By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The English writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), who is better known under his pen name Saki, was a master of the short comic story and, in some ways, a missing link between Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse. What’s more, Saki was that rare writer who could write humorously, for an adult audience, about both children and animals.
‘Laura’ is a good case in point when it comes to Saki’s animal tales. The story is about a woman, Laura, who is dying and professes a desire to be reincarnated as an otter. You can read ‘Laura’ in full here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Saki’s entertaining tale below.
‘Laura’: plot summary
A woman named Laura lies dying. It is Saturday, and she tells Amanda she will probably die on the following Tuesday, according to the doctor. Laura believes, however, that she will be reincarnated when she dies, but will come back as a lower organism, because she hasn’t been a good person in this life.
Laura doesn’t get on with Amanda’s husband, Egbert: after Egbert complained that Laura let the puppies run over the flower beds and chased his chickens, Laura retaliated by letting the chickens out into Egbert’s seeding shed, so they could peck at the seeds he’d planted. For this reason, Laura thinks she will come back after death, but as a lower animal, such as an otter. She believes that life as an otter would be rather enjoyable. If she didn’t come back as an otter, she says she’d like to be an unclothed Nubian (i.e., Egyptian) boy.
Laura dies on the Monday rather than the Tuesday, much to the annoyance of Amanda’s uncle-in-law, Sir Lulworth Quayne, who complains that Laura’s early death was another example of her ‘inconsiderate’ side. Shortly after this, Egbert announces that an otter has killed four of his chickens. Amanda and Sir Lulworth both suspect that this otter was really Laura, already reincarnated, as predicted.
The next day, as the family are at Laura’s funeral, the otter kills the remaining chickens, while also trampling on the flower beds and the strawberries. The following Sunday, while the family are at church the otter breaks in and raids the larder, eating it on the Persian rug in Egbert’s studio and leaving the remains to be found.
Egbert resolves to kill the otter, so he organises a hunt, and the otter is killed. When Amanda hears about it, and the appearance of the otter is described as resembling Laura’s features, Amanda falls ill with nervous shock, and Egbert takes her to Egypt to recuperate. While there, Egbert angrily announces that a naked Nubian boy has thrown his clean shirts into the bath. Amanda, realising Laura has come back as the boy, falls ill again.
Like a number of Saki’s other well-known stories, such as ‘Gabriel-Ernest’ (about a werewolf) and ‘Tobermory’ (in which a cat is taught to talk and proceeds to insult everyone by revealing their secrets to each other), ‘Laura’ blurs the lines between the human and the animal, linking modern ‘civilised’ man (and woman) to his (and her) primitive past and reminding us that we are also part of the animal kingdom.
Saki’s title characters often prick the pomposity and hypocrisy of the Edwardian upper classes, and clearly Egbert, who takes excessive pride in his ‘speckled Sussex’ chickens and attempts to bring nature under his control, is deemed fair game by the mischievous Laura.
Saki’s protagonists often display little regard for the niceties of civilised society, and the glee with which Laura looks forward to coming back as a more ‘primitive’ form which will grant her greater freedom from Edwardian convention is in keeping with many of Saki’s other characters.
On the one side, then, we have Egbert, who represents conformity and a rather dull, even prissy upper class; on the other side, we have Laura, who represents a challenge or even threat to his conventions. Of course, by the early twentieth century when Saki wrote ‘Laura’, the New Woman had been around for a number of years, with many (male) commentators viewing these newly independent women (who smoked and bicycled on their own!) as a threat to their established, patriarchal world.
Indeed, it is worth noting that Amanda appears to side more with Laura than with her own husband, strengthening the idea that, in this story, Saki is casting women against their male overlords. Amanda is clearly affected by the news that ‘Laura’ the otter has been killed, although the ‘she-otter’, we learn, didn’t go down without a fight, badly biting Egbert as he attempted to ‘tail’ it.
But it would be wrong to analyse ‘Laura’ too narrowly as a commentary on gender: Saki, in many ways a deeply conversative man, is not necessarily suggesting that he sides with the female suffrage movement or the New Woman. Saki was interested in comically disturbing the society to which he belonged. It is nevertheless suggestive that Laura, after her stint as the otter, appears to come back as a naked ‘Nubian’ boy, as if the empire is striking back at Egbert, that representative of white male British upper-class privilege, as well.
If Saki is making any kind of commentary on man’s place in society, then, it is probably in the field of animal rights that we find the most explicit ‘moral’ message of the story. Amanda is horrified by the prospect of being an otter because such an animal can be expected to be hunted and killed by men; when Laura the she-otter suffers such a fate, the news sends Amanda into nervous shock.
And yet, if this suggests that Amanda has discovered a new-found sympathy for the plight of animals, it’s worth bearing in mind the detail Saki provides following her recuperation in the Nile valley:
Change of scene speedily brought about the desired recovery of health and mental balance. The escapades of an adventurous otter in search of a variation of diet were viewed in their proper light.
In other words, as soon as Amanda has convinced herself that the otter hunted and killed by her husband was not Laura at all but just some random creature, she loses her sympathy for the creature. She has not really developed a concern for animal welfare, but was merely worried that ‘Laura’ had been killed in such a brutal fashion.
But is Saki inviting us, as bystanders who realise that Laura almost certainly was the otter (and the Egyptian boy), to reflect on this and reappraise our attitudes to animal cruelty? Or is he simply presenting nature for what it is – that is, men hunt otters and catch fish, just as otters catch fish and kill chickens? The story invites us to ponder our attitudes to animals and the way they are treated, even if the characters in the story appear – with the notable exception of Laura – to view animals as their playthings to do with as they please.