britain.
There are only two plot drivers or characters in this story, who are Egbert and Janetta. These two characters often appear in many of Saki’s satirical pieces. More than plot, this short story deals with the witty and very satirically rich but cynical dialogues shared between Egbert and his wife, Janetta. The story begins with Egbert inquiring whether Janetta had written a thank-you note to the Froplinsons for their Christmas gift that year. Notice the surname of ‘Froplinsons’, which quickly brings to our minds the term ‘foppish’ or, as one would put it, concerned with his clothes and appearance in an affected and excessive way. In other words, ‘keeping up impressions’, which is the key to opening this short story’s lock to how everyone in the high and middle-class society likes to keep up appearances. Being excessively insincere is the central theme of this short story.
Janetta tells Egbert that she has exhausted herself and spent all her energy writing eleven thank-you letters of ‘servile amiability’. She wrote nine such letters the previous day and eleven that very same day, and now she was tired, which is indicative of how lazy and undriven she was in life. On the other hand, Egbert has written as many letters as Janetta and a lot of business correspondence. He, however, is as shallow a person as Janetta but a bit less cynical. Janetta’s talent for laugh-out-loud phrases is noteworthy with regards to thank-you notes or gratitude cards. But she is beat and lays down her pen. She can’t write any more thank-you cards unless she is given a chance to be acerbically truthful. Janetta will put down her pen several times, and that is where we get our title ‘down pens’ because there is a need to write a note of gratitude, but they are mere words without any substance behind them.
Egbert then goes on to help Janetta. He proposes to dictate the letter while Janetta would write what he said. Janetta would interrupt Egbert many times in his dictation until Egbert decides to pick up the pen to write a letter to the editors of all newspapers to create awareness about ‘thank-you notes during Christmas’. But coming back to the interruptions, we see that whenever Janetta interrupts Egbert, she has a valid point to make about the issues in his words of thanks. One thing is sure: the Froplinsons sent them a calendar of probably William Wordsworth’s quotes, and they didn’t care at all for the gift. However, if Egbert thanked them:
- The Froplinsons would conclude that they liked William Wordsworth and forever send more William Wordsworth merchandise every festive occasion, especially at Christmas.
- If they just merely thanked them, it would be too dry a remark.
- If they made an intelligent remark about politics, they felt the Froplinsons would not understand as they were neither smart nor had shown any political leanings.
The tone of Egbert and Janetta’s conversation is cynical but accurate. We often gift people things that they are not interested in but which is inexpensive. There is also a tendency on festive occasions to give something we are interested in but not necessarily the receiver. We tend to gift the same types of items to the same person if they, in the past, have mentioned that they have liked the gifts sent by the giver. The cynical dialogues truth is rich in subtle humor and very lucidly put by Saki to see the silly side to this ritual we have of gifting and then thanking.
Note that even Janetta had gifted the Froplinsons some cheap bridge-markers; she had bought them for a pittance, just nine pence. She, too, did not care because the Froplinsons did not play bridge at all. One should not look at the ‘social deformities’ of a receiver when choosing the gift. It’s like gifting a fish a Walkman even though we know fishes can’t use it (However, I am ready to be surprised!). Egbert and Janetta are shallow creatures who don’t care for anyone in their social circle but still want to put on a show of gratitude.
Then we come to the letter Egbert wishes to send to the editors of newspapers. I call this my ‘Amazon’ part of the story; Egbert calls it the ‘counterfoil business’. We know how Amazon works:
- You buy a book (hopefully mine) on Amazon on the 1st of September.
- Amazon notes the date the book was purchased.
- Amazon dispatches the book on another date, which is notified.
- The Amazon delivery boy comes to your doorstep, and you check the package.
- There on the box is the consignment date when paid for, dispatched, and the purchaser.
- If there is no Coronavirus, you can sign the delivery note which the courier man takes back to his workplace, and you are left to read your book in peace.
Well, that is what Egbert or rather Saki thought up in this story titled ‘Down Pens’, which was penned in the early twentieth century when Amazon was not in existence. He says that the counterfoil method should work in the same way, the same way Amazon operates. The courier system operates in the same manner, but in my country (India, Mumbai), it does not work on similar lines as Amazon. That is why I call Egbert’s counterfoil business an Amazon part of the story. He wishes such delivery personnel existed with pens in hand ready with package and date when the gift had been issued out, and then the receiver has to sign a short note of thanks, and the delivery boy is off. Do look this story up, and never let me hear you say that writers don’t prophesize.
Janetta, however, isn’t so appreciative of our Amazon method of functioning. She feels it is too dry and impersonal. Egbert makes a joke about how he would miss letters from Aunt Susan about the uncooked hams, but otherwise, the following should be carried out by all:
- Either make it compulsory for people not to write any thank-you notes for Christmas gifts during the Christmas season between the 24th of December and the 4th of January; people should be allowed to enjoy their Christmas and gifts in peace.
- Or use the counterfoil business method or, as I have put it, the Amazon method.
The story ends with an exclamation of exasperation from Janetta. The problem is not solved; theories have only been discussed. It is still an issue which of them is going to write a thank-you note to the Froplinsons. We are left with the feeling that a thank-you note must have been written because that is what people will always do to keep up appearances.
I have always loved this short story of Saki. I read it when I was a young adult of nineteen. Saki’s short stories have influenced my collection of LGBTQIA short stories titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name, which won the 2018 Digital Book World Award. Do check it out on Amazon; it will be worth your while. I hope to review more of Saki’s work soon. He is a brilliant writer who defined satirical literature in the Edwardian period.
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