‘The Byzantine Omelette’ is contained in the last volume of collected short stories by British writer Hector Hugh Munro or H.H. Munro, whose pen name was Saki. The collection ‘Beasts and Super Beasts’ was published in 1914 by Saki just before he was sent as an officer at the awkward age of 44 to fight during the First World War. A German sniper shot him during his deployment in France in the year 1916. This story titled ‘The Byzantine Omelette’ is yet another hilarious and satirical story mocking the affluent members of British society who are only concerned with their status, class distinctions, fame, and wealth instead of the many real issues that society faces. They are misinformed either innocently or simply oblivious about the real world, making a fool of themselves in the bargain.
Summary of ‘The Byzantine Omelette’
Sophie Chattel-Monkheim had married into the wealthy family of Monkheim. She poses to favour Socialism and attends Fabian conferences and British drawing room meetings where she speaks eloquently about the evils of Capitalism. However, she was a hypocrite and enjoyed her riches. One day in the spring season, she invited the Duke of Syria to be a guest at her home. She promised to treat him to a Byzantine Omelette, which the duke was fond of. He could not stop talking about it as they drove back from the station to her mansion. To make sure he got his Byzantine or Asian omelette, Sophie had especially hired an emergency chef named Gaspare to prepare the omelette at a lavish dinner party for the affluent in her friend circles. Unfortunately for her, Gaspare, though a marvellous chef, was also a troublemaker and had been a strike breaker during a servant staff strike two years ago. When the servant staff of Sophie’s mansion heard about Gaspare’s appointment, they immediately, like most unions do, ‘downed tools’ and went on strike until Gaspare was dismissed. Sophie, at that moment, was having her hair done up by Richardson, a maidservant, who at once stopped doing Sophie’s hairdo. Since she could not go to dinner with undone hair nor do the hairdo herself without Richardson, Sophie was thinking of having a word with the staff. She was later interrupted by another rich and frivolous guest named Catherine Malsom, who also was looking ghastly because she too was being done up for the dinner party, and her makeup was left halfway by her servant. In turn, Catherine’s husband Henry was stuck in a Turkish Bath with the lever turned on ‘bearable’ and ‘scarcely bearable’, which were the hot steam levers. His servant managing the Bath left Henry in it and ‘downed tools’, and Henry, for his part, did not know how to get out on his own or stop the Bath. Catherine was certain that before dinner, she would be a widow! Henry ended up quite burnt but was saved because Sophie called Gaspare to the library and dismissed him. The servant staff then went back to work, and Sophie thought all had returned to normal, and she would make do without the omelette as long as everyone would look good for the party and have dinner. However, when the dinner was about to be served that evening, a butler emerged from the kitchen to inform Sophie that there would be no dinner that night since Gaspare had been dismissed, the Union of Cooks and Kitchen Employees had ‘downed tools and utensils’. Apparently, the kitchen staff belonged to a different union from that of the servant staff. Sophie landed up with a failed dinner and a nervous breakdown which Saki mentioned she only got over after eighteen months and after she stopped visiting any Fabian Conferences and Socialist Drawing Room Meetings. She, therefore, had gotten over her fascination with trade unions and Socialism and the pretensions of the rich.
Analysis of ‘The Byzantine Omelette’
The fiction of Saki is like a well-preserved pick from a precious cellar – to be sipped at leisure -the bottle is then corked for another helping. Blended with assured entertainment, Saki never fails to provide a liberal dose of caustic banter in his writings.Wilco Publishing (Introduction to their Giant Classic Library title ‘Collected Stories of Saki’ Edition 2011)
The following is an analysis of ‘The Byzantine Omelette’ by Saki, which, like the wine of his other hilarious and ironic stories, brings out a delightful flavour to savour for all time. The analysis will be done under various headings pertaining to the main themes, morals, allusions, and other unique details related to the text.
General Background of ‘The Byzantine Story’
The story tells the tale of an affluent woman called Sophie Chattel Monkheim, who considers socialism to be a sort of fashion trend that she wishes to pretend to believe in and follow so long as she remains rich and socialism will not spread to her side of the world for the whole of her lifetime! Saki, having spent time as a newspaper correspondent in Russia when it turned communist in the early part of the 20th century, derides the affluent citizens of the world and Britishers like Sophie as well as certain basic tenets of Communism in this short story titled ‘The Byzantine Omelette’.
He tries to indicate that human beings, as a species, enjoy psychologically the idea of having divisions in society, especially divisions between the rich and the poor. The condescension to a more simple way of life and turning socialism into a complete reality is not something that most people would love to do, especially not those who have enjoyed the benefits of Capitalism all their lives. Sophie Chattel Monkheim also is no different and has no real convictions regarding the equal distribution of wealth. She, in fact, falls into a mess of trouble when the two opposing union groups of servants at her mansion ‘down tools’ or go on strike, which she never manages to get over.
‘The Byzantine Omelette’, with which she wanted to please the Duke of Syria, was what led to her getting into trouble with her staff and elite guests alienating her from Socialists as well as Conservatives. Thus, Saki teaches the reader the moral lesson that one cannot bake one’s cake and eat it at the same time. One cannot profess Socialism and still wish to retain the benefits of Capitalism. ‘The Byzantine Omelette’ is also a typical hilarious satirical piece penned by the cynical Saki to deride George Bernard Shaw’s book ‘Man and Superman’. It is an indictment of the hypocrisy in society that favours inequality though it professes an ‘urge’ towards ‘so called’ equality. Saki truly knew the pros and cons of Socialism and Capitalism because of his stay in Russia. Unfortunately, he did not live longer to dwell more on this point in his humorous pieces, which can be compared to Oscar Wilde, who, like Saki, was also part of the LGBTQIA community.
Saki mocks the absurdness of the rich and their dependence upon the poor in this text.
The omelette to be prepared was a rarity which was made with a lot of vegetables, milk, and oil, which needed a professional. This kind of meal was usually prepared in a way similar to that of Rome in the ancient period but with a Turkish touch to it. That is why it was probably called ‘The Byzantine Omelette’ from the literal point of view. From the metaphorical point of view, the Duke of Syria was an Islamic nobleman who liked the Byzantine Omelette, and so to please him and maintain her superiority, Sophie Chattel Monkheim had managed to get Gaspare probably from Paris to prepare this odd omelette. Socialism and Communism were still a bit foreign to England when this story was penned, and so Saki has tried to depict Sophie as a foolish woman who did not know the repercussions of hiring Gaspare, keeping the Duke of Syria as a guest, and, most importantly, having too many servants belonging to various union groups in her mansion. Therefore, the situation she found herself in was quite unique and foreign to her part of the world, so it was ‘A Byzantine Omelette’ or a Byzantine mess! Also, Henry was stuck in a Turkish Bath which he carried with him wherever he went even though he could not operate it himself. His being trapped in the Turkish Bath during the strike of the servant staff is also a subtle allusion to the title of this short story. One would say humorously that Henry almost got ‘pickled’ in a Turkish Bath! Saki usually uses these uniquely worded titles to entice readers to read his short stories. After reading the text, one realizes the reasoning behind the title and laughs some more.
Saki or H.H. Munro Mocking Elitism
In his short story collection, ‘Beasts and Super Beasts’, Saki mocks the rich and brings out their frivolousness, pretensions, and hypocritical behaviour. He especially hits out at affluent women who are unemotional, pretentious, and proud, like his tyrannical paternal aunts. This is why he always mocks this class of people, as his aunts ill-treated him. Sophie, too, is mocked by him as he brings out her inadequacies as a true socialist, her pride, her misplaced priorities, and her idiocy. Through her guests Catherine and Henry, one also realizes that the British elite was only interested in their wealth and prestige and in having a good time at the expense of the poor. They pretended to favour Socialism and equality but were not willing to give up their comfortable lives for the sake of the same. They were oblivious to the real nature of the developments in the world. They indulged in idiotic pastimes like bathing in a Turkish Bath at somebody else’s home, almost getting roasted in the bargain. Sophie favoured Socialism but could not tolerate trade union strikes which was hypocritical on her part. She may have been a so-called Socialist, but as indicated, she did not make it a point to check out which of her employees belonged to which kind of union; all she wanted was to get her work done and please her rich guests at any cost. This is evident from the text and Gaspare’s name that she had probably hired him from Paris. She even states that if she had to replace him, she would again have to enquire about another chef from Paris. Also, she does not care that she does not know the Duke of Syria personally; she invited him, a complete stranger, to her mansion because he had a very high social standing in society which would increase her prestige in her upper-class society.
Bible Allusion or Not
In the first part of the text, there is a mention of Sophie Chattel-Monkheim as a so-called socialist who does not like social divisions or social and economic divisions in society. However, if, in any case, there were going to be these divisions, then she would rather indulge in the best of them rather than the worst. In a satirical and ironic tone of voice, Saki states that where the rich Duke of Syria was concerned, even though he professed he was of a high social class, Sophie would ‘love’ him and not his ‘sin’ of maintaining his social class. This is ironic because it was not he who was sinning but she. This is brought out in the line:
She was broad-minded enough to love the sinner while hating the sin.The Byzantine Omelette by Saki or H.H. Munro
The above quote is NOT an allusion to the Bible or any Biblical text. It is just a common aphorism used, which generally people mistake to have come from the Bible. It is a common phrase that we infer from the happenings in the Bible. In a way, this text, not being Biblical, indirectly shows that Sophie was not only not a good Socialist but not even good at her Bible! Saki puts this line in the short story to indicate that she lived by this as a religious dictum, but it was not a religious dictum from the Holy Book of the Christians. In fact, conservative theologians world over indicate that many Christians and Catholics are deluded into thinking this line was said by Jesus or any of his apostles, though that is partly the idea that comes across, especially from the New Testament.
Evils of Socialism
Like the pros and cons of Capitalism and elitism, one major flaw in Socialism is highlighted in this text. It pertains to trade unions, where different workers belong to different unions with different ideologies and interpretations about Socialism, which ultimately often does not get much work done since everyone keeps on having differences. Other major issues with Socialism are, of course, the psychological and humanitarian factors, which was obvious even to Saki back at the time when he was in Russia during the Communist Revolution. He also satirizes and mocks the same cynically in this story by indicating the hilarious behaviour of the servants, especially the hairdo maid Richardson. She belonged to the servants’ trade union not because she believed in socialism, which she called plain ‘wicked’, but because she needed to keep her job, and to be part of the trade union was compulsory. Indirectly, she was also ridiculing her employer, stating that now Sophie was getting her just desserts for preferring too much socialism to Capitalism which she was only meant for. Saki knew that George Bernard Shaw was a member of the Fabian Society of his time and so indirectly mocks him in this story by indicating that Shaw did not know the meaning of a democratic socialist state.
A Turkish Bath is the privilege of the rich. Henry was indulging in it and carried a machine for the purpose with him wherever he went. It is a cleansing or relaxing treatment that involves sitting in a room filled with very hot air or steam, generally followed by washing and massage. He was stuck in a tiny Turkish bathtub that he could not operate because he depended on his male servant’s help. The servant could not help him further because of the strike and was so wrathful towards his silly employer that he would not even tell him how to get out of the tub! He, therefore, was being burnt in the ridiculous machine because of his frivolousness. The image of Catherine’s husband, Henry, being cooked in a tub like this is comical.
Fabian Society, a socialist society founded in 1884 in London, had as its goal the establishment of a democratic socialist state in Great Britain. The Fabians put their faith in evolutionary socialism rather than in revolution.Britannica.com Encyclopedia (Article on ‘Fabian Society’)
George Bernard Shaw was a member of this society, which Saki wished to point out indirectly in this text. Sophie indulged herself by visiting these society meetings and speaking about socialism.
Pattern of Saki’s or H.H. Munro’s humorous stories
There is a predictable pattern observed in the latter humorous tales of Saki. The pattern is as follows:
- Comical rich character
- Their situation or event
- The atmosphere
- The problem
- The hilarious repercussions stemming from the problem
- The solution
- The recovery of the comical rich character
Concerning the part about the ‘the solution,’ Saki always manages to foil those who think they are well placed, better off, and proud. In this story, though Sophie thought that solution to her problem would be dismissing Gaspare, little did she know about the kitchen staff having a different union. This is the twist in the tale created by Saki, which is similar to that of his American counterpart O. Henry and his Russian counterpart Anton Chekhov. Even the kitchen rolls were removed from the dinner table, indicating that even utensils and cutlery would not be available for dinner. No way would Sophie be able to call back Gaspare nor get another kitchen staff to supplement her immediate needs.
Thus, ends ‘The Byzantine Omelette’, one of the many tales in the collection ‘Beasts and Super-Beasts’. Though there was no mention of any ‘beast’ or animal in this short story, it is evident that our love for social and economic division is probably the greater beast in society. The only way to kill this ‘beast’ is not through Communism but through love, compassion, and mercy. One cannot be forced to feel compassion and mercy for people experiencing poverty; it just should be there within you. And once we tap into this mercy, equal distribution of wealth won’t need to be done by force or dictatorship but through a willingness to let go for the sake of others in need.
I enjoyed re-reading and analyzing this short story by British short story writer Saki. I plan to re-read and analyze more of his short stories soon. If you want to read some humorous abridged classics for younger readers, you can check out my Rare Classics Series titles like The Canterville Ghost by Oscar Wilde and The Diary of a Nobody by George and Weedon Grossmith. If you are interested in reading an award-winning collection of LGBTQIA short stories, you can check out my short story collection titled The Love That Dare Not Speak Its Name. I hope to read and review more British short stories soon.
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