The Open Window Questions and Answers

Saki

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Open Window questions.

When was "The Open Window" published?

Saki's short story "The Open Window" was published in 1914.

How is Vera an actress and a story-teller?

When Saki was plotting "The Open Window" he must have given considerable thought to creating the character who would tell the spooky story to Framton Nuttel. He chose to give the role to Vera, a fifteen-year-old girl. He may have decided against using a boy because a boy would have been more likely to go off bird shooting with the three men. A girl is more convincing because girls generally appear to be better behaved, although they may harbor all sorts of mischievous thoughts. Vera had to be young enough to play such a trick on a visitor and to take a risk of getting found out after the fact. But she had to be old enough to be entirely credible. Fifteen seems like exactly the right age. She is described as very "self-possessed." Saki uses the term "self-possessed" twice. We picture her as calm, cool, relaxed, quite sophisticated for her age. This is for the sake of contrast with Framton Nuttel, who is just the opposite of calm, cool, and relaxed. Vera's description as self-possessed will also serve as a contrast with the way she behaves when she sees the three men approaching the open window. 

Framton is seated with his back toward the open window when Mrs. Sappleton cries, "Here they are at last!" Instead of looking at the window, Framton turns and looks at Vera. The girl is anything but self-possessed. 

The child was staring out through the open window with dazed horror in her eyes.

 Vera is a good actress as well as a good story-teller. She must have been planning to fake a look of "dazed horror" from the start. It is the look of horror on her innocent young face that frightens Framton more than anything else. All he needs is a glimpse of three men approaching with guns to make him flee in blind panic.

What are the similarities between Framton Nuttel and Ichabod Crane?

There is a rather striking similarity between Saki's "The Open Window" and Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Both Framton Nuttel and Ichabod Crane are victims of their own morbid imaginations. There really isn't anything physically wrong with Nuttel. His ailments are all imaginary. Otherwise all the doctors he consulted could have found something to treat. Ichabod Crane is a schoolteacher, yet he is extremely superstitious. Just as Vera uses Nuttel's imagination to frighten him out of the house, so Brom Bones uses Crane's imagination to frighten him away from the home of the beautiful and wealthy Katrina van Tassel, the girl they are both courting. Both stories end with a chase scene. Framton Nuttel believes he is being pursued down the country road by three ghosts armed with guns. Ichabod Crane believes he is being pursued by the legendary "Headless Horseman," who is really Brom Bones carrying a pumpkin which is supposedly his head. Bones throws the pumpkin at Crane and frightens him out of his wits. He will not be coming a-courting at night again. Saki may have gotten his inspiration for "The Open Window" from "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Washington Irving was a much older writer. He was born in 1783 and died in 1859, Saki (H. H. Munro) was born in 1870 and died in 1916.

What are the similarities between "The Open Window" and "The Umbrella Man"?

Vera, the "self-possessed" teenage girl who causes all the excitement in Saki's "The Open Window," and the anonymous twelve-year-old girl who narrates Roald Dahl's "The Umbrella Man," are both alike in being secretly mischievous and secretly amused. Their laughter is internalized. Somehow the fact that both these characters are young girls seems to soften the stories and make Vera and her counterpart more innocent. What would "The Open Window" have been like if the perpetrator of the practical joke on Framton Nuttel had been a fifteen-year-old boy? Perhaps it would have seemed more cruel, for some reason. At the time, boys were thought to be more cruel than girls. The same question applies to the girl-narrator of "The Umbrella Man." How would the story be different if the narrator were a twelve-year-old boy instead instead of a twelve-year-old girl? Both Saki and Roald Dahl chose to feature girls in their respective roles for some artistic purpose. In both cases the girls seem completely suited to the stories in which they appear.

How is this a humorous story?

In analyzing "The Open Window" we should not lose sight of the fact that this is a funny story. None of the characters laughs, but that is part of what is funny. Fifteen-year-old Vera not only has a vivid imagination and a mischievous nature, but she has a wild sense of humor. Her whole purpose in making up the story about the three men who died while hunting is to create the reaction she evokes in the hypochondriacal visitor Framton Nuttel.

Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.

Except for giving the approaching hunters a look of "dazed horror," Vera remains completely deadpan as her elders wonder why their strange visitor left in such a hurry. But Vera must be laughing on the inside. In fact, she may be having a very hard time to keep from laughing out loud.

Why are characters important in this story?

We must remember that Vera is not a real person but a character in a story. The same applies to Framton Nuttel and Mrs. Sappleton. They were all "cast" to serve a purpose. Saki probably had the germ of an idea for a story. Someone tells a visitor a cock-and-bull story about how three male family members got killed by being sucked into a bog while hunting birds. When these three carefully described men return towards the French window, the visitor naturally takes them for ghosts and flees in terror. It has to be established, of course, that the visitor is a newcomer who knows no one in the region and nothing about the Sappleton family. 

But who should tell the visitor such a story? It might be a mischievous boy--but a boy would probably be out hunting with the men. And a boy might be less believable. It could be some senile family member or old servant who sneaks into the living room while the visitor is waiting for the lady of the house. But a mischievous young girl seems like the best choice. She has to be young enough to be mischievous but old enough to be believable. Vera seems like the most interesting character in the story. She pulls off her complicated practical joke to perfection, both as a story-teller and actress. She seems harmless. Who would suspect that such a polite and innocent-looking girl would be capable of making up such a story?

Saki also created two characters who would fit into Vera's scheme. The visitor would be a city man suffering from what is now called neurosis. He is a nervous wreck. This explains why he has come to the country and why he knows nothing about the family. Mrs. Sappleton is a rattlebrained, housebound woman whose life revolves around her husband and two brothers. Vera knows exactly what her aunt is going to talk about when she appears, and the girl also knows exactly what the three hunters will do and say when they arrive at the expected time for tea. In fact, Vera's motivation in creating an uproar may be that she is terribly bored with the maddening monotony of life in this English country household.

Without Vera, "The Open Window" would not be nearly as compelling as it is. We, the readers, are completely taken in by this demure young girl, just like Framton Nuttel. We do not realize that she has been telling him a "ghost story" until after the terrified visitor has fled from the house and is last seen running down the country road. Then we are let in on the practical joke when we read the dialogue between Mr. and Mrs. Sappleton.

"Here we are, my dear," said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, "fairly muddy, but most of it's dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?"
"A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel," said Mrs. Sappleton; "could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost."

Is Vera a good hostess?

Saki's story opens with the following dialogue:

"My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel," said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; "in the meantime you must try and put up with me."

It is ironic that Vera is serving as a hostess when her intention is to do just the opposite of what a hostess should do. She intends to make the guest uncomfortable rather than comfortable, and she succeeds possibly beyond her own expectations. We might wonder why this girl is behaving in such a perverse way. On the surface she is poised and polite, but there must be a lot going on beneath that smooth surface. Vera seems to be bored and rebellious. She creates her ghost story just because she wants to do the opposite of what she is supposed to do. Her aunt is probably trying to teach her to be a good hostess. This could explain why Mrs. Sappleton isn't there to greet Framton Nuttel. She sends Vera on ahead so that this girl, who will soon be of marriageable age, can get some practice playing the same sort of role that her aunt has been playing for many years. But perhaps Vera doesn't want to be like her aunt. Her decision to make up a story about the three hunters being sucked into a bog indicates how terribly bored she must be. There is little for a fifteen-year-old girl to do in this country household. She sees the same actions and hears the same words being repeated every day until they become maddening. She hears that silly refrain repeated every evening at tea time: 

"I said, Bertie, why do you bound?"

It is because Vera knows exactly what is going to happen and what is going to be said that she is able to make up a story that will frighten poor Framton out of his wits. She knows her aunt will talk about nothing but wild birds and bird-shooting because that is all the poor woman ever hears in this country home. She knows her aunt will be looking out the open French window and waiting for her menfolk to come home in their muddy boots. Mrs. Sappleton's life revolves around her husband and brothers. This is the sort of fate Vera sees in store for herself when she gets married off, and this probably explains her dominant feelings of boredom, anger, and rebelliousness. The poor girl can only rebel in her imagination. Framton provides her with a rare opportunity to vent some of her concealed, smoldering hostility. 

Mrs. Sappleton probably has nothing important to do upstairs. She is just marking time while her niece has an opportunity to play hostess. Vera plays hostess-from-hell by telling the visitor a grisly story about how three men got sucked into a bog and died horrible deaths. She has just enough time to finish her story before her aunt arrives and takes over the hostess duties.

She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.

Now the scene is set. All Vera has to do is sit back and wait.

How are the main characters introduced?

A good fiction writer will generally not introduce two major characters at the same time unless absolutely necessary. Notice how adroitly Saki introduces Vera and Mrs. Sappleton. Vera explains that she is substituting as a hostess for her aunt, who will be down presently. This allows the reader to give full attention to this precocious fifteen-year-old girl. It is understandable that Mrs. Sappleton might want to fix her hair and even put on a better dress to receive her visitor. Also, she might feel that it would be good experience for Vera for play hostess, a role the poor girl is destined to fulfill in the not-too-distant future, since there were few other vocations for women in Victorian times outside of marriage.

When Mrs. Sappleton makes her appearance, the reader can give full attention to this eccentric woman, having already become acquainted with Vera. Saki's use of Vera as a temporary hostess is a plausible way of introducing the girl first and her aunt a bit later. It would be awkward to introduce the aunt first and Vera later. Vera has to have some time alone with Framton Nuttel in order to be able to tell her story and set him up for his big scare at the end.