Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1648
Hector Hugh Munro first used Saki, cupbearer in THE RUBAIYAT OF OMAR KHAYYAM, as a pseudonym when, in 1894, in the manner of Lewis Carroll, he wrote political sketches for THE WESTMINSTER GAZETTE, later published as THE WESTMINSTER ALICE in 1902. As these literary affinities suggest, the work of Saki himself is characterized by wit, whimsicality, an acute sense of humor, and a smiling acceptance of the less delectable truths of human existence.
Reginald is imaginary like the other characters in the fifteen REGINALD sketches; he is a type composed of several young men studied by Saki during the years he lived in London. Complacently good-looking, somewhat more than meticulously well dressed, and addicted to gossip, he moves easily, despite a strong penchant for mischief, in upper-class society. Frequenting good hotels, garden parties, and the well-staffed homes of his eminently respectable friends, he is an earlier version of Clovis Sangrail, who observes, narrates, enlivens, or simply glances into many of the later stories. Reginald’s escapades foreshadow the more elaborate ones indulged in by Clovis and others. After his chat, in the title story of REGINALD IN RUSSIA, with the Princess (who looks to him as if she habitually went out to feed hens in the rain), readers lose track of Reginald altogether, since the following stories are all independent of him and of one another. Even THE CHRONICLES OF CLOVIS, although the stories by no means terminate the reader’s acquaintance with Sangrail, owe little to the appearance, sometimes perfunctory, of that brash, clever, thoroughly uncharitable young man.
Reaching into the realms of fantasy or the supernatural, Saki can be somber, even chilling. In Reginald and Clovis, however, he presents his typical protagonists: young, or youthful, persons who use imagination and their wits as weapons against the oppressiveness of social ritual, respectable self-interest, obtuseness, and moral insensitivity. Sometimes nature intervenes on the side of “right,” as in “The Sheep” and “The Bull.” Most often the conflict becomes overt in the playing of an ingenious prank. There are irresponsible pranks such as those in “The Peace Offering,” and “A Touch of Realism”; pranks justified, possibly, by the ends they achieve, as in “The Open Window,” “The Quince Tree,” and “Shock Tactics”; pranks probably even more justified by the offenses of their victims, as in “The Boar-Pig” and “The Talking-Out of Tarrington.” The sheer exuberance of it could be said to justify Clovis’ “Unrest-Cure.” The children in “The Penance” have not so much played a prank as used their wits and, of course, their natural hankering for revenge, to even scores in a painfully unjust world.
All of Saki’s stories are truly short. Characteristically, he manipulates a single aspect of individual or group behavior until its irrationality, absurdity, or shoddiness is exposed. Some of his targets are shopping habits, especially those of the female (“The Sex That Doesn’t Shop,” “Quail Seed,” and “The Dreamer”); newsmongering (“The Yarkand Manner” and “The Unkindest Blow”); woman suffrage, the Victoria Memorial, the Royal Academy, Christmas thank-you notes, horse-betting, ingenious begging, polite blackmail (“Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger” and “The Treasure-Ship”). Where neither exaggeration nor stratagem will reach, Saki lets loose a fantasy guaranteed to explode a house party.
It has been said that Saki’s wit is malicious. It would be more accurate to say that in a witty, sophisticated way he pokes fun at the foibles and follies of the society he knew but without looking, it seems, for any corrective result. Even the bland expose attributed to Tobermory, the talking cat, is unlikely to jolt anyone, least of all hardened hosts and hostesses, into new lives of charity and grace. The congregation in “The Threat” gives a respectful hearing for nearly ten minutes to a jackdaw from Wapping, mistaking him for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has been detained. Possibly Saki was being unkind to the chancellor. Possibly he was simply being sorry for poor souls beaten by previous political torturers into such a state of numb submission.
All the clues for or against malice are not in the stories themselves. A drawing entitled “Missionary Sunday,” included by Ethel M. Munro in the biography of her brother appended to THE SQUARE EGG, shows mother, father, daughter, and son of a patently uninspired, obviously adenoidal family singing: “Oh, we whose lives are lighted/With wisdom from on high....” The irony implicit here pervades all of Saki’s writing; yet it is neither bitter nor, ultimately, cruel. Stupid, ignorant, and unsaved though these hymn singers appear to be, they also give the impression of perfect innocence.
Instead of fulminating, Saki effervesces. Pranks, children, animals domestic and savage, deceit of all kinds, the supernatural (“The Peace of Mowsle Barton,” “The Cobweb,” “The Wolves of Czernogratz,” and “The Music on the Hill”), the supernatural spoofed (“Ministers of Grace” and “The She-Wolf”), assorted stupidities—these Saki treats, more often than not, merrily and always with a deft, light hand; yet for all his high spirits, at bottom Saki’s meanings shimmer and dart. What they are is indicated especially by his use of children. Best known, perhaps, is Conradin, whose story, “Sredni Vashtar,” is more openly a struggle for survival than most. Conradin, when readers meet him, is already under medical sentence, possibly arbitrary, of death. His more immediate threat is from his guardian, Mrs. De Ropp. Not admitting, even to herself, that she dislikes him, she enjoys thwarting Conradin “for his own good.” Conradin knows very well, without letting her know, that he hates Mrs. De Ropp. To Conradin, she stands for all that is necessary, disagreeable, and real in the world. He has no resource beyond himself and his imagination for combatting these forces. Hemmed in, the child lavishes his affections on a hen he likes to think of as “dashing,” and he transforms a large polecat-ferret into Sredni Vashtar, who becomes his religion and his god. Mrs. De Ropp, sadistic as well as narrow-minded, threatens to do away with the pets on the ground that they are a health hazard. Instead, Sredni Vashtar kills Mrs. De Ropp. Although Conradin has repeatedly prayed to his private god for this “one thing,” readers are not asked to believe that Sredni Vashtar answered his prayers. Readers need not even suppose that Mrs. De Ropp is destroyed by her own stupidity, although, in a sense, this is true. Conradin, however, feels that he has won. This time, Saki seems to be saying, imagination, pitted aainst the harsh realities of the world, triumphs, although that triumph is more than any adult, in the circumstances, would have dared to expect.
In contrast to “Sredni Vashtar,” “Morlvera” may seem a pallid story. Actually, it is a companion piece which, carefully considered, underlines again the importance Saki placed upon imagination. Two obscure, back-alley children name a not very lovable doll in a shop window Morlvera. To them, the history they invent for her is so vivid that when, in reality, a spoiled child tosses her under the wheels of a motor car, they know which one of her atrocities she is being punished for, and by whom.
Bertha, in “The Story-Teller,” is a child without imagination enough, it would seem, to be naughty. No other hypothesis sufficiently explains how very, very good she is. The three medals she has been awarded for good behavior, Saki takes pains to point out, are the direct cause of her being eaten alive by a wolf.
It is not that Saki’s beasts are so particular. He uses a number of different kinds, in various ways, until they, like his children, seem to point the way to part of his meaning. Esme, an unexpected hyena, mouths horribly a gypsy child who happens to be handy, before finally consuming it. The two lifelong enemies of “The Interlopers” have just concluded a pact of friendship when they perceive a pack of wolves who will unquestionably devour them both. “Gabriel-Ernest” introduces a werewolf who has already made off with one child and proceeds to gobble another. Some say that in Saki there is a sizable streak of cruelty. His sister, in the biography, questions this judgment.
In his introduction to the 1930 volume of collected stories, Christopher Morley suggests similarities between O. Henry and Munro. It is true that Saki, too, had a knack for surprise endings, notably in “The Reticence of Lady Anne,” “The Bag,” and “The Mouse.” A more meaningful comparison, however, can be made to the stories of Jack London. Even the biographical similarities are striking. Saki was only six years older; they died within two weeks of each other. Both suffered from parental dislocations. Neither completed a university education. Both traveled widely; both wrote for newspapers. Both saw life in terms of a struggle against insurmountable odds. Both used wolves or other animals to exemplify that aspect of the universe that, impervious to reason, remains unalterably inimical to human survival. London’s characters survive for a time by virtue of physical prowess, only to fall at last before some force still more powerful. The defense of Saki’s characters is an inner strength, the power and virtuosity of imagination. They, too, sometimes suffer from enemies in nature. Groby Lington, without imagination enough to be himself, succumbs to them; yet galloping wolves, as Saki presents them, are somehow less sinister than the slow creep of a dullness that extinguishes, eventually, the liveliness of life, as in “Tea,” “Judkin of the Parcels,” and “The Mappined Life.”
Mr. Morley was right to call attention to “the claw of the demon-cat / Beneath the brilliant robe.” The viciousness of the claw, however, was not Saki’s. When he chose to be Saki, he chose, as well, Saki’s “joyous errand.” Fully aware of the shortcomings of the universe, he wrote nevertheless with the unforced gaiety of one who has been able not only to accept but also to forgive them.