An Analysis of Saki’s “Adrian”
Commentary by Karen Bernardo
This little tale by Saki (H.H. Munro) pokes fun another of the favorite pastimes of the wealthy during the Victorian-Edwardian era: traveling to exotic places. Wealthy women, particularly, loved to travel, but until well into the twentieth century it was not considered appropriate for a woman to travel alone. Susan Mebberly, a very imperious elderly woman, therefore brings along a retinue of companions when she goes to vacation in the Alps. One of these is a young man who goes by the name of Adrian, of whom she really knows nothing; she simply saw him eating dinner with her nephew Lucas in London, and concluded that she liked the looks of him. “He has delightful hair and a weak mouth. I shall take him with me to Homburg or Cairo,” she tells Lucas. Lucas tries to tell her this might be dangerous; he doesn’t know Adrian that well himself, and “he may not be at all nice, you know, on further acquaintance.”
Lucas, in fact, knows much more than he’s told his aunt. He knows, for example, that Adrian’s name isn’t Adrian at all, it’s John Henry, but he has taken the pseudonym Adrian because it sounds more upper-crust. Lucas has evasively told his Aunt Susan that Adrian’s mother “works among the poor,” allowing her to assume she does voluntary mission work (which was an acceptable “outlet” for an upper-class woman); in truth, however, Adrian’s mother works in a laundry. And Lucas knows that Adrian comes from a very working-class neighborhood called Bethnal Green. When he nearly slips and tells his aunt this, he cuts his words off at “Beth—” and Mrs. Mebberly concludes that Beth is some sort of consulate address.
Mrs. Mebberly has made several critical mistakes. First, she assumes that people of the lower classes—that is, laundresses and their offspring—are easy to pick out. Adrian has obviously worked hard to eliminate from his demeanor and speech any clues that would tie him to his real background. But second, Mrs. Mebberly assumes that all people who appear to be of her own class (or just one notch below it) are automatically “nice.” Adrian is not nice. The humorous anecdotes we hear about his behavior in Switzerland do not paint him as a homicidal maniac by any means, but he is clearly one whom one can dress up but not take out.
At the end of the story, she sends Lucas, back in London, a letter with only one sentence: “In heaven’s name, where is Beth?”
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