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

Tarrington’s progression from off-record to on-record acts can be clearly seen in the following successive statements (numbered as they appear in the Appendix), and the means employed by Clovis to force this progression are explored in the discussion below.

¶2)  “I expect you don’t know me with my moustache…I’ve only grown it during the last two months.”

¶4)  “My name is Tarrington,”

¶7)  “I think you ought to remember my name — ”

¶9)  “I met you at luncheon at your aunt’s house once — ”

¶13) “I perfectly well remember meeting you at a luncheon-party given by your aunt,”

Tarrington’s first remark rendered in direct speech (¶2) provides Clovis with an opportunity to redress the damage he has done to Tarrington’s positive face in not recognising him. In mentioning that his appearance has changed since last they met, Tarrington both asserts that the two men have met before and simultaneously provides Clovis with a get-out clause in that Tarrington looks different and therefore may not be immediately recognisable. Tarrington’s additional statement referring to the amount of time elapsed since growing his moustache provides Clovis with a time-frame – it is more than two months since they met – and Tarrington has thus effectively furnished Clovis with the information he needs in order to recognise and remember him.

Tarrington’s attempt to establish common ground is rebuffed, however, because Clovis refuses to recognise anything but the moustache. In politeness theory terms, Clovis is ignoring the presupposed background knowledge, or the ‘information that is accommodated by the addressee as part of the non-controversial background necessary for utterance [sic] to be a sensible or an appropriate thing to say’ (Grundy 2008: 48), and Chilton notes that ‘[p]resupposition and invited implicature are important techniques [which] can lead to hearers’ inferences. Off-record strategies thus rely heavily on presupposed background knowledge’ (1990: 206). Tarrington is using the fact of the previous acquaintance as a background against which his utterances make sense, but if Clovis does not recognise that background, there is little Tarrington can do except produce a more explicitly on-record utterance in an attempt to jog Clovis’ memory.

Clovis has failed to recognise Tarrington’s face, so Tarrington is forced to reveal his name in a simple locutionary act (¶4). The illocutionary force behind this utterance is clear: Tarrington is hoping that Clovis will recognise the name of the man with whom he once lunched, but the perlocutionary effect, however, is not the recognition Tarrington had intended. Clovis chooses to ignore the illocutionary force entirely and treats Tarrington’s utterance as a simple locution in responding with an improvisation on a theme of the properties of the name ‘Tarrington’. And Clovis brushes aside Tarrington’s next reply in exactly the same way, by ignoring the illocutionary force of ¶7. Tarrington’s phrase ‘my name’ is metonymic in this instance – he means of course that Clovis should remember his entire person and the circumstances of their former meeting – but Clovis deliberately misinterprets the utterance and once again chooses to understand only the locution, assuming that he is merely being required to commit the name ’Tarrington’ to memory.

The utterances in ¶9 and ¶13 are identical locutionary acts with a similar illocutionary force, viz. Tarrington twice openly declares that the two have met before and in doing so, he expects Clovis to acknowledge their acquaintance and to issue the desired invitation. The difference between ¶9 and ¶13 is one of tone: Tarrington’s adverbial ‘perfectly well’ is superfluous to the locution and semantically empty in itself, but it functions as an intensifier and thereby gives an indication of Tarrington’s frustration. Indeed, utterances ¶9 and ¶13 both lack the kind of hedging we see in ¶7: ‘I think…’. The absence of any kind of redress in Tarrington’s utterance prompts Clovis to change his strategy, and he manages to dismiss Tarrington once and for all when he breaks Grice’s maxim of relevance by asking what was served for lunch. Tarrington cannot move any further on-record without risking a very serious blow to his positive face, and he is forced to retreat.

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