The Background by Saki (H.H. Munro)
In The Background by Saki we have the theme of ownership, pride, control, loss and freedom. Taken from his The Complete Short Stories collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and after reading the story it becomes clear to the reader that Saki may be exploring the theme of ownership. Deplis does not own the tattoo on his back. Rather it belongs to the municipality of Bergamo, having being presented to Bergamo by Pincini’s widow. Who having found out she is not to receive the full payment of 600 francs for the tattoo is annoyed with Deplis. This may be important as it is at this stage that the reader realises that the municipality of Bergamo is not prepared to let the tattoo (or Deplis) leave Italy. No longer does Deplis feel as though his life is his own with all of Italy becoming aware that Bergamo own the work of art that is Pincini’s last tattoo.
The theme of pride is self-evident in the story. The municipality of Bergamo take great pride in being the owners of the tattoo and it is also noted that at no stage do those in Bergamo take into consideration how Deplis might feel about becoming a prisoner of his own body. He is no longer allowed to bathe in salt water and is not allowed to leave Italy, regardless of the direction he would like to take his life in. It may also be significant that Deplis adheres to all the impositions imposed on him. He remains completely under the control of the municipality of Bergamo, even when he becomes an anarchist. Having being driven to become one by the circumstances he found himself in. Deplis cannot leave Italy. It is as though Deplis has lost the ability to be the one who leads or directs his life. In reality Deplis has lost his freedom
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The tattoo itself can obviously be seen as a symbol of control. As mentioned Deplis no longer has control of his life. Also the tattoo is considered to be the property of the municipality of Bergamo. Which may be the point that Saki is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that real ownership of a tattoo lies with the tattoo artist and not the recipient of the tattoo (Deplis). This might explain as to why those in Bergamo are happy to be given ownership of the tattoo. Pincini’s last tattoo is considered to be a work of art. To have value. More value in fact than Deplis may put on his life. The tattoo shines a positive light on the municipality of Bergamo. One of their favoured sons has produced a work of art and his widow has bestowed it to the municipality.
The end of the story is interesting as when the tattoo is destroyed by an anarchist who has a grievance with Deplis, it no longer is considered a work of art by the municipality of Bergamo and as such Deplis is allowed to leave Italy. Despite this sudden found freedom, Deplis is not a free man. His life becomes more intolerable when he arrives in France and through desperation and an inability to be independent, Deplis wishes for the French government to assist him. To take ownership of the tattoo and his life. In reality the years of control that have befallen Deplis come back and take over his life again. Regardless of the fact that the tattoo has been destroyed and Deplis should feel free. He becomes reliant and dependent on others to assist him. It is as though Deplis is unable to free himself from the (now destroyed) tattoo. His life has become as unimaginable in France as it had been in Italy.