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In the short story, Reginald on the Academy, Saki writes:

“To be clever in the afternoon argues that one is dining nowhere in the evening.”

What does this mean?

(EDIT: Some additional context is provided by the preceding 5 lines:

“I suffered in that way just now,” said Reginald plaintively, “from a woman whose word I had to take that she had met me last summer in Brittany.”

“I hope you were not too brutal?”

“I merely told her with engaging simplicity that the art of life was the avoidance of the unattainable.”

“Did she try and work it out on the back of her catalogue?”

“Not there and then. She murmured something about being ‘so clever.’ Fancy coming to the Academy to be clever!”

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2 Answers 2

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Without more context it could mean

  1. People want their dinner guests to be dull and staid, to avoid offense. Being clever in the afternoon risks having no one be willing to have you as a guest. (Invitations to formal dinner parties generally had more lead time, against this, but he may not be too serious.)
  2. Someone who is going to a dinner party will want to be witty, charming, and sparkling at it, rather than being clever for people he merely meets in the afternoon, but someone who tries to impress those people has no one he will want to impress at dinner.

The additional context points to its being the second possibility: he was being clever at the Academy because he would not be clever at dinner.

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    This isn't English SE where the meaning of a phrase can be analysed without context. The point of Literature SE is rather to analyse meaning in context, in this case a story which the OP has helpfully linked to on Project Gutenberg.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 22, 2020 at 15:17
  • I actually think these are both reasonable answers, as there's not much more context in that particular Saki story at least. Oct 6, 2020 at 7:02
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First, the afternoon/evening contrast doesn't have any substantive meaning (the key to understanding the phrase doesn't have anything to do with something occurring in the afternoon vs. something occurring in the evening): the phrase could just as easily have been, "To be clever one day argues that one is dining nowhere the next."

As for an interpretation of the phrase, it helps to look at the context of the Reginald dialogues as Saki created them and the character of Reginald and this dialogue ("Reginald on the Academy") in particular. The dialogues often consist of witty repartee which grant the reader, through dramatic irony, to see one of the interlocutors taken down in a way that the interlocutor him or herself isn't even aware of.

The phrase in question is best understood as a benign jab at Reginald made by 'the Other', one that in a case of dramatic irony seems to go right over Reginald's head. Reginald has just been sort of "humblebragging" by repeating the clever retort he made earlier in the day about happiness in life being avoidance of the unattainable (which makes the phrase originally asked about doubly ironic given that he then starts fishing for an invitation to dinner that he doesn't get). The woman at the academy, he also repeats, said something about (presumably Reginald being) 'so clever'. The Other takes Reginald down a notch by uttering the phrase in question.

The meaning is simply that smart people, yes, but even more people who think themselves smart and witty (and 'clever') aren't usually or even often the people that one likes to be around and have at dinners, which receives its brutal confirmation a couple of lines later when Reginald asks about that invitation to dinner the Other presumably had extended to Reginald, only to be informed by the Other that there was no such invitation.

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