illustration of a young girl looking out a window at ghostly figures

The Open Window

by Saki

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What is the moral lesson of "The Open Window"?

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The moral lesson of "The Open Window" is that people who are gullible and self-absorbed will suffer the consequences of their failure to question what they are told.

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If there is a moral lesson to be taken from Saki’s humorous short story “The Open Window,” it is that gullible people—those who take things at face value and believe what they are told without question—will suffer the consequences of their credulity. Saki also comments on the self-absorption of the adult characters in the story, who are too wrapped up in their own concerns to cast doubt on a teenager’s tall tales.

As soon as the acutely nervous Framton Nuttel has admitted to not knowing Mrs. Sappleton or, indeed, anyone else in the surrounding area, fifteen-year-old Vera senses his susceptibility to her own “speciality”: producing “romance,” or fantastic stories, at a moment’s notice. For his part, Framton is so absorbed in anxious thoughts of his rural “nerve cure,” his regret over having to pay formal visits to strangers, what to say to Vera, and what kind of person Mrs. Sappleton is that he fails to notice anything strange about how pointedly Vera asks him if he knows anything about her aunt. Immediately after he confirms his ignorance, Vera begins her ghost story, saying, “Her great tragedy happened just three years ago. ... That would be since your sister’s time.”

If Framton were less gullible, and paying closer attention, he might take Vera’s mention of his sister as a clue to the ensuing story’s falsehood: Framton’s sister stayed at the local rectory about four years previous, and Vera claims that her aunt’s husband and brothers drowned three years ago, meaning Framton’s sister wouldn’t have heard about the supposed tragedy and thus would have had no chance to mention anything that might contradict the tale. Even before Vera begins her story, Framton notices that “an undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation,” an observation that, had he paid it more attention, could have clued him in to the fact that living men do in fact still occupy the house.

When Mrs. Sappleton comes downstairs, she takes little notice of Framton or his anxiety and begins talking about her supposedly dead husband and brothers, the mud she expects them to leave on the carpets, and “the shooting and scarcity of birds.” Rather than try to find out if the ghost story he’s just been told is true—he is already convinced that it is—Framton, who is more concerned with the awkwardness of the situation than he is with Mrs. Sappleton's feelings, launches into an unsolicited monologue on his nervous condition in an effort to change the subject. Saki makes it clear that Framton is here demonstrating a relatively common flaw: absorbed in his own anxiety about his health, he is laboring “under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.”

Framton’s self-absorption thus contributes to his failure to question what he sees and hears. This fault combines with his overall nervousness and gullibility, which Vera sensed from the beginning, to make Framton the perfect victim of Vera’s prank. His terrified headlong flight from the house and into the road, where he nearly collides with a passing cyclist, emphasizes both Framton’s ridiculousness and the consequences of crediting everything one hears as truth. Mr. and Mrs. Sappleton likewise appear to accept Vera’s subsequent story about Framton’s fear of dogs without question, though without incurring any particular consequences to themselves. Vera, meanwhile, remains utterly calm in the knowledge that she is able to dupe the adults around her with ease. Saki thus presents a comedic, and not especially moralistic, lesson on the dangers of gullibility.

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What is the lesson in "The Open Window"?

A short story does not necessarily have to teach a lesson. It is a work of art, and as such it should convey what Edgar Allan Poe called an "effect." He meant something like a "feeling," a "mood," or an "emotional effect." The "effect" Saki seems to have been trying to achieve in "The Open Window" is one of amusement or sardonic laughter. However, if we are looking for a "lesson" in the story, it would seem to be based on what is foreshadowed in the second paragraph.

Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.

The poor man is a nervous wreck because of the stresses of life in the big city and has come to the peaceful English countryside for what he calls a "nerve cure." He finds himself in a zany household where a young girl tells him a ghastly story and her aunt appears to be insane. Then three men carrying guns appear in the dusk headed towards the open window, and they are undoubtedly walking dead--ghosts of the men who were sucked into a bog three years ago. 

Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.

For all we know, Framton could have kept on running until he had run all the way back to London. He has learned the lesson that life is just as stressful in the country as in the big city. Or, to put it another way, people are just as crazy in the English countryside as they are in London. Maybe they are even crazier in the country because they have more room to expand their personalities. The city people have to learn to get along with each other, but there is no such pressure for conformity in the country. Vera really is a little bit crazy. Her aunt is obviously more than a little bit crazy. The three men who can think about nothing but shooting birds and getting all covered with mud are not entirely sane--and they are more dangerous because they are all armed.

Another lesson is that doctors of the period didn't really know very much about neurosis. All they could do was suggest an ocean voyage or a retreat to the peaceful countryside. Framton has consulted many doctors, and all of them have offered the same prescription.

"The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise," announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.

He comes to the Sappleton household in pursuit of "complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise." He gets just the opposite--especially the violent physical exercise!

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A lesson you might take from "The Open Window" is?

Among the lessons that might be taken from "The Open Window" one important one has to do with the repression of women in a patriarchal society. Vera is not merely a mischievous girl but a cruel girl. Being a female, she is confined to the house and cannot go shooting with the three macho males. No doubt she would like more freedom and adventure, as her story about the feral dogs in India suggests. Her story about the three men being sucked into a bog may be a sort of wish-fulfillment. In other words, she might have thought about this misadventure long before Framton Nuttel ever appeared on the scene. Vera might be compared with Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, a woman who becomes cruel because of being forced into a passive domestic role for which she is temperamentally unsuited. Vera takes her anger and frustration out on poor, neurotic Framton Nuttel, another male.

In Ibsen's Hedda Gabler, Tessman's Aunt Juliana represents the stereotypical domestic female of the period and serves as a foil to Hedda.

She is the quintessential nurse, willing to sacrifice herself for others. Only in that does she find much meaning in life. In this respect, and in most others, she is a stark contrast to Hedda, who detests her.

Likewise, Vera's Aunt Sappleton represents domestic women of Edwardian England and serves as a foil to Vera, who probably detests her too and sees her future in this brainless woman who is so exclusively devoted to her three men that she can only talk about the one subject that interests them: killing birds.

Vera is described as calm, cool, poised, and self-possessed, but underneath that young and innocent facade there is a very different person brooding, one who is preoccupied with cold and morbid fancies and developing a sadistic, passive-aggressive character.

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