The Stories of Saki Critical Essays


Critical Evaluation

(Masterpieces of British Fiction)

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...

(The entire section is 1648 words.)