By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘The Lumber-Room’ is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults. Specifically, it is about how one clever but mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities. But the story might also be viewed as an analysis of the nature of obedience, and the limited adult view of the world, when contrasted with the child’s more expansive and imaginative outlook. You can read ‘The Lumber-Room’ here.
In his Biography, Saki – real name Hector Hugh Munro – recalled his childhood of the 1870s, in which ‘the flower and vegetable gardens were surrounded by high walls and a hedge, and on rainy days we were kept indoors’ where the ‘windows [were] shut and shuttered’. It may be, then, that the adult Munro – reinvented as the Edwardian fiction-writer Saki – was recalling his own upbringing in ‘The Lumber-Room’, which sees the young Nicholas being kept indoors as punishment, deprived of the ‘treat’ of a trip to Jagborough Sands and denied access to the gooseberry garden outside the house.
But Nicholas is smarter than the aunt who endeavours to keep him indoors. First of all, he is told he will not be allowed to accompany his siblings on their day trip, because he refused to eat his bread-and-milk:
Only that morning he had refused to eat his wholesome bread-and-milk on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it. Older and wiser and better people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense; he continued, nevertheless, to talk what seemed the veriest nonsense, and described with much detail the coloration and markings of the alleged frog. The dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas’s basin of bread-and-milk; he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it. The sin of taking a frog from the garden and putting it into a bowl of wholesome bread-and-milk was enlarged on at great length, but the fact that stood out clearest in the whole affair, as it presented itself to the mind of Nicholas, was that the older, wiser, and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance.
This provides the essence of Nicholas’ character, and of ‘The Lumber-Room’: Nicholas’ aunt is mistaken in thinking that there isn’t a frog in his food, but only because she fails to ‘know her enemy’ and realise that Nicholas is the just the sort of boy who would have a frog in his food, if only because he’s also the sort of boy who would put one there.
This failure of imagination, a failure to ‘read’ Nicholas and interpret the kind of person he is, represents the beginning of his aunt’s downfall.
As punishment – for refusing to eat his food, remember, not for putting a frog in said food – Nicholas is kept indoors all day while the other children are out playing. Once again, Nicholas outwits his aunt, convincing her that he longs to go exploring in the gooseberry garden, and thus decoying her into keeping stern watch on the garden, since she fully expects him to attempt to break out into that fruity paradise.
But this is just a distraction, since, knowing that he now has his aunt out the way, Nicholas is able to steal the key that unlocks the lumber-room of the house, and gain access to that forbidden chamber of secrets. Among other things, a tapestry catches his eye and fires his imagination:
A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood?
His aunt, believing she must have missed him when he crept out into that gooseberry garden, goes looking for him, and ends up falling into the rain-water tank. She calls for Nicholas to come and help her to get out, but he tells her that he has been forbidden to set foot in the garden:
‘I told you not to, and now I tell you that you may,’ came the voice from the rain-water tank, rather impatiently.
‘Your voice doesn’t sound like aunt’s,’ objected Nicholas; ‘you may be the Evil One tempting me to be disobedient. Aunt often tells me that the Evil One tempts me and that I always yield. This time I’m not going to yield.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ said the prisoner in the tank; ‘go and fetch the ladder.’
‘Will there be strawberry jam for tea?’ asked Nicholas innocently.
‘Certainly there will be,’ said the aunt, privately resolving that Nicholas should have none of it.
‘Now I know that you are the Evil One and not aunt,’ shouted Nicholas gleefully; ‘when we asked aunt for strawberry jam yesterday she said there wasn’t any. I know there are four jars of it in the store cupboard, because I looked, and of course you know it’s there, but she doesn’t, because she said there wasn’t any. Oh, Devil, you have sold yourself!’
There was an unusual sense of luxury in being able to talk to an aunt as though one was talking to the Evil One, but Nicholas knew, with childish discernment, that such luxuries were not to be over-indulged in.
Note the use of ‘childish discernment’ in that final paragraph: in ‘The Lumber-Room’ it is the child who is discerning, not the adult. ‘Childishness’ is thus turned on its head (Saki could easily have written ‘childlike’ and spoilt the effect with too much romanticism), and – in a paradoxical inversion that suggests Saki’s near-contemporary (and fellow wit), Oscar Wilde, the old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, and the young know everything.
‘The Lumber-Room’ ends with Nicholas walking away and leaving his aunt to be rescued by a kitchen-maid, on the grounds that he would be going against her own orders if he strayed into the forbidden garden to rescue her. The child turns the adult’s punitive rules against her; in doing so, he outwits her, adding her own lie – about there being no jam to have for tea – to the list of charges. Nicholas’ mind returns to the tapestry he had been captivated by in the lumber-room:
As for Nicholas, he, too, was silent, in the absorption of one who has much to think about; it was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.
If this makes the aunt a liar and a hypocrite, seemingly happy to disregard her own commands when it means saving herself from more time in the water-tank, then Nicholas is hardly innocent himself. In summary, he is the epitome of the mischievous child. ‘Nicholas’ suggests not only St Nicholas, patron saint of children, but also ‘Old Nick’, one of many nicknames for the Devil, a nod to Nicholas’ wayward and roguish nature.
But in ‘The Lumber-Room’ it is the aunt who Nicholas fiendishly identifies with the Devil; and in at least one analysis or interpretation of ‘The Lumber-Room’, he’d be right. Social convention is stifling and dull; the imagination should not be caged by religiously observed rules. The delicious wit and enterprise of Nicholas is what thrills us in the story; his aunt, we feel, belongs in that water-tank with all the other boring adults.
If this short summary and analysis of ‘The Lumber-Room’ has piqued your interest, you can pick up all of Saki’s wonderful stories in the affordable collection, The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics). We highly recommend them all. Discover more about Saki’s fiction with our pick of his best stories, our analysis of his hilarious cat story, and our discussion of his ‘The Open Window’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.