Politeness theory and the complicit hearer-reader in Saki’s ‘The Talking-out of Tarrington’

It is assumed that Tarrington is angling for an invitation to a picnic to be held in honour of an unspecified princess. Clovis’ aunt does not wish to issue such an invitation and when she sees Tarrington approaching, she quits the scene, advising Clovis to pretend that he has not met Tarrington before. Tarrington attacks Clovis’ negative face in that he prevents Clovis from going about his business unimpeded; his tactic is to perform an off-record communicative act, meaning that he does not state his true purpose in approaching Clovis (B&L, 1987: 211), and he tries to obtain what he wants – the picnic invitation – by virtue of his due as an acquaintance. Tarrington’s off-record tactic informs Clovis’ strategy, which is to force Tarrington by various means to move progressively closer towards an on-record act. The number of possible pragmatic interpretations behind Tarrington’s utterances are reduced each time Clovis forces him to produce a more specific utterance, leaving Tarrington with less and less room to manoeuvre. Clovis has anticipated that Tarrington is unlikely to go so far as to issue a direct request for an invitation to the picnic because in the light of Clovis’ failure to recognise their acquaintance, a refusal would be the most likely outcome. Clovis is apparently correct in his appraisal of the situation and Tarrington gives up before he is cornered into the humiliating position of having to state his purpose directly.

The means employed by Clovis to dismiss his unwanted intruder can be briefly summarised as follows. He denies Tarrington the opportunity to establish common ground in his failure to acknowledge the presupposed background knowledge, firstly by refusing to recognise him and secondly by denying that his aunt eats lunch at all. He ignores the illocutionary force of Tarrington’s utterances and focuses solely on the locutionary act: in taking Tarrington’s utterances entirely at face-value, Clovis leads him into making increasingly explicit statements which cumulatively diminish Tarrington’s chances of success. Clovis deliberately confuses an anaphoric referent in pretending that he thinks Tarrington is referring to his aunt instead of his aunt’s having allegedly given up eating lunch. This frustrates Tarrington into an open declaration of the existing acquaintance and Clovis responds by breaking the Gricean maxim of relevance (Grundy 2008). In fact, in Gricean terms, Clovis is quite simply being uncooperative at every step of the way, but Tarrington is obliged to play along with Clovis’ game in order to keep the conversation going.

Tarrington’s opening gambit (¶1) is presented in the form of a Narrative Report of a Speech Act (NRSA), a form of speech presentation in which the narrator tells the reader only that a speech act has taken place, without representing anything of the form of the utterance. Leech and Short (2007) note that this format is ‘useful for summarising relatively unimportant stretches of conversation’ (259-60); in this case one can imagine that Tarrington’s ‘overtures’ take the form of a fairly conventional greeting or some sort of neutral phatic token. Simpson notes that ‘in this initial conversational phase the psychological comfort of the co-participants is most at risk [so] the topic of the phatic tokens should be emotionally uncontroversial material’ (1989a: 49, Simpson’s emphasis). But in choosing to present Tarrington’s greeting as an NRSA, the narrator shifts attention away from the utterance and focuses instead on Clovis’ reaction to being addressed, a move which both erects a barrier between Tarrington and the reader and increases the perceived magnitude of his FTA. The extent of the attack on Clovis’ negative face is emphasised further through use of a passive construction (‘were being received by’) to depict Clovis as the enforced recipient of Tarrington’s communications. Clovis’ response is one of pretended bemusement, encapsulated in the narratorial description of the ‘ “silent-upon-a-peak-in-Darien” stare’ with which he greets Tarrington. The relevance of the phrase adapted from the final line of Keats’ sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer (495-96) lies in the fact that the speaker is looking at something never seen before.

In terms of the concept introduced by Schegloff and Sacks (1973), Tarrington’s greeting is one-half of an ‘adjacency pair’. A greeting is an utterance intended to provoke an answering utterance, for which there will be a preferred and a dispreferred option; for example, an invitation can be met with either an acceptance or a refusal. A greeting such as the one the reader imagines Tarrington to make is intended to elicit a similar or appropriate response, but Clovis makes no reply – and this, in fact, is his first move in the game. In failing to respond as expected to an utterance which conventionally requires a particular response, and in refusing to take his conversational turn (Sacks, Schlegoff and Jefferson 1974), Clovis obliges Tarrington to explain the reason behind his FTA more explicitly and to express himself in a manner more on-record.

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