“Hector Hugh Munro, known by his penname Saki, masterfully satirizes Edwardian society in his frequently anthologized short story ‘The Open Window.’
First appearing in the Westminster Gazette on November 18, 1911, and later included in his 1914 collection ‘Beasts and Super-Beasts,’ this tale is a classic example of Saki’s wit and insight.
The story unfolds with a clever use of the middle-of-things storytelling strategy, introducing us to the protagonist, Framton Nuttel, in the midst of an unexpected situation.
Nuttel, a man besieged by anxiety, arrives in the countryside seeking a cure for his nerves. Armed with letters of introduction from his sister, he visits Mrs. Sappleton, only to be greeted by her 15-year-old niece.
This precocious young girl, known simply as ‘the niece,’ quickly discerns Nuttel’s unfamiliarity with local affairs.
Seizing the opportunity, she weaves a tragic tale: Three years ago, she recounts, Mrs. Sappleton’s husband, two brothers, and their spaniel left through the large French window to hunt snipe in the marshes. Tragically, she claims, they were swallowed by a bog, their bodies never recovered.
The niece poignantly describes Mrs. Sappleton’s unwavering belief that they will return through the open window, a symbol of her hope and denial.
The story takes a turn with Mrs. Sappleton’s entrance. She introduces herself and Vera, her niece, to Nuttel.
Oblivious to the story her niece has just spun, Mrs. Sappleton talks about the open window and her anticipation of her husband’s return. This conversation, coupled with Nuttel’s heightened nerves, sets the stage for the story’s climax.
In a dramatic twist, Mrs. Sappleton suddenly exclaims that the hunting party is returning. Nuttel, seeking a sympathetic look from Vera, is instead met with feigned horror as she gazes toward the open window.
His anxiety reaching a breaking point, Nuttel witnesses what seems to be the ghostly return of the hunting party, prompting him to flee the house in terror.
However, the twist in Saki’s tale is that the hunting party is very much alive. As the adults wonder about Nuttel’s abrupt departure, Vera concocts another tale: Nuttel, she says, was terrified of dogs due to a traumatic experience involving a pack of dogs and an overnight entrapment in a cemetery.
Saki concludes the story with a line that perfectly encapsulates Vera’s talent for improvisation: ‘Romance at short notice was her specialty.’
This ending serves as a clever denouement, untangling the story’s threads while highlighting the themes of absurdity, escapism, control, and the contrast between appearance and reality that pervade Saki’s work.
Framton Nuttel is the central character in “The Open Window.” Portrayed as a nervous, anxious man, he visits the countryside to seek relief for his nerve issues. Nuttel is an outsider to the area and lacks knowledge about the local people and their histories.
His naivety and anxious disposition make him a prime target for Vera’s mischievous story.
Vera, Mrs. Sappleton’s 15-year-old niece, is a pivotal character known for her inventiveness and storytelling ability.
She is astute and quickly gauges Nuttel’s ignorance about local events.
Vera fabricates a tragic and ghostly story about her aunt’s family, demonstrating her skill in improvisation and her penchant for creating dramatic narratives.
Mrs. Sappleton is the hostess to whom Nuttel was sent with a letter of introduction. She is unaware of the fictitious story Vera has told Nuttel.
Mrs. Sappleton’s conversation about her husband and brothers returning through the open window inadvertently reinforces the fabricated story, contributing to Nuttel’s mounting anxiety.
Mrs. Sappleton’s Husband and Brothers
Mrs. Sappleton’s husband and brothers are indirectly involved in the story.
They are the subjects of Vera’s fictional tale, believed to have been lost in a bog while hunting. Their unexpected return towards the end of the story, very much alive and well, triggers Framton Nuttel’s panicked exit.
The family’s spaniel is a minor but significant character in the story. The dog accompanies the hunting party and is mentioned in Vera’s fabricated tale. Its presence with the returning hunters serves as a crucial detail that lends authenticity to Vera’s story in Nuttel’s eyes.
1. The Absurdity of Social Etiquette and Class Norms
Saki’s story masterfully dissects the often rigid and absurd nature of Edwardian social etiquette.
Through the character interactions and the unfolding of events, Saki portrays how societal expectations can lead to awkward, and even bizarre, situations. The story highlights the discomfort and misunderstandings that arise from the strict adherence to social norms, as seen in Framton Nuttel’s visit to Mrs. Sappleton.
Nuttel, adhering to the social protocol of his time, finds himself entangled in an increasingly strange scenario due to his expectations of proper conduct.
This theme underscores Saki’s critique of the superficial aspects of social life, where appearances and manners often overshadow sincerity and understanding.
2. Escapism and the Power of Storytelling
Escapism is a central theme in the story, exemplified through the character of Vera and the stories she concocts.
Vera’s vivid imagination and ability to create elaborate tales serve as a form of escape from the mundanities of her everyday life.
For Nuttel, the encounter with Vera and her fantastical story becomes an unintentional escape from reality, albeit a terrifying one. Saki uses this theme to explore how storytelling can be a powerful tool for manipulation, distraction, and transformation of reality.
The story within a story structure not only serves as an escape for the characters but also invites the reader to question the line between fiction and reality, blurring the boundaries of what is believable and what is not.
3. Appearance Versus Reality
Saki skillfully plays with the theme of appearance versus reality throughout the narrative.
The story challenges the perceptions and expectations of both the characters and the readers. Vera’s fabricated story about the tragic hunting accident and the perpetually open window creates a false reality for Nuttel, leading him to misinterpret the events that unfold.
This theme is further reinforced by the twist ending, where the presumed supernatural occurrence is revealed to be a misunderstanding fueled by Vera’s deception.
Through this theme, Saki comments on the ease with which reality can be distorted, and the fine line that often exists between what is real and what is perceived to be real.
The story ultimately serves as a commentary on the deceptive nature of appearances and the human propensity to be influenced by them.
“The Open Window” is a masterful example of Saki’s sharp wit and ability to weave complex themes into a short narrative. The story is not just an entertaining read but also a clever commentary on human nature and society.
Saki’s use of irony and the unexpected twist at the end not only amuse but also provoke thought about how easily reality can be manipulated by a skilled storyteller.