Dr Oliver Tearle’s reading of H. H. Munro’s miniature masterpiece
‘The Open Window’ is one of Saki’s shortest stories, and that’s saying something. Few of his perfectly crafted and deliciously written tales exceed four or five pages in length, but ‘The Open Window’, at barely three pages, outstrips even ‘The Lumber-Room’ or ‘Tobermory’ for verbal economy. It is so brief it has almost the air of a parable about it, except that it’s far from clear what the ‘moral’ of the story is, or even if there is one. Saki uses language so deftly and to such effect, that it is worth unpicking and analysing ‘The Open Window’ (which can be read in full here) a little.
Although on first glance it seems different from some of Saki’s better-known stories, such as his classic werewolf tale ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ and his story about a polecat worshipped as a god, ‘Sredni Vashtar’, ‘The Open Window’ follows the same essential setup as many of Saki’s other stories, in having an adolescent character whose supposed innocence (supposed by the adult character, that is) turns out to be guile, cunning, and the mischief in disguise. But whereas Nicholas in ‘The Lumber-Room’, Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, or Gabriel-Ernest actively seek to cause harm to their adult antagonists (or, in the case of Nicholas, to refuse to help an aunt who has got herself trapped in the water tank), Vera’s only weapon is her imagination. Yet this alone suggests that she shares some kinship with Conradin in ‘Sredni Vashtar’, whose cousin and guardian dislikes her ward’s imaginative streak.
What happens in ‘The Open Window’, in summary, is this: a man, who has the glorious name of Framton Nuttel, has newly arrived in a ‘rural retreat’, to help him settle his nerves. His sister, worried that he will hide himself away there and ‘mope’, thus making his nerves worse, has given him the names and addresses of all the people she knows in the area, and told him to go and introduce himself to them. (His sister had stayed at the rectory four years earlier.) ‘The Open Window’ takes place at the house of one of Framton’s sister’s contacts, a woman named Mrs Sappleton and her 15-year-old niece, Vera, whom Framton has gone round to visit so he might introduce himself.
While Mrs Sappleton is upstairs making herself ready to meet their new guest, Vera entertains Framton. After she learns that Framton knows barely anything about her aunt, Vera tells him that three years ago Mrs Sappleton’s husband and her two brothers went out through the French window on a shooting trip, and never returned. They drowned in a ‘treacherous piece of bog’ and their bodies were never recovered. The spaniel they took with them was lost, too. Vera tells Framton that her aunt has kept the French window open ever since, in the belief that her husband and brothers are going to walk back through the open window any moment, alive and well.
Mrs Sappleton then arrives from upstairs and apologises for being late coming down. She mentions the open window and explains that her husband and brothers are out shooting but will be back any minute. They exchange small talk about shooting and birds, and Framton iterates that he has been told to have complete rest and avoid ‘mental excitement’, when Mrs Sappleton announces that her husband and brothers are returning home. Framton looks with horror at the sight of three men and a ‘tired brown spaniel’ approaching the open window – he sees that Vera shares his look of shock. Believing he is seeing three ghosts (four if you include the dog!), he picks up his hat and coat and runs from the house as fast as he can. Back at the house, Mrs Sappleton remarks that Mr Nuttel was an odd man – all he could do was talk about his ailments, and then he ‘dashed off’ as soon as the men arrived. Vera suggests that he was scared of dogs, and the sight of the spaniel caused him to run off. The final sentence of the story refers to Vera: ‘Romance at short notice was her speciality.’
‘The Open Window’ is an amusing little story; but is it more than this? Closer analysis of Saki’s tale reveals that the devil is in the detail. Note that Framton is not presented as a gullible fool, and if he is, we as readers are encouraged to be gulled, too, for we are supposed to be taken in by Vera’s lie about the dead husband and brothers as well. But as Framton is wondering whether Mrs Sappleton is married or widowed, he senses a male presence in the house: ‘An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.’ His first instinct is correct, but Vera’s entirely fabricated narrative leads him to believe he was mistaken about the ‘masculine’ atmosphere.
And she convinces him that she should be believed by a number of subtle details: the spaniel that accompanied the men on their apparently ill-fated trip, for instance, and the white waterproof coat which the husband was carrying over his arm when they left. Vera obviously saw the men leaving with the dog and coat, and weaves them into the narrative she feeds to Framton, so that when the men return – with the dog and the coat, as described – the idea that Framton is seeing dead men walking is all the more powerful. Vera’s look of horror when they see the men returning to the house is also a nice touch. Of course, being still technically a child, female, and named Vera (meaning literally ‘truth’), all help, too. But you can never trust children in Saki, those ‘feral ephebes’ in Sandie Byrne’s memorable phrase.
But does ‘The Open Window’ mean anything else beyond itself? That is, can it be analysed as a commentary on anything other than lying teenage girls? Well, the story does raise questions which, we might argue, prefigure the concerns of the modernist writers who were active a few years after Saki, in the immediate post-WWI period. There is no absolute truth or absolute reality, writers such as James Joyce and Virginia Woolf suggest, because everything is mediated through personal human experience, and we cannot know everything. Virginia Woolf’s first great novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), is a good example of this: no one character fully knows or understands the title character, and everyone gets a slightly different glimpse of who he is. Framton has only Vera’s word to go on about Mrs Sappleton’s husband and brothers. But, conversely, Mrs Sappleton, unaware that her niece has been spinning their guest a web of lies, has a different perception of him, too, believing him to be an odd man who has an excessive reaction to the sight of her male relatives. Vera, the fiction-master (and thus the author-surrogate in the story), is the only one who knows both sides and can enjoy playing these two characters, with their partial glimpses of the whole story, off each other. Although Saki’s style and approach are very different from someone like Virginia Woolf, the preoccupation with ‘fiction’ and ‘perception’ is the same – only Saki’s take on this issue is funnier.
Vera’s lie in ‘The Open Window’ about three members of one family – all of them male – going off together on a shooting trip and never returning, leaving the female characters at home to grieve for them, seems eerily to prefigure the events of a few years later, when hundreds of thousands of Englishmen – including, in many cases, every single man in a particular family – would go off to fight in the First World War and never come back. (When we consider that, in Vera’s fictional account, the three men meet their end by drowning in boggy mud, and their bodies are never recovered, the foreshadowing of the Western Front becomes downright spooky.) Saki himself would be one of them, killed in action in 1916. With him, and many like him, the Edwardian way of life that Saki so ruthlessly skewers in his stories would die, too. But ‘The Open Window’ remains more than a window (to reach for the inevitable metaphor) onto a vanished world. It is a timeless tale about truth and fiction, and, yes, a parable without a moral. For that reason, it deserves to be revisited, analysed and studied, discussed, and celebrated.
You can pick up all of Saki’s wonderful stories in the very affordable collection, The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics), and lose yourself in the writing of one of Edwardian literature’s wittiest storytellers.
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.