H.H. Munro, writing under the name of Saki, was first introduced to the London literary scene in 1899, and only a year later, he was becoming well-known as a witty social critic. This reputation has stayed with him until the present-day, more than eighty years after his untimely 1916 death on the battlefields of World War I. Saki took his pseudonym from a reference in the poetry of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, which was translated into English in the 1850s. It is perhaps ironic that Saki should have drawn his name from this book of poetry which so captivated the attention of the generation ready to take charge of England in the Edwardian Age, for a main thrust of Saki’s work was to make fun of the elite who inhabited Edwardian England.
Saki’s reputation as a master of the short story, earned during his own lifetime, places him in a class along with Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. But even though his fiction has drawn commentary from such notables as Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett, in general, little critical attention has been paid to it. Some readers simply believe that Saki’s work exists for the readers, not the critics, that its “exquisite lightness.. .offers no grasp for the solemnities of earnest criticism.” Other readers find Saki to be merely an entertainer, at worst, one who draws light and overly contrived plots. These readers point to Saki’s reliance on convenient literary tricks, such as the surprise ending found in “The Open Window,” but they overlook that an able writer is necessary to make it credible.
The majority of critics who do interest themselves with an analysis of Saki’s fiction focus on the funny side of his work, seeing him as a humorist or a comic writer. Alternately, he has been seen as a satirist, one who conveys a critical attitude toward British society of his time. This is not surprising considering that Westminister Alice, the series of sketches that brought Saki fame, was filled with biting political humor— “combustible” according to Saki’s editor. Critics have also discussed the practical joke, which is Saki’s most often-used comic device. As the practical joke is such a childish prank, it has generally been seen as representing Saki’s own “lost childhood.” From the age of two, Saki grew up in a household comprised of his grandmother and two unmarried aunts—his father being away in India—who ruled strictly and impersonally. Of the relationship between Saki’s rearing and the fiction he creates around the practical jokes played by children, Greene has said, “It is tempting. . .to see in Saki the boy who never grew up, avenging himself on his aunts.” Almost all serious Saki critics have pointed to the cruel nature of Saki’s characters, finding in Saki “the casual heartlessness of childhood.”
Not all Saki’s stories have been subject to this intense scrutiny, and “The Open Window,” one of Saki’s best-loved stories, perhaps best exemplifies that “indolent, delightfully amusing world where nothing is ever solved, nothing altered, a world in short extremely like our own.” “The Open Window” centers around a practical joke played by fifteen-year-old Vera on a pompous man, Framton Nuttel, who is undergoing a “nerve cure.” The girl fabricates a tale of the tragic disappearance of her uncle and cousins, exactly three years ago, and of her aunt, who nevertheless faithfully (thus insanely) awaits their return each day. The “ghosts” come home, and Nuttel makes a “headlong retreat” from this “haunted” house. It is only after Nuttel is thus disposed of that the reader finds out that Vera made the story up, in fact, that “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” The story exhibits none of Saki’s typical satire, a point upon which even those most arduous proponents in the Saki as satirist camp agree; for in order to have satire, a story must arouse in the reader a desire to reform a situation along with contempt for those who create these wrongdoings.
What is more at debate in “The Open Window” is the level of cruelty or maliciousness on the part of Vera in playing the joke. In answering that question, an examination of Vera and Nuttel is necessary, a feat made more difficult, however, by the brevity of the story. Yet, even in the space of scarcely 1,200 words, the personality of Nuttel, the “jokee,” seems clear enough from the opening paragraphs. He is neurotic and of a self-imposed delicate psychological nature, hence his need to undergo a “nerve cure.” Coupled with these limitations is a weak and suggestible will. He has come to the Sappleton house, not at his own instigation but at the command of his sister, who was worried that he would “bury [himself] down there and not speak to a living soul.” Once there, he bemoans the “unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary,” never questioning that very coincidence or that his hostess hardly presents the picture of a delusional widow as she “rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter.” Nuttel is a bore, as well, going on in detail about his rest cure, being one of those people who “laboured under the tolerably wide-spread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities.” If the import of these characteristics do not add up to a person who deserves to be the butt of a practical joke, the reader only needs to consider his ridiculous name.
The intent of Vera plays a more crucial role in determining the nature of the practical joke. Clearly, she can have no seriously malicious purpose, for the joke has no forethought; Vera simply seized upon the opportunity of Nuttel’s unexpected arrival on her aunt’s doorstep. Nuttel and his awkwardness must have seemed like too much fun to pass up to this “very self-possessed young lady of fifteen,” and her quick reaction and creation of the ghost story show an ultra-active intelligence and imagination. The reader also is not privy to how much time Nuttel and Vera have spent together before the story begins. She could very well have discerned his self-absorption and decided he deserved to have such a trick played on him, a point upon which most readers would agree with her!
Nuttel’s uncertainty in even the most benign of social situations, evidenced by his endeavours “to say the correct something,” stands in stark contrast to Vera’s control of the situation. After quickly assessing Nuttel’s character, that he would make no mention of the “ghastly topic” to her aunt, she fabricates a story to fool him. The concrete details she includes—one brother’s habit of singing “Bertie, why do you bound?” and her aunt’s expectation of their return someday—all of which will take place, seem to confirm her ghost story. In her retelling of the tragic day, she is even clever enough to allow her “child’s voice” to lose “its self-possessed note and [become] falteringly human.” Saki was also one of the few writers of his day to use elements of the supernatural, and appropriately, Vera embellishes her tale by telling Nuttel of her “creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window “; when her very live uncle and cousins return, she “[stares] out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes.”
Vera not only fools Nuttel, but she also fools her aunt, who wonders at Nuttel’s hasty departure made “without a word of good-bye or apology.” Vera’s answer to her aunt would seem even more unbelievable than the story told to Nuttel: that he was afraid of her uncle’s spaniel because Nuttel “was once hunted into a cemetery on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave.” Perhaps the gullible Mrs. Sappleton actually deserves Vera’s pitying fashion of calling her “Poor dear aunt,” the same way Nuttel deserves to have the joke played on him. Though she is not the butt of the joke, Mrs. Sappleton surely has been bested by her niece, never realizing just how “amusing” Vera can truly be. In her manipulation of both of the adults, Vera demonstrates Saki’s view that “children have no power worth the name except their lies and retreats into fantasy.”
The successful ending of “The Open Window” depends on its surprise but also on the reader’s belief, along with Nuttel’s, that Vera is telling the truth. To ensure that Vera’s story will fool Nuttel, Saki makes use of many of the stereotypes and popularly held beliefs of his day. He exaggerates the unimaginative, staid world of adults, whereas Vera, like all of his children, is presented as the sole creator, the purveyor of fantasy and fun. That Vera emerges as the winner in this battle shows Saki’s own defense of “the glories of a fanciful concoction against stale reality.” Saki also uses the notion that girls were the more truthful sex and gives her a name that suggests truthfulness to make her tale less suspect. It is ironic that Saki used this stereotype to such effect even when he too believed that girls were less creative. He paid her a high compliment in making her an accomplished liar.
Saki must have found in Vera an effective character/trickster. A girl of the same name is the central figure in “The Lull,” a story written ten months after “The Open Window.” A now sixteen-year-old Vera spins a fantasy of a broken reservoir to keep a politician in need of relaxation from dwelling on politics. But “The Lull” differs greatly from “The Open Window.” Not only does it have more farcical elements, including pigs and a rooster running around the politician’s bedroom, but in this story the reader is privy to the hoax. “The Open Window” demonstrates a far more sophisticated joke, propelling it to the heights of a classic. Not only does it depict the age-old battle between those in power, adults, and those who must submit, children, while unexpectedly turning the usual order of this relationship completely around. It also gives a realistic setting for the unveiling of pure fantasy. That Vera’s story, blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, is so believable attests to Saki’s power as a writer. In addition to these theoretical and literary elements, “The Open Window” surely draws a good deal of its effectiveness from the knowledge in every reader that he or she has the potential to fall prey to such a clever girl and thus become another foolish Framton Nuttel.
Kathleen Wilson (Editor), Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 1, Saki, Published by Gale, 1997.
Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997