The Storyteller

by Saki

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Last Updated on February 25, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 817

Saki’s “The Storyteller” features a story within a story, and its two plots are woven together to form an interesting and complex tale. The frame story opens with an exposition that introduces the characters, sets the scene in a railroad compartment, and presents the conflict—an aunt cannot satisfy the needs of her curious, restless nieces and nephew. As the action of the frame story rises, the aunt tries and fails to keep the children occupied, unsuccessfully answering their questions and telling them an unappealing story. Meanwhile, the bachelor becomes increasingly annoyed to the point where he decides to tell the children a story of his own.

Here, the tale’s interior story begins its exposition. The bachelor introduces his main character, Bertha, develops her character, and sets her in the Prince’s park. As the action rises, the audience of children—as well as Saki’s readers—learn more about Bertha and her journey in the park. The frame story interrupts the interior story several times as the children ask questions that help develop the details and direction of the tale.

The action in both the frame and interior stories rises further as Bertha hides from the wolf in the myrtle bushes and the three children listen intently and wonder what will happen next. Then the climax occurs as the wolf dashes into the bushes, grabs Bertha, and eats her. Readers can imagine three children sitting wide-eyed and excited at this turn of events. The action of the interior story falls and resolves quickly after the wolf eats Bertha, for there is little else to say except that her medals, the cause of her downfall, are almost all that are left of her. In the frame story, the falling action involves the aunt’s disapproval and the bachelor’s observation that the children will be hungry for more such stories.

The frame story design allows Saki to create a clever satire of a morality tale. A morality tale is a story that centers around a lesson. The aunt attempts to offer such a narrative, but she fails, because her story is morally and aesthetically unconvincing. The bachelor’s story, on the other hand, turns the conventional morality tale upside down, and therein lies the satire. The bachelor, too, tells of a “good” girl, but instead of following the conventional plot of goodness rewarded, his story takes an ironic turn. Bertha’s “goodness,” symbolized by her medals, ironically gets her eaten by a wolf. Of course, the bachelor, by exaggerating Bertha’s goodness, shows that she is not truly good at all. She is proud and vain, and her downfall occurs as a consequence of these faults. Thus, again ironically, the bachelor’s tale possesses an important if unexpected moral—it is a creative, satirical tale about pride.

Saki makes excellent use of language in “The Storyteller.” He reveals himself to be a master of the vivid adjective, which allows readers to enter deeply into the story and envision the setting, characters, and action. The railway carriage is “sultry.” The aunt and children converse in a “limited, persistent way,” like a persistent, buzzing housefly. The youngest girl recites her line of poetry in a “dreamy but resolute and very audible voice.”

When the bachelor begins his interior story, he modifies an adjective with an unexpected adverb to express a relevant paradox. Bertha, he says, is “horribly good.” The children immediately recognize this combination as especially interesting and potentially true. Indeed, this seemingly contradictory phrase proves to describe Bertha well. She is so “good” that she becomes horrible in her pride and vanity.

The bachelor at first appears to fit the stereotype of an independent man who is decidedly not family- or child-oriented. He is impatient and annoyed by the children’s antics and the aunt’s feeble attempts to interest them. The bachelor, however, quickly defies readers’ expectations and breaks the mold of his supposed character when he shows himself to be a storyteller and reveals that he knows exactly what will interest children and how to best interact with them to stir their imaginations. He moves from apparently symbolizing the childless, clueless single man to representing the epitome of a raconteur.

The bachelor’s story contains notable symbolic elements. Bertha’s name comes from an old Germanic world that means “bright” or “famous.” Indeed, Bertha is famous for her goodness and is quite literally bright in her shining white pinafore. Ironically, though, this fame and brilliance lead to her death. The Prince’s park may symbolize the world in that it is beautiful and interesting (with its ponds, trees, and birds) but often unexpected (it is filled with pigs but not flowers) and far from perfect (a wolf appears). The wolf who devours Bertha is also symbolic, for he stands for the dangers and death that all people encounter no matter their degree of goodness.

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