Saki's Wit and Skillful Social Satire
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...
(The entire section is 5,099 words.)