The Storyteller Themes
The main themes in “The Storyteller” are pride and goodness, curiosity, and storytelling.
- Pride and goodness: The story of Bertha is about how her pride prevents her from being entirely good and leads to her demise.
- Curiosity: Saki’s story shows what happens when the curiosity of children is encouraged rather than merely tolerated.
- Storytelling: The aunt’s and the bachelor’s contrasting tales illustrate why some stories are dull and others captivating.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Pride and Goodness
In “The Storyteller,” Saki reflects on pride and its consequences. Bertha, the main character in the bachelor’s tale, is a good little girl—so good that she has received medals for her goodness. Bertha, however, takes great pride in her conduct. She wears those medals pinned to the front of her dress where everyone can see them and where they clink together audibly when she walks. Everyone can know, just by looking at her, that Bertha is “an extra good child,” the bachelor explains.
Bertha’s thoughts reflect the pride of her actions. As she walks in the park, where no other children are allowed, Bertha basks in the honor her goodness has brought her. Yet Bertha’s pride becomes her downfall. The wolf spies her because of her spotless white pinafore—a symbol of her goodness—and he catches her in the end because of the noise of her medals. In a sense, the wolf devours her because pride has devoured her first.
Bertha’s excessive pride leads readers to question her goodness and the meaning of goodness in general. Bertha may do everything her elders tell her with precision. Yet one may argue that she is not truly good, for true goodness requires humility, which Bertha lacks. Her “goodness” stems from her desire to be recognized and admired by others rather than a devotion to goodness for its own sake, regardless of validation. In her pride, then, Bertha is indeed a “horribly good” girl—which is to say that she is not so good after all.
Children are, by nature, curious creatures. Saki explores children’s curiosity and adults’ reactions to it in “The Storyteller.” Cyril and his two sisters continually ask questions, yet their queries are honest and not intended to be obnoxious or sarcastic. They arise from true curiosity far more than ill will. Cyril, for instance, truly wants to know why the sheep are being moved from one field to another and why the grass might be better in the other field. He is trying to understand how the world works.
Yet his aunt responds to his curiosity in a way that belittles it. Her replies are weak and unconvincing and only lead to more questions from the boy, who is unsatisfied. The aunt does not know why the sheep are being moved, but she does not bother to think carefully about Cyril’s questions or even to enter into a discussion with the boy to lead him to discover answers for himself. To the aunt, Cyril’s curiosity is merely a nuisance to be suppressed as quickly as possible.
The bachelor, however, responds differently to the children’s curiosity. He welcomes their questions and uses them as an opportunity to enhance his story and further draw his audience into the tale. When the older girl asks if Bertha is pretty, for example, the bachelor pays the children a compliment by saying that the good little girl was not as pretty as they are, and he uses her question to add another pertinent detail: Bertha is “horribly good.” The children are now fascinated; there is a “ring of truth” in the bachelor’s words, and their curiosity and involvement in the story grows as they ponder the paradox of “horribly good.”
As the tale continues, the bachelor answers each of the children’s questions by adding imaginative details to his narrative. There are no sheep in the park because of the Prince’s mother’s prophetic dream, but the Prince is still alive, so no one knows if the dream will come true. The park is full of variously colored pigs. The bachelor pauses to let...
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the children’s imaginations process these new details. There are no flowers because the pigs ate them. The wolf is mud-colored and has a black tongue. With the addition of these particulars, inspired by the children’s questions, the story flourishes, and the children have assumed the role of co-creators. Their imaginations are stimulated and active. Someone has finally acknowledged and valued their natural curiosity and shown how this curiosity can grow into creativity.
Saki’s “The Storyteller” features two contrasting stories, which the author uses to illustrate why some stories fail and others succeed. The first story is that of the aunt, and the narrator labels it as “unenterprising and deplorably uninteresting.” Its plot is trite: A good little girl is saved from a mad bull. The plot is also unconvincing, which the older girl recognizes when she asks if people would not have saved the protagonist even if she were not good. The story’s main character is flat and underdeveloped. The audience learns little more about her than that she is good but somehow gets herself into a predicament. Creative details are completely lacking, and there is nothing in the story that catches the audience’s attention or stimulates their imaginations. In fact, the children declare the story to be the stupidest they have ever heard. It is the perfect example of a bad story.
The bachelor’s tale, by contrast, exhibits the characteristics of a good story. While its plot starts off slowly and conventionally, it quickly turns in new and interesting directions with Bertha’s entry into the park and her encounter with the wolf. Further, Bertha herself is a complex character who appears good on the surface but is actually filled with pride, leading to serious consequences. The story is also replete with fascinating, creative details that capture and stimulate the audience’s imagination. The bachelor adds color to the story with these minutiae, such as the dream of the Prince’s mother and the hummingbirds that hum popular songs. The story resolves satisfactorily for its audience—Bertha is eaten, but the pigs escape—and the children are unanimous again in their verdict: It is the most beautiful story they have ever heard.