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

The Open Window

by Saki

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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869

Saki’s “The Open Window” can be read as a combination of two genres that usually do not cross paths: the comedy of manners and the ghost story. The comedy of manners is a theatrical form that uses satire and dramatic irony to comment on the prevailing class system, to critique cultural mores and conventions, and to make fun of various social archetypes. In British literature, the comedy of manners reached its zenith with the Restoration-era comedies of William Wycherley and William Congreve, as well as the works of Oliver Goldsmith in the late 18th century. The comedy of manners was still popular during Saki’s time, most notably in the ingenious comedies of Oscar Wilde. Saki incorporates several hallmarks of the genre—dramatic irony, over-the-top characters, plot twists, and satirical edge—in “The Open Window.” With the exception of Vera, Saki’s characters are one-dimensional and seem poised chiefly to allow the story’s comedic mechanism to function properly.

The other genre Saki draws on is the ghost story. The central section of the story features all of the suspense, veiled tragedy, and supernatural aura of an archetypal ghost story—at least for readers who are not familiar with the story’s twist ending. That being said, “The Open Window” is ultimately a satire of the ghost story—or perhaps an homage to the genre—rather than a true version of it. The story’s broader structure and framing undermine the effect of the ghostly tale Vera tells Framton; indeed, that act of subversion is in itself the primary effect of “The Open Window.” Thus, it is perhaps less accurate to say that Saki combines the comedy of manners with the ghost story than it is to say that he nests the latter within the former. It is the comedic paradigm that prevails.

Much of the satire of “The Open Window” is directed at the English upper classes at the turn of the twentieth century, during the late-Victorian and Edwardian eras. Although Saki does not specify the setting of the story, it appears to take place in a rural region of England among characters of the upper classes. The Sappletons’ stately home—fitted with the eponymous French windows—and their hunting of snipe are indications of their relative affluence. Framton’s current treatment, a “nerve cure” that involves retiring to the countryside to restore one’s psychological health, is also suggestive of an upper-class background. 

Saki’s story portrays these characters as somewhat ridiculous, especially Framton. With his lack of social ease, his tedious conversational manner, and his immediate fright at the hunters’ return, Framton is the portrait of gracelessness and gullibility. Even Mrs. Sappleton, with whom Famton shares a vaporous exchange, comes across as somewhat superficial. Moreover, the story suggests that the Sappletons are gullible in their own right, for in the final passages, Vera tells them an entirely fictitious story about Framton’s fear of dogs and the origins of that fear. 

Altogether, Saki portrays the English upper classes as naïve and somewhat out of touch with reality. Given the political and historical context of the story, this characterization makes sense. During the Victorian era, Great Britain became one of the most powerful empires in history. However, by the turn of the twentieth century, there were concerns that Great Britain had become decadent and had begun to decline from its Victorian glory. The ruling classes of the time were often seen as having grown complacent due to their decades of accumulating imperial wealth and power.

One character in “The Open Window” who evades satirization is Vera, because Vera is the vehicle for the story’s satire. It is perhaps unsurprising that the story satirizes adult...

(This entire section contains 869 words.)

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characters and that the satire is set into motion by an adolescent. In many contexts, adults—and especially elders—are associated with conventions and prevailing structure, whereas youths are associated with critiques and protests of those conventions and structures. 

In several ways, Vera can be read as a kind of Shakespearean fool or archetypal trickster. The figure of the fool exists outside the prevailing power structure and uses her intelligence and imagination to deceive those in power or to reveal hidden truths. Vera deceives the other characters in the story with her two fictitious tales—characters who are older than her and therefore of a higher social station. And it can be argued that Vera reveals hidden truths in that the ghostly story she tells, despite being a lie, has the effect of removing Framton’s pretenses and revealing the gullibility and fearfulness of his nature. 

Vera also reflects two core aspects of the trickster, a mythological archetype that is similar—but not necessarily identical—to the archetype of the Shakespearean fool. Like a classic trickster, Vera crosses boundaries. In her case, she crosses the boundaries of social decorum by lying. Her penchant for telling tall tales—“romance at short notice,” as Saki’s narrator calls it—breaches the code of Edwardian conduct. The other key trait of the trickster that Vera embodies is her creation of new paradigms. Like the mythical tricksters whose actions create new worlds, Vera’s tales create new realities that the other characters then inhabit.


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