The Storyteller

by Saki

Start Free Trial

What is the theme of "The Storyteller" by Saki (H. H. Munro)?  

The theme of "The Storyteller" by Saki is that life is unfair and virtue is at least as likely to be punished as it is to be rewarded.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Another theme of this short story is that virtue and goodness should be their own reward and that one cannot persuade people to be truly good by promising some reward to them. The children's aunt tries to enforce the idea that children should be good and moral by telling them...

This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

a terrible story about a young girl who was just so good, and, because of her goodness, when she is attacked by a bull, everyone in town rushes to save her. One of the children astutely asks if the people would not have saved the girl were she not so good, and the aunt is forced to admit that they would have, though perhaps they would have rushed to her aid less quickly.

In the bachelor's story, however, it is the medals Bertha has received as prizes for her goodness—her punctuality, obedience, and behavior—that reveal her hiding place to the wolf and result in her being eaten. Further, she is only in the Prince's garden as a reward for her famous goodness. If goodness were permitted to be its own reward, the result of someone's desire to do good rather than any wish for recognition or reward, then Bertha would still be alive. The storyteller and his story would seem to suggest that attempting to teach children to be good by offering some extrinsic motivation is ineffective and could achieve vastly different results from the ones for which one hopes.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One could argue that the main theme of Saki's short story "The Storyteller" is the importance of being truthful with children. One reason why the children's aunt in the story is such a poor storyteller is that she's always looking to teach the children a morally edifying lesson that will encourage them to behave. She doesn't seem to realize that when it comes to stories, especially children's stories, the underlying truth is more important, no matter how uncomfortable it may be.

The eponymous storyteller grasps this basic point, which is why he leaves the children wanting more of the same after he's finished telling them what their aunt regards as a "most improper" story.

Clearly a man of the world, the storyteller knows that virtue is seldom its own reward; that there are many Berthas in this world, good people who encounter illness, suffering, and violent death, none of it deserved.

This is the way of the world, and the storyteller thinks it entirely appropriate, whatever their aunt may think, that the children should learn this valuable lesson at an early age in order to prepare them for life in the big wide world.

Understandably, the children's aunt wants to protect them from the real world and all its horrors. But the storyteller realizes that it's best to make children aware of the world around them and all the dangers it contains.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The theme of Saki's short story "The Storyteller" is the unfairness of life, particularly the way in which virtue generally goes unrewarded and may well be punished. This can be seen both in the frame story of the children in the railway carriage and in the story the bachelor tells the children.

In the frame story, the children are behaving fractiously, and their aunt is afraid that they may be irritating the bachelor. She therefore tells them a story to encourage them to behave. Her motivation for telling this story is altruistic, and the story itself is impeccably moral, but the children scornfully dismiss the story as stupid. When the bachelor tells his story, however, the children are enthralled and say that it is beautiful, despite, or more probably because of, the fact that it is "improper" and has " undermined the effect of years of careful teaching."

The story of Bertha, who dies because of the noise made by her medals for goodness, reinforces the subversive moral message suggested by the fact that the stranger who creates havoc is more popular with the children than the aunt who tries to keep order. The prejudice of the children against conspicuous "goodness" therefore seems to be reinforced by the events outside the story, elevating their feelings to the level of a general principle.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

"The Storyteller," by Saki (whose real name was H.H. Munro) is about a woman who is travelling by train with two young nieces and a nephew.  The Aunt tries to entertain the children by telling them a story about 

a little girl who was good, and made friends with every one on account of her goodness, and was finally saved from a mad bull by a number of rescuers who admired her moral character.

The children find the story boring because of its very traditional moral stance that good things happen to good people.

A bachelor is sitting on the same train observing observing the Aunt and her young charges.  He offers to tell them a story.

The bachelor's story is about a girl who is "horribly good," so good that she wore on her dress three medals for goodness.  As a further reward for her goodness, the girl is invited to visit the park that belongs to the local Prince.

As the girl strolls through the park, she is attacked by a wolf.  The girl hides behinds behind a bush, but the wolf eventually locates her when her medals click against one another.  The wolf devours the little girl.

The nieces and nephews love the story.

What is the theme of this story?

The author seems to be poking fun at the kind of dull, moralistic tales that were often told to children.  In this story (as in real life) the children prefer the story of a goody-goody who is destroyed by her own goodness.

On another level, the author may be questioning the religious notion that good things happen to good people.  Saki was hardly the first person to realize that righteous people often suffer the same (or worse) fate as evil ones.  The author of the Biblical book of Ecclesiates, for example, comments (7:15):

In this meaningless life of mine I have seen both of these:

the righteous perishing in their righteousness,    and the wicked living long in their wickedness. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team