Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Short Story Month: 2015-Saki, "The Open Window" and "Sredni Vashtar"

Most often Saki's stories are discussed as satires, a focus which both Graham Greene and V.S. Pritchett insist upon in their well-known essays on Saki's work.  Pritchett says that Saki belongs to the early period of the sadistic reversal in English comic and satiric writing, a period when the chief target was the "cult of convention." And Greene notes that Saki only satirizes those who deserve no sympathy.  Like a chivalrous highwayman, says Greene, he only robs from the rich.  However, no one has discussed the typical structure of Saki's use the story-telling theme.  Because Saki marks a shift in Edwardian short fiction to the trick ending story that dominates popular short stories both in England and America at the turn of the century, his stories often focus on the nature of story itself.  
     Saki's most anthologized story, "The Open Window," is a clear example of a fiction that depends for its impact on the means by which story itself works.  Frampton Nuttel goes to the country for his health and calls at the home of a woman wo whom his sister has referred him.  While waiting for the woman, Nuttel hears a story from the niece about a great tragedy that occurred three years earlier when the aunt's husband and her two younger brothers went hunting and were lost in a bog.  Just as the niece tells Nuttel that the aunt keeps the window open for the men in case they should return, the aunt enters for desultory conversation until quite expectantly she sees the three men coming in toward the window.  Nuttel, terrified of what he himself sees as ghosts, bolts out, at which point the young girl establishes the true situation by beginning a story which Nuttel has supposedly told her about a pack of pariah dogs which frightened him in a cemetery on the banks of the Ganges.  The  punchline from Saki is: "Romance at short notice was her specialty."
"The Open Window" is a particularly clear example of foregrounding the process of story, for what makes it work is Nuttel's uncertainty about the nature of the story Vera tells and the reader's uncertanity about the nature of the story Saki writes.  Our first response is to take Vera's story as truth; we have no more means than Nuttel does, to determine it is not.  When Mrs. Sappelton enters and rattles on about her husband going snipe hunting, both the reader and Nuttel begin to think that they are involved in a bit of harmless madness.
However, when Nuttel looks out the window and sees the three men, the reader's apprehension of the story shifts to a conviction that it is a conventional ghost story.  It is only when Vera begins her next tale that the reader knows that Nuttel and the reader have been made the butt of Saki's story-made joke. Vera is indeed the typical Saki artist who manipulates the reader into various possibilities about the genre of the story only to reveal that it is about the process of turning fantasy into supposed fact, only to reveal it as fantasy after all.  For Frampton Nuttel, the story becomes a reality to which he cannot passively respond, but which involves him by actually threatening to enter the world he occupies. It works similarly for the reader until, in a gesture that lays bare what always underlies story, Saki makes clear that what we took to be real is only imagination, that is, story itself.                      
Romance at short notice is also the specialty of the bachelor in the train car in "The Story-Teller," a typical Saki persona.  Becoming tired of the children's noise and the ineffectual aunt who tries to entertain them with a moral story about a good little girl, the bachelor tells them a story about a  little girl who is "horribly good," a detail which the children feel has the ring of truth about it.  As the story proceeds, prompted by questions from the children, it is clear that the bachelor, in typical fairy-tale fashion, is extemporizing, moving freely in response to the questions themselves.  The crux of the story is that Bertha, a little girl who has many medals for her goodness, is allowed to go into a special park which no other children are permitted to enter.  While there, she is chased by a wolf and hides in the bushes, but her medals clink together and reveal her hiding place, and the wolf eats up her to the last morsel.  The children say the story has a beautiful ending, that in fact it is the most beautiful ending they have ever heard, even the only beautiful story they have ever heard.  Although the aunt scolds him for telling the children an improper story that will undermine years of careful teaching, the bachelor replies that at least it kept them quiet for ten minutes.  He leaves amused that the aunt will be assailed in public by the children for the next six months by demands for an improper story.
The point of the story is the story itself, of course, for Saki here makes it clear that story does not exist for the sake of a moral lesson, but rather for the delight it gives in reversing one's usual expectations.  The story the bachelor tells fulfills the unconscious expectations of the children even as it defeats the conscious expectations of the conventional moral tale that begins "Once there was a little girl who was extraordinarily good."  The bachelor's tale is truly more properly a fairy tale than the moral tale the aunt tells.  As Bruno Bettleheim has recently suggested, fairy tales fulfill the unconscious demands of children that they are not outcasts because of their own unconscious and often forbidden desires.  Such stories, says Bettleheim, are more valuable for children than the moral stories of everyday reality that are often told to them by adults, for they objectify unconscious desires. "The Story-Teller" embodies the basic nature of both the method and the motivation for fairy tale itself.
"Sredni Vashtar" is the quintessential Saki story about the romancer who makes his imagination become real; however, the tone of this story is more serious than "The Open Window," for more is at stake here.  The protagonist is a ten-year-old boy who is only given five more years to live.  But his illness  has a metaphorical significance, for it is the illness of being forced by the real world to give up his world of imagination.  The embodiment of the threat to his imagination is Mrs. De Ropp, his cousin and guardian, who "the three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real."  Conradin sees the other two-fifths summed up in himself and his imagination.  Although Conradin knows that one day he will have to succumb to the pressure of necessary things such as restrictions and dullness, he also knows that without his imagination, born of his loneliness he would have succumbed long ago.
Like all adults, Mrs. De Ropp is only concerned with what is for Conradin's own good, but her pleasure in thwarting him is only matched by his hatred for her.  Thus, he locks her out of his imagination as something unclean.  As is typical of Saki's children, Conradin has his hiding place from external reality--a tool shed where he keeps his two pets, a hen and a polecat-ferret.  The tool-shed is both playroom and cathedral, which Conradin peoples with creatures of his own imagination.  The ferret becomes the central figure in the cathedral, a creature that Conradin both intensely fears and treasures.  By naming it Sredni Vashtar he transforms it into a god and his relationship to it into a religion.  Conradin's religion, rather than being the passive religion of Christianity, represents the "fierce impatient side of things."
When Mrs. De Ropp, unaware of the existence of the ferret, has the hen sold, Conradin asks a boon of his god, that it do one thing for him, although he does not specify what that thing is.  As Mrs. De Ropp, whom Conradin refers to simply as "the Woman," continues her persecution of him, she goes to the tool shed to see what else he is hiding there.  Conradin continues to pray his prayer for a boon from Sredni Vashtar, but he believes that the Woman, representing external adult reality, will win as she always does.  He chants when she goes to his playhouse, and when she does not come out, hope and triumph begin to creep into his heart.  Presently the animal comes out with dark stains around its jaws and throat; it goes to the stream, drinks, and then crosses the bridge and is seen no more: "Such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar." Later when the maid discovers the body of Mrs. De Ropp and wonders who will break it to the poor child, Conradin makes himself another piece of toast.

It is obvious that plot and tone are everything in Saki's stories.  Character is limited to embodiments of a dichotomy between the child-like world, which is the world of story and the imagination, and the adult world, which is the world of reality and control.  For Saki, as for the short story form generally, it is the world of imagination that triumphs over the world of external reality.  "Sredni Vashtar" is a particularly sardonic version of the kind of story that Conrad Aiken later tells in "Silent Snow, Secret Snow," or that Poe earlier told in "The Fall of the House of Usher."  It is a story about imagination  predominating over the reality of the every-day world.  What makes this particular story somewhat different from the other Saki stories is not only the horror of the final end of the hated Woman, for that is surely a wish-fulfillment we can accept as such; rather it is the ambiguous nature of her end.  The ferret is surely real, but it has been transformed by Conradin into a creature of his own imagination that acts out and objectifies his wishes--truly an example of the god-like magic power of primitive and child-like belief. Such is the romantic and primitive notion that dominates the short-story form throughout the nineteenth century.

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