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

The Open Window

by Saki

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Style and Technique

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The story is told from the third-person point of view, limited in the opening paragraphs to the naïve perception of Mr. Nuttel, who is tricked by Vera’s mischievous fantasy. Because the fantasy is so bizarre and inventive and totally unexpected from a fifteen-year-old girl, the reader is also momentarily duped. Vera’s practical joke, which borders on being cruel, is perfectly consistent. When Mr. Sappleton and the brothers are seen returning from the hunt, she pretends to be horrified. The reader, like Framton Nuttel himself, can only assume, therefore, that this is a supernatural event.

The narrator stays in the house, however, after Mr. Nuttel’s frightened and abrupt departure, so as to reveal the ironic twist and to enjoy Vera’s second demonstration of her ability to produce “romance at short notice,” when she explains to her aunt and uncle that Mr. Nuttel has “a horror of dogs” because of an imagined incident he had in a cemetery in India. By this time the reader has reason to doubt that Mr. Nuttel would be adventuresome enough to travel to India.

Vera clearly has a talent for ornamenting the ordinary and the commonplace, and she is too quick-witted to tolerate boredom. She first makes Mr. Nuttel think that her aunt is a lunatic, then tricks him into a state of panic and fear, taking advantage of the poor man’s nervous disorder. Vera is not only “self-possessed” but also clever. Before setting her trap, she is careful to ascertain that Mr. Nuttel knows “practically nothing” about her aunt or her family.

Saki satirizes Mr. Nuttel’s banality in this miniature comedy of manners, lacing his treatment with his typical dry wit and malice and allowing his characters to reveal themselves through meticulously crafted dialogue. Saki has been ranked with O. Henry as a master of the surprise ending, and no less a craftsperson than Noël Coward, in his introduction to The Complete Works of Saki (1976), praised “The Open Window” as a masterpiece of high comedy.

Themes and Meanings

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Saki was known for his satiric wit and his adroit dialogue, which perfectly reveals characters typical of the Edwardian social setting of his stories. His characters are very often eccentric bores and colossal liars, types that can be found in his other stories, such as “A Defensive Diamond” and “The Strategist.”

The meaning of “The Open Window” depends on the narrator’s final statement about Vera: “Romance at short notice was her specialty.” The story is little more than a practical joke played by Vera on the susceptible Framton Nuttel, a champion bore and a character-type familiar to readers of Saki. After a very short conversation with him, Mrs. Sappleton quickly reads the character of Mr. Nuttel as a “most extraordinary man” who “could only talk about his illnesses.”

The reader, too, is quickly bored with Framton Nuttel, a weakling who thinks only of his health and has no topic of conversation other than his nervous disorder and the opinions of his doctors. Vera, the fifteen-year-old niece who greets him on his arrival at the Sappleton house, is a surprisingly perceptive girl. She is able to read the man’s character accurately as that of a gullible hypochondriac and proceeds to fabricate the absurd story of her aunt’s “great tragedy” for her own amusement. The deception is almost forgivable because Mr. Nuttel is such a boring person, but the deception is also cruel, and the man’s terrified response to what he thinks must be a supernatural visitation is pathetic—there is no sympathy here for the weak. Mr. Nuttel is out of his league when confronted by Vera.

The story, then, centers on an ironic deception that transforms momentarily the ordinary into what seems to be the supernatural, then snaps the circumstances back into reality through the clever use of irony. Vera is a typical Saki character type, related to the tall-tale tellers and liars of his other stories, just as Mr. Nuttel is a deserving dupe.

Commentary

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Armed with a letter of introduction, Framton Nuttel is visiting Mrs. Sappleton’s country estate for a “nerve cure.” Mr. Nuttel is greeted by the niece, Vera, a polite “self-possessed young lady of fifteen,” who begins telling him about her aunt’s great tragedy. Pointing to the open French window, Vera (Latin, meaning “truth”) spins a yarn about her aunt’s husband and two brothers who went out through the window on a hunting trip through the moors fifteen years earlier and never returned. The aunt keeps the window open in expectation of their imminent return.

Suddenly the aunt enters. Over the civilities of tea and polite conversation, she alludes to the hunting trip, and Mr. Nuttel becomes gradually unnerved. When, indeed, the hunting party returns, Nuttel, as if he had seen ghosts, flees. The niece, we learn, had told the truth about the hunters, but had made up the part about their disappearance. They had simply gone out that morning, but, says Saki, Vera was incorrigible. “Romance at short notice was her specialty.”

At first glance the story appears to be a mere joke; but “THE OPEN WINDOW” can be reread with pleasure because of its masterful tone--a finely honed, polite restraint with only a hint of a smirk on the authorial face.

Finally, the narrative works as a parody of the traditional ghost story. Vera’s yarn has all the trimmings of the standard mystery--the journey on the moors, the mysterious disappearance, even Mr. Nuttel’s role as scared listener. In the end, the tradition is subverted. Romance is but a prank.

Literary Style

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"The Open Window" is the story of a deception, perpetrated on an unsuspecting, and constitutionally nervous man, by a young lady whose motivations for lying remain unclear.

Structure

The most remarkable of Saki's devices in ''The Open Window" is his construction of the story's narrative. The structure of the story is actually that of a story-within-a-story. The larger "frame" narrative is that of Mr. Nuttel's arrival at Mrs. Sappleton's house for the purpose of introducing himself to her. Within this narrative frame is the second story, that told by Mrs. Sappleton's niece.

Symbolism

The most important symbol in "The Open Window" is the open window itself. When Mrs. Sappleton's niece tells Mr. Nuttel the story of the lost hunters, the open window comes to symbolize Mrs. Sappleton's anguish and heartbreak at the loss of her husband and younger brother. When the truth is later revealed, the open window no longer symbolizes anguish but the very deceit itself. Saki uses the symbol ironically by having the open window, an object one might expect would imply honesty, as a symbol of deceit.

Narration

"The Open Window" is a third-person narrative, meaning that its action is presented by a narrator who is not himself involved in the story, This allows a narrator to portray events from a variety of points of view, conveying what all of the characters are doing and what they are feeling or thinking. For most of the story, until he runs from the house, the reader shares Mr. Nuttel's point of view. Like Mr. Nuttel, the reader is at the mercy of Vera's story. The reader remains, however, after Mr. Nuttel has fled and thus learns that Vera's story was nothing but a tall tale.

Tall Tale

Vera's story is essentially a tall tale. Tall tales are often found in folklore and legend and describe people or events in an exaggerated manner. Good examples are the story of John Henry and his hammer, and the story of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Vera exaggerates the significance of the open window by making it the centerpiece of a fabricated tale of tragic loss.

Setting

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The story is set entirely in one room of an English country home belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Sappleton. While no specific dates are mentioned in the story, it is assumed to take place in the early twentieth century, most likely during the reign of King Edward VII.

Literary Qualities

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The most remarkable of Saki's devices in "The Open Window" is his construction of the story's narrative. The structure of the story is that of a story-within-a-story. The larger frame narrative is that of Mr. Nuttel's arrival at Mrs. Sappleton's house for the purpose of introducing himself to her. Within this narrative frame is the second story, the one told by Mrs. Sappleton's niece.

The most important symbol in "The Open Window" is the open window itself. When Vera tells Mr. Nuttel the story of the lost hunters, the open window comes to symbolize Mrs. Sappleton's anguish and heartbreak at the loss of her husband and younger brother. When the truth is later revealed, the open window no longer symbolizes anguish but the very deceit itself. Saki uses the symbol ironically by having the open window, an object one might expect to imply honesty, represent deceit.

"The Open Window" is a third-person narrative, meaning that its action is presented to the reader by a narrator who is not himself involved in the story. This allows the narrator to portray events from a variety of points of view, revealing what all of the characters are doing and what they are feeling or thinking. For most of the story, until he runs from the house, the reader shares Mr. Nuttel's point of view. Like Mr. Nuttel, the reader is at the mercy of Vera's story. The reader remains, however, after Mr. Nuttel has fled and thus learns that Vera's story was nothing but a tall tale. Tall tales, often found in folklore and legend, are stories that describe people or events in an exaggerated manner. Good examples are the story of John Henry and his hammer and the story of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox. Vera exaggerates the significance of the open window by making it the centerpiece of a fabricated tale of tragic loss.

Themes and Characters

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Though it is a remarkably short piece of fiction, "The Open Window" explores a number of important themes, including the difference between appearances and reality. It is no surprise that Mrs. Sappleton's niece tells a story that is easy to believe. She begins with an object in plain view, an open window, and proceeds from there. The window is obviously open, but as for why it is open, the reader is completely at the mercy of Mrs. Sappleton's niece's explanation, at least while she tells her story. The open window becomes a symbol within this story-within-a-story, and its appearance becomes its reality. When Mr. Nuttel—and the reader— are presented with a contrary reality at the end of the story, the result is a tension between appearance and reality that needs to be resolved. Which is real? Can they both be real?

Deception provides another key theme in the story. The action and irony of the story revolve around the apparent deception practiced by Mrs. Sappleton's niece. It remains to be seen, however, whether this deception is a harmless prank or the result of a sinister disposition. If the niece's deception is cruel, then the reader must question the motives behind the deception practiced by all tellers of stories, including Saki himself.

Very few characters appear in the story. Mr. Framton Nuttel suffers from an undisclosed nervous ailment and comes to the country in the hope that its atmosphere will be conducive to a cure. He brings a letter of introduction to Mrs. Sappleton in order to make her acquaintance for his stay in her village. While he waits for Mrs. Sappleton to appear, her niece keeps him company and tells him a story about why a window in the room has been left open. He believes her story—that the window remains open in the hope that Mrs. Sappleton's husband and brother, who the niece says are long dead, will one day return. Later, when Nuttel looks out the window and sees figures approaching who match the descriptions of the long-dead hunters in the niece's story, he suffers a mental breakdown and flees the house.

Mrs. Sappleton is first introduced as a widow, keeping vigil for her departed husband and brother, who have disappeared during a hunting trip. She lives with her young niece, Vera, a teller of tales, a young woman whose forte is "romance at short notice. " Vera is an exquisite and intuitive actress, equally skilled at deceit and its concealment. While Nuttel waits with her for Mrs. Sappleton to appear, Vera relates an elaborate story surrounding a window in the room that has been left open. She tells Nuttel that the window is left open as a sign of her aunt's hope that the dead hunters will one day come home and provides a detailed description of the men, their behavior, and attire. After Nuttel flees upon seeing these men return, just as Vera has described them, Vera invents a story explaining his departure as well. Saki refers to Vera as "self-possessed, " which literally means that she has self-control and poise. In the context of this story it is clear that this is the quality that allows her to lie so well— Vera's self-possession allows her to maintain a cool head and calm believability while relating the most outlandish of tales.

The hunters, Mr. Sappleton and Mrs. Sappleton's younger brother, also appear in the story. They have been away hunting, and their reappearance following Vera's description of them causes Nuttel to flee in a panic.

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