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

The Open Window

by Saki

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Saki's Wit and Skillful Social Satire

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H.H. Munro, writing under the name of Saki, was first introduced to the London literary scene in 1899, and only a year later, he was becoming well-known as a witty social critic. This reputation has stayed with him until the present-day, more than eighty years after his untimely 1916 death on the battlefields of World War I. Saki took his pseudonym from a reference in the poetry of Omar Khayyam's Rubaiyat, which was translated into English in the 1850s. It is perhaps ironic that Saki should have drawn his name from this book of poetry which so captivated the attention of the generation ready to take charge of England in the Edwardian Age, for a main thrust of Saki's work was to make fun of the elite who inhabited Edwardian England.

Saki's reputation as a master of the short story, earned during his own lifetime, places him in a class along with Guy de Maupassant and O. Henry. But even though his fiction has drawn commentary from such notables as Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett, in general, little critical attention has been paid to it. Some readers simply believe that Saki's work exists for the readers, not the critics, that its "exquisite lightness...offers no grasp for the solemnities of earnest criticism." Other readers find Saki to be merely an entertainer, at worst, one who draws light and overly contrived plots. These readers point to Saki's reliance on convenient literary tricks, such as the surprise ending found in "The Open Window," but they overlook that an able writer is necessary to make it credible.

The majority of critics who do interest themselves with an analysis of Saki's fiction focus on the funny side of his work, seeing him as a humorist or a comic writer. Alternately, he has been seen as a satirist, one who conveys a critical attitude toward British society of his time. This is not surprising considering that Westminister Alice, the series of sketches that brought Saki fame, was filled with biting political humor—"combustible" according to Saki's editor. Critics have also discussed the practical joke, which is Saki's most often-used comic device. As the practical joke is such a childish prank, it has generally been seen as representing Saki's own "lost childhood." From the age of two, Saki grew up in a household comprised of his grandmother and two unmarried aunts—his father being away in India—who ruled strictly and impersonally. Of the relationship between Saki's rearing and the fiction he creates around the practical jokes played by children, Greene has said, "It is tempting...to see in Saki the boy who never grew up, avenging himself on his aunts." Almost all serious Saki critics have pointed to the cruel nature of Saki's characters, finding in Saki "the casual heartlessness of childhood."

Not all Saki's stories have been subject to this intense scrutiny, and "The Open Window," one of Saki's best-loved stories, perhaps best exemplifies that "indolent, delightfully amusing world where nothing is ever solved, nothing altered, a world in short extremely like our own." "The Open Window" centers around a practical joke played by fifteen-year-old Vera on a pompous man, Framton Nuttel, who is undergoing a ''nerve cure.'' The girl fabricates a tale of the tragic disappearance of her uncle and cousins, exactly three years ago, and of her aunt, who nevertheless faithfully (thus insanely) awaits their return each day. The "ghosts" come home, and Nuttel makes a ''headlong retreat" from this "haunted" house. It is only after Nuttel is thus disposed of that the reader finds out that Vera made the story up, in fact, that "Romance at short notice was her specialty." The story exhibits none of Saki' s typical satire, a point upon which even those most arduous proponents in the Saki as satirist camp agree; for in order to have satire, a story must arouse in the reader a desire to reform a situation along with contempt for those who create these wrongdoings.

What is more at debate in "The Open Window'' is the level of cruelty or maliciousness on the part of Vera in playing the joke. In answering that question, an examination of Vera and Nuttel is necessary, a feat made more difficult, however, by the brevity of the story. Yet, even in the space of scarcely 1,200 words, the personality of Nuttel, the "jokee," seems clear enough from the opening paragraphs. He is neurotic and of a self-imposed delicate psychological nature, hence his need to undergo a ''nerve cure." Coupled with these limitations is a weak and suggestible will. He has come to the Sappleton house, not at his own instigation but at the command of his sister, who was worried that he would "bury [himself] down there and not speak to a living soul." Once there, he bemoans the "unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary,'' never questioning that very coincidence or that his hostess hardly presents the picture of a delusional widow as she ''rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter.'' Nuttel is a bore, as well, going on in detail about his rest cure, being one of those people who "laboured under the tolerably wide-spread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities." If the import of these characteristics do not add up to a person who deserves to be the butt of a practical joke, the reader only needs to consider his ridiculous name.

The intent of Vera plays a more crucial role in determining the nature of the practical joke. Clearly, she can have no seriously malicious purpose, for the joke has no forethought; Vera simply seized upon the opportunity of Nuttel's unexpected arrival on her aunt's doorstep. Nuttel and his awkwardness must have seemed like too much fun to pass up to this "very self-possessed young lady of fifteen," and her quick reaction and creation of the ghost story show an ultra-active intelligence and imagination. The reader also is not privy to how much time Nuttel and Vera have spent together before the story begins. She could very well have discerned his self-absorption and decided he deserved to have such a trick played on him, a point upon which most readers would agree with her!

Nuttel's uncertainty in even the most benign of social situations, evidenced by his endeavours "to say the correct something,'' stands in stark contrast to Vera's control of the situation. After quickly assessing Nuttel's character, that he would make no mention of the "ghastly topic" to her aunt, she fabricates a story to fool him. The concrete details she includes—one brother's habit of singing "Bertie, why do you bound?'' and her aunt's expectation of their return someday—all of which will take place, seem to confirm her ghost story. In her retelling of the tragic day, she is even clever enough to allow her' 'child's voice'' to lose ''its self-possessed note and [become] falteringly human." Saki was also one of the few writers of his day to use elements of the supernatural, and appropriately, Vera embellishes her tale by telling Nuttel of her "creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window"; when her very live uncle and cousins return, she "[stares] out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes ''

Vera not only fools Nuttel, but she also fools her aunt, who wonders at Nuttel's hasty departure made "without a word of good-bye or apology." Vera's answer to her aunt would seem even more unbelievable than the story told to Nuttel: that he was afraid of her uncle's spaniel because Nuttel "was once hunted into a cemetery on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave." Perhaps the gullible Mrs. Sappleton actually deserves Vera's pitying fashion of calling her "[P]oor dear aunt," the same way Nuttel deserves to have the joke played on him. Though she is not the butt of the joke, Mrs. Sappleton surely has been bested by her niece, never realizing just how "amusing" Vera can truly be. In her manipulation of both of the adults, Vera demonstrates Saki's view that "children have no power worth the name except their lies and retreats into fantasy.''

The successful ending of "The Open Window" depends on its surprise but also on the reader's belief, along with Nuttel's, that Vera is telling the truth. To ensure that Vera's story will fool Nuttel, Saki makes use of many of the stereotypes and popularly held beliefs of his day. He exaggerates the unimaginative, staid world of adults, whereas Vera, like all of his children, is presented as the sole creator, the purveyor of fantasy and fun. That Vera emerges as the winner in this battle shows Saki's own defense of "the glories of a fanciful concoction against stale reality." Saki also uses the notion that girls were the more truthful sex and gives her a name that suggests truthfulness to make her tale less suspect. It is ironic that Saki used this stereotype to such effect even when he too believed that girls were less creative. He paid her a high compliment in making her an accomplished liar.

Saki must have found in Vera an effective character/trickster. A girl of the same name is the central figure in "The Lull," a story written ten months after' "The Open Window.'' A now sixteen-year-old Vera spins a fantasy of a broken reservoir to keep a politician in need of relaxation from dwelling on politics. But ''The Lull'' differs greatly from "The Open Window." Not only does it have more farcical elements, including pigs and a rooster running around the politician's bedroom, but in this story the reader is privy to the hoax. "The Open Window" demonstrates a far more sophisticated joke, propelling it to me heights of a classic. Not only does it depict the age-old battle between those in power, adults, and those who must submit, children, while unexpectedly turning the usual order of this relationship completely around. It also gives a realistic setting for the unveiling of pure fantasy. That Vera's story, blending elements of the realistic and the supernatural, is so believable attests to Saki's power as a writer. In addition to these theoretical and literary elements,' "The Open Window'' surely draws a good deal of its effectiveness from the knowledge in every reader that he or she has the potential to fall prey to such a clever girl and thus become another foolish Framton Nuttel.

Source: Rena Korb, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Rena Korb has a master's degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

Saki's Use of Irony

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Hugh Hector Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym Saki, is well known not only as a master of the short story form, but also for the irony with which his stories are imbued. "The Open Window," Saki's most frequently anthologized story, is an excellent example of Saki's use of irony. The events of the story itself are ironic in their own right. However, Saki increases the ironic amplitude of the story by making the reader a victim of the very same hoax that Vera perpetrates on Mr. Nuttel.

Crucial to the success of this effect is the story's narrative structure. Saki employs a frame narrative in "The Open Window''; that is, he provides not just one narrative, but a narrative within another, larger narrative that places the inner narrative in context. If Vera's story of the lost hunters were the only story available, one could read it as either a ghost story or as a fanciful tale. But because Saki allows the reader access to the story surrounding the telling of this secondary tale, such a reading is not possible. When Vera lies to her aunt about Mr. Nuttel, and when Mrs. Sappleton does not react with horror or surprise at the return of her husband and brother, it becomes clear that Vera's story is a fabrication and that the hunters returning are not ghosts, but living, breathing men. Thus, Nuttel's horror becomes laughable, and the reader's initial reaction is to identify with Vera, deriding Nuttel for his gullibility and enjoying a laugh at his expense.

What remains unclear, however, is Vera's motivation in telling the story. As a precocious, or as Saki characterizes her, "prepossessing" child, she may be bored with the life of the parlor; her playful treatment of Nuttel might be rebellion against that boredom. Certainly, Vera has little or no respect for Nuttel, but it is more accurate to say that Vera does not consider Nuttel. For Vera, Nuttel is simply an audience, something with which to entertain herself; and precisely because she is a precocious child, she entertains herself in this creative, though perhaps unfortunate way, rather than by means of the conventional polite and flavorless discourse that might be expected of less enterprising girls her age. Furthermore, Vera does not know that Nuttel suffers from a nervous condition that will make the punch line of Vera's joke—the return of the purportedly dead hunters through the open window— tragic rather than amusing. Because she cannot have anticipated or intended the tragic result of her deceit, one cannot ascribe malicious intent to her.

Though Vera may be innocent, Saki most certainly is not. Unlike Vera, Saki, as the narrator's voice, is aware of Nuttel's nervous condition and also of the effect that Vera's "punchline" will have on Nuttel's fragile psyche. He allows Vera to "interrupt" his narrative, as it were, with her own story, knowing full well what consequences it will have. The reader, at this point, is at Saki's mercy, unaware that Vera's story is a fabrication. The reader is, in essence, no different from Framton Nuttel, receiving Vera's story as though it were the truth, tricked into suspending disbelief in her story by the trust already placed in the narrator Saki. When the hunters return, visible through the open window, the reader's reaction is the same as that of Framton Nuttel; that is, the initial impression is that something eerie and supernatural is afoot. The suspicion of deceit may be present, but it is as yet unverifiable.

However, when Saki returns as the story's narrator, ending Vera's reign, the truth becomes obvious. Framton Nuttel makes a hasty, anxious exit, but the reader remains, still guided by Saki, and this makes all the difference. Nuttel's only source for the truth (since he does not wait long enough to meet Mrs. Sappleton, who could easily have remedied matters) is Vera. The reader, however, has two sources of information, Vera and the narrator Saki, with Saki the primary source; after all, it is only through Saki that the reader has access to Vera's tale in the first place. When Saki returns as narrator, he provides the information the reader needs to identify Vera's story as the hoax that it is. When Saki shows Vera telling her aunt a story to explain Mr. Nuttel's sudden disappearance, the falsehood of that story identifies Vera as a young woman prone to making up stories and implies the falsehood of her previous story. The final line of the story, "Romance at short notice was her specialty," removes any remaining trust in Vera's reliability.

The irony of Vera's story is that, in spite of its being false, it has caused Framton Nuttel to suffer a mental breakdown; had he managed to remain for only a few more minutes, he would have learned the truth and, perhaps, shared with Mrs. Sappleton in a polite laugh with, or scolding of, Vera. The reader, perceiving this irony, derides Nuttel for his weakness and foolishness, shared either in the good-natured laugh that Vera has at Nuttel's expense or in Vera's mean-spiritedness, depending on how that particular reader chooses to characterize the girl's highly suspicious motives. Saki's re-entrance as narrator at the moment of Nuttel's departure allows the reader to differentiate him or herself from Nuttel.

But Framton Nuttel is not the only one who has been taken in by Vera's tale. The reader who derides Nuttel must realize at the same time that he or she has also been susceptible to Vera's he. In fact, Nuttel may have, in his nervous condition, a better excuse for his gullibility; that is, anxious and distracted, Nuttel clings eagerly to the distraction that Vera's story provides. Though the reader is rescued by Saki from a reaction of horror akin to Nuttel's, the initial belief in Vera's tale is no different. But this intervention by Saki to provide a postscript, as it were, to Vera's story, simultaneously provides not only the evidence necessary to determine that Vera has managed to fool Nuttel and the reader but a reinforcement of the reader's luxurious position of being able to scoff at Nuttel's gullibility. This is the greatest irony of Saki's narrative. Saki forces the reader to recognize his or her own vulnerability, but by allowing the reader to remain in the drawing room, the reader can dispute that he or she was fooled in the first place. After all, the reader does not run away from the text, one presumes, as Framton Nuttel runs from the house; Saki does not allow it. Saki sacrifices Nuttel's dignity in order that the reader's dignity may remain intact—even if the reader has been taken in by Vera, he or she can claim to have seen it coming all along. And if the reader is, with Nuttel, the audience to the story, Saki is allied with Vera. Each is a teller of tales, each acting from suspicious motives. For Saki the narrator, like Vera, can be seen to be malicious or playful. In Saki: A Life, A. J. Langguth takes special notice of the story's final line, quoted above, commenting that "the sentence, with adjustment for gender, might have served for his [Saki's] epitaph." Each is a lover of "romance," of story-telling, but each with a different effect. Whereas Vera has left Nuttel to his torment, Saki rescues the reader from a similar shame.

Source: Thomas March, for Short Stories for Students, Gale Research, 1997. Thomas March is a scholar specializing in 20th-century British fiction.

Saki's Enfant Terrible in 'The Open Window'

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"The Open Window" is H. H. Munro's most frequently anthologized story, yet it has been almost entirely neglected by critics. It is a very brief story (only about 1200 words) and has the cameo quality and brisk wit so characteristic of Saki. A hasty reading of the story may confirm the opinion of those who, like A. A. Milne, believe that Saki is merely an entertainer. He is often considered a technically facile artisan whose plots, O. Henry-like, suffer from over-contrivance and whose elegance of expression is like a glaze on a thin and rather fragile pot.

Robert Drake, on the other hand, has argued for the deeper significance of Saki's work, distinguishing between the ironic and the humorous stories. In the ironic stories the unwillingness of a central character to face undesired aspects of reality (such as the supernatural, the bestial, Evil) is contradicted by events which humiliate or destroy the character concerned through a direct confrontation with the undesired reality. In the humorous stories (the distinction between the two kinds being one of degree, according to Drake), a Bergsonian 'norm'—often represented by respectable, stuffy members of Society—is ridiculed by contrast with a seemingly cruel or amoral 'beyond-norm' which takes the shape of a character like Reginald or Clovis. Children, Drake says, also act as 'beyond-norm' in Saki's stories. The 'beyond-norm,' as Drake indicates, is closer to a true norm than the 'norm.'

An imaginative child faced with an adult world of dull limitation such as Saki frequently satirized will escape into a world of phantasy, a pattern not rare in Edwardian literature—see E. M. Forster's "The Celestial Omnibus," for example. As Roger Fry once wrote, "The daydreams of a child are filled with extravagant romances in which he always is the invincible hero.'' ''The Open Window'' is a story with all the marks of a child's wish-fulfilling daydream; it is an expression of the fantasy of a child able to control the adult world—a world which is unattractive or even contemptible.

Vera, a girl of fifteen, entertains a guest, Framton Nuttel, a stranger who has just arrived for a nerve cure, for a few minutes before her aunt, Mrs. Sappleton, descends. In the brief time the niece is alone with the guest, she tells him about the aunt's tragedy: the deaths of the latter's husband and two brothers in a bog during a hunt, and her subsequent superstition that her husband and brothers will return through the open window as was once their habit. When the aunt appears and clearly expects someone to cross the fields and enter through the open window the guest is alarmed; when three figures that exactly fit the niece's description of the 'dead' trio actually appear, he panics and flees. When Mr. Sappleton inquires about the stranger who fled so precipitously, the niece invents a credible impromptu explanation.

Though on one level strictly realistic—the story could happen in every detail—the extreme purposeful opposition of child and adult gives the story an intensified, hallucinatory atmosphere. Vera, at fifteen, has the articulacy of an adult but the role of an adolescent child, as the story emphasizes by calling her both "young lady" and "child." Vera's romance is almost supernaturally clever. She, the child, is vastly superior in every way to Mr. Framton Nuttel (note the nutty name, so characteristic for Saki), the adult whom she has chosen as her adversary. Vera must make several crucial judgments on which the outcome of her romance rests. She must determine that Nuttel is the sort of man too fastidious to mention or even hint at the 'tragedy' to Mrs. Sappleton, and that he will be suggestible and superstitious enough to interpret the events that follow in the light in which Vera has represented them. She must discover how much Nuttel knows about the family and the vicinity in order to safeguard herself against discovery; his ignorance is of course a prerequisite for her scheme. Her judgments are all correct.

Vera's two fantasies for the benefit of the audience are brilliant and expertly told. She is adept at deception. She combines in her tale circumstances such as Ronnie's habit of singing, "Bertie, why do you bound?," and her aunt's accustomed expectation of her husband and brothers, which will seem to confirm the truth of what she has told Nuttel; she speaks with pity and a touch of susceptibility:" 'Poor aunt... poor dear aunt... Do you know, sometimes on still quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window—'"

Not only her words but her actions as well convey what she desires to convey At the fitting moment in her tale of the three lost hunters her voice "lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human." When she has said just enough to suggest the uncanny, she breaks off' 'with a little shudder." When the hunters appear on the lawn, "The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes." She also knows when not to be dramatic; she presents her explanation of Nuttel's hasty departure with that calm finesse which convinces by its lack of insistence, and adds a note of sympathy, "enough to make anyone lose their nerve," which is a perfect camouflage for invention.

Vera is in fact in total control of the events of the story. By contrast, Framton Nuttel, the central adult figure, is being controlled. He is the victim of Vera's 'romance', but he does not arouse sympathy. The first few paragraphs of the story subtly reveal that he is dominated by his sister; he doubts the efficacy of his nerve cure and regrets having to visit strangers, yet is apparently too feeble-willed to object. He is a hypochondriac and a bore: he "laboured under the tolerable wide-spread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure." As Janet Overmyer writes [in her essay "Turn Down an Empty Glass," Texas Quarterly, Autumn 1964], "Saki is impatient with the foibles of bores, cowards, the idle, the useless rich, those lacking a sense of humor ... He gives them such names as Ada Spelvexit, Hortensia Bavvel, Sir James Beanquest, Demosthenes Platterbaff, and Sir Wilfred Pigeoncote—and one might add, Framton Nuttel— ... the ridiculous names and the absence of characterization in depth tend so to dehumanize them that the reader will not sympathize with them and the satire can then scathe more effectively."

So we have in ''The Open Window'' a powerful, clever child in opposition to a weak, neurotic, suggestible adult. On first reading, the story may well appear to be a tale of the supernatural; at the latest by the last line that impression has been replaced by an amazed recognition of the truth of the statement, ''Romance at short notice was her specialty." But the story has not become more realistic by an elimination of the supernatural; it has merely become more fantastic in another sense: it has taken on the quality of a daydream, a fantasy. The intensity of the story is also increased by the contrast between its content and its tone; the events of the plot, the deception and the intimation of supernatural horror are reminiscent of Poe (e.g., "The Cask of Amontillado") but the tone of the story does not emphasize the Gothic element for its own sake Like Vera in presenting her inventions, the narrator presents unostentatiously and economically just what is necessary for his effect. At times, in fact, author and central character bear such similarities to each other that they merge; we as readers may be less likely to be frightened by the figures on the lawn, but if we are unacquainted with the ways of Saki's imagination, Vera's story on first reading has the same capacity to fool us as it does for Nuttel.

Vera's romance is a clever practical joke of the highest caliber—without wires, strings, or mechanical contraptions. If, once we are initiated, the story appeals to us, if we laugh or feel any satisfaction at Framton Nuttel's hasty exodus, we are most likely participating in a fantasy that is peculiar to the mind of a child, and particularly a frustrated child, who is powerless to resist the encroachments or dictates of a cruel or boring adult world. According to Janet Overmyer, children in Saki's stories often are' 'cruel to adults because the entire adult world is against them, and they are helpless to resist. They must therefore snatch their revenge whenever the opportunity arises."

The impulse behind practical jokes often arises from urges against authority or the established order of things. The wishful fantasy of a child desiring to play havoc with adults is widespread. In one of Jack Harkaway's stories (a series of 'penny dreadfuls' for boys that began in 1871, the year after Munro's birth, and continued up to the end of the Victorian era) an episode occurs which bears some relation to intrigue of Vera's kind. Here, as quoted by E. S. Turner [in Boys Will Be Boys]-.

Fighting apart, there was little to do at Pomona House school except to rag as graceless a set of pedagogues as ever gathered under one roof. Jack, being a ventriloquist, had a head and shoulders start over the others By causing Mr Mole to say 'Frogs!' and 'Waterloo!' to M. Bolivant, the French master, he succeeded in making these excitable gentlemen fight in front of the class. Then the Head, Mr. Crawcour, entered and the fun really started,

'What is this?' exclaimed Mr. Crawcour. 'Mr Mole with his fists clenched and Mr Bolivant on his back Disgraceful! How can you expect boys to be orderly when they have such a bad example? Gentlemen, I am ashamed of you!'

'Shut up', said Jack making his voice come from the senior master.

Such practical joking is, like "The Open Window," an entertaining fantasy but it is also symptomatic of a fascination with the domination of the adult world by a preternaturally powerful child.

That extraordinary children have a peculiar attraction and meaning for Saki is immediately evident on reading a cross-section of his stones. Munro's own early life has provided grounds for comparison with Thackeray, Kipling, and Dickens, writers "who never [shook] off the burden of their childhood." Munro was born in Burma, taken to England after his mother's death, when he" was around two years old, and was raised by a household of women at Broadgate Villa in Pilton, North Devon. Drake writes of Ms childhood home: "This establishment was presided over during [Hector's father] Major Munro's nearly perpetual absence in the East by his mother and his two sisters, Charlotte ('Aunt Tom') and Augusta, fierce spinster ladies who ruled with an authoritarian hand and whom Saki depicted again and again in his stones with a mixture of hatred and affection.'' Greene emphasizes Munro's unhappy childhood in relation to his writings, and Drake, with some reservations, makes the point too: "It is tempting... to see in Saki the boy who never grew up, avenging himself on his aunts and possibly his sisters." ...

"The Open Window" certainly supports S. P. B. Mais' claim, made in 1920 [in Books and Their Writers], that "Munro's understanding of children can only be explained by the fact that he was in many ways a child himself; his sketches betray a harshness, a love of practical jokes ... a lack of mellow geniality that hint very strongly at the child in the man." Framton Nuttel unquestionably belongs to the vapid adult world of the Gurtleberrys, but unlike Mrs. Gurtleberry's niece, Vera of "The Open Window'' has not acquiesced to this world. Vera's practical joke is of a kind with the moonlight hen-stealing raid, which remains after all only the fantasy of Mrs. Gurtleberry's niece. Vera not only rejects but completely—and one might say, maliciously—dominates the feeble representative of adult life who crosses her path....

Source: John Daniel Stahl, "Saki's Enfant Terrible in 'The Open Window','' in The USF Language Quarterly, Vol. XV, nos. 3-4, Spring-Summer, 1977, pp. 5-8.

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Critical Overview