The Open Window
“My aunt will be down presently, Mr. Nuttel,” said a very self-possessed young lady of fifteen; “in the meantime you must try and put up with me.”
Framton Nuttel endeavoured to say the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come. Privately he doubted more than ever whether these formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping the nerve cure which he was supposed to be undergoing.
“I know how it will be,” his sister had said when he was preparing to migrate to this rural retreat; “you will bury yourself down there and not speak to a living soul, and your nerves will be worse than ever from moping. I shall just give you letters of introduction to all the people I know there. Some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.”
Framton wondered whether Mrs. Sappleton, the lady to whom he was presenting one of the letters of introduction came into the nice division.
“Do you know many of the people round here?” asked the niece, when she judged that they had had sufficient silent communion.
“Hardly a soul,” said Framton. “My sister was staying here, at the rectory, you know, some four years ago, and she gave me letters of introduction to some of the people here.”
He made the last statement in a tone of distinct regret.
“Then you know practically nothing about my aunt?” pursued the self-possessed young lady.
“Only her name and address,” admitted the caller. He was wondering whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state. An undefinable something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.
“Her great tragedy happened just three years ago,” said the child; “that would be since your sister’s time.”
“Her tragedy?” asked Framton; somehow in this restful country spot tragedies seemed out of place.
“You may wonder why we keep that window wide open on an October afternoon,” said the niece, indicating a large French window that opened on to a lawn.
“It is quite warm for the time of the year,” said Framton; “but has that window got anything to do with the tragedy?”
“Out through that window, three years ago to a day, her husband and her two young brothers went off for their day’s shooting. They never came back. In crossing the moor to their favourite snipe-shooting ground they were all three engulfed in a treacherous piece of bog. It had been that dreadful wet summer, you know, and places that were safe in other years gave way suddenly without warning. Their bodies were never recovered. That was the dreadful part of it.” Here the child’s voice lost its self-possessed note and became falteringly human. “Poor aunt always thinks that they will come back someday, they and the little brown spaniel that was lost with them, and walk in at that window just as they used to do. That is why the window is kept open every evening till it is quite dusk. Poor dear aunt, she has often told me how they went out, her husband with his white waterproof coat over his arm, and Ronnie, her youngest brother, singing ‘Bertie, why do you bound?’ as he always did to tease her, because she said it got on her nerves. Do you know, sometimes on still, quiet evenings like this, I almost get a creepy feeling that they will all walk in through that window – “
She broke off with a little shudder. It was a relief to Framton when the aunt bustled into the room with a whirl of apologies for being late in making her appearance.
“I hope Vera has been amusing you?” she said.
“She has been very interesting,” said Framton.
“I hope you don’t mind the open window,” said Mrs. Sappleton briskly; “my husband and brothers will be home directly from shooting, and they always come in this way. They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes today, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you menfolk, isn’t it?”
She rattled on cheerfully about the shooting and the scarcity of birds, and the prospects for duck in the winter. To Framton it was all purely horrible. He made a desperate but only partially successful effort to turn the talk on to a less ghastly topic, he was conscious that his hostess was giving him only a fragment of her attention, and her eyes were constantly straying past him to the open window and the lawn beyond. It was certainly an unfortunate coincidence that he should have paid his visit on this tragic anniversary.
“The doctors agree in ordering me complete rest, an absence of mental excitement, and avoidance of anything in the nature of violent physical exercise,” announced Framton, who laboured under the tolerably widespread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one’s ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure. “On the matter of diet they are not so much in agreement,” he continued.
“No?” said Mrs. Sappleton, in a voice which only replaced a yawn at the last moment. Then she suddenly brightened into alert attention – but not to what Framton was saying.
“Here they are at last!” she cried. “Just in time for tea, and don’t they look as if they were muddy up to the eyes!”
Framton shivered slightly and turned towards the niece with a look intended to convey sympathetic comprehension. The child was staring out through the open window with a dazed horror in her eyes. In a chill shock of nameless fear Framton swung round in his seat and looked in the same direction.
In the deepening twilight three figures were walking across the lawn towards the window, they all carried guns under their arms, and one of them was additionally burdened with a white coat hung over his shoulders. A tired brown spaniel kept close at their heels. Noiselessly they neared the house, and then a hoarse young voice chanted out of the dusk: “I said, Bertie, why do you bound?”
Framton grabbed wildly at his stick and hat; the hall door, the gravel drive, and the front gate were dimly noted stages in his headlong retreat. A cyclist coming along the road had to run into the hedge to avoid imminent collision.
“Here we are, my dear,” said the bearer of the white mackintosh, coming in through the window, “fairly muddy, but most of it’s dry. Who was that who bolted out as we came up?”
“A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel,” said Mrs. Sappleton; “could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of goodby or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost.”
“I expect it was the spaniel,” said the niece calmly; “he told me he had a horror of dogs. He was once hunted into a cemetery somewhere on the banks of the Ganges by a pack of pariah dogs, and had to spend the night in a newly dug grave with the creatures snarling and grinning and foaming just above him. Enough to make anyone lose their nerve.”
Romance at short notice was her speciality.
Author Saki (H.H. Munro)
Arguably the most popular of Saki’s short stories, “The Open Window” first appeared in Beasts and Super Beasts, a collection of short stories published in 1914 just before Munro went to fight in World War I. “The Open Window” is appreciated most for its surprise ending, in which the reader finds that she too has been fooled by Vera’s macabre tale of death and desperation. Michael Dirda recently celebrated the story in a review in the Wall Street Journal, in which he called this piece and others penned by Saki “masterpieces.”
Mr. Framton Nuttel has just moved to a new town. While visiting one of his sister’s acquaintances, Mrs. Sappleton, he spends some time with the woman’s niece, Vera. Vera recounts a story about how her aunt lost her husband and two brothers in a tragic hunting accident. She warns Framton that her aunt never accepted their deaths and believes that some day the hunting party will return. In anticipation, Mrs. Sappleton leaves the window in the front room open so that they may re-enter the house. When Mrs. Sappleton enters the room and discusses the hunting party, Framton is deeply disturbed by her delusion. However, his concern turns to pure horror when he sees three male figures dressed in hunting gear approaching the house. Believing he has seen ghosts, Framton bolts from the house. Spinning another tale, Vera explains to the newly arrived hunting party and her aunt that Framton fled when he saw the hunting dog because of his severe fear of dogs.
Framton Nuttel’s Sister: She writes several letters of introduction to keep her brother, Framton, from being lonely on his retreat to the countryside. She writes one such letter in order to introduce him to Mrs. Sappleton; this is how Framton finds himself in Mrs. Sappleton’s home.
Mr. Framton Nuttel: A nervous man, Framton Nuttel arrives in a new town seeking relaxation in order to alleviate an unspecified nervous disorder.
Ronnie: Mrs. Sappleton’s youngest brother and member of the hunting party. He often teases her by singing a short song.
Mr. Sappleton: Mrs. Sappleton’s husband and a member of the hunting party.
Mrs. Sappleton: Framton’s host and Vera’s aunt.
Vera: A 15-year-old girl who greets Framton and informs him of her aunt’s “great tragedy” (225).
Framton Nuttel is a single man in a new town. His sister has arranged for him to meet several of her acquaintances to prevent him from becoming lonely there. On one such visit, Vera, the 15-year-old niece of Framton’s latest host, Mrs. Sappleton, invites him to sit and wait with her while her aunt readies. As he waits, Framton anxiously thinks about an appropriate way to compliment the young girl while reserving the highest flattery for her aunt. However, before he can decide what to say, Vera breaks the silence and asks Framton whether he knows many people in town.
He admits to being a newcomer who knows “hardly a soul” and explains with a note of exhaustion that he is in the process of visiting all the contacts his sister made in the town four years ago when she worked at the rectory (225). When Vera asks how well he knows her aunt, he confesses that he doesn’t know much about her besides her address and name (225). After answering, Framton wonders to himself whether Mrs. Sappleton is married, and he notes signs of “masculine habitation” in the room (225).
After determining that her aunt is a virtual stranger to Framton, Vera decides to inform him of her aunt’s “great tragedy” which she states occurred three years ago, shortly after Framton’s sister left the town (225). Framton cannot imagine tragedy striking such a calm, country town, but nevertheless listens intently to Vera’s story.
Vera points to a large, open, French-Style window in the room and remarks how odd it is to keep it open on such a warm October afternoon. Curious, Framton asks whether the window relates at all to the tragedy. It does. Vera explains how three years ago her aunt’s husband and two young brothers exited through that window to go snipe-shooting. That summer was especially rainy, and all three of the men drowned in a “bog” while on their hunt (226). Tragically, nobody recovered the bodies; since that day, her aunt has kept the window open during the evening, ever-hopeful that her husband and brothers will one day return, hunting dog in tow, and walk back in through the window. Vera recounts the memories her aunt shared of the hunting trio: Mr. Stapleton’s white raincoat slung over his arm; the sound of her younger brother, Ronnie, teasingly singing to her “Bertie, why do you bound?” (226.) Vera finishes the tragic tale by confessing that on occasion she gets an eerie feeling that the men will actually appear at the window.
Just as Vera finishes her story, Mrs. Stapleton enters. She immediately apologizes for the open window and explains that she’s left it open for her husband and brothers who should soon return from shooting. She expects they’ll dirty her floors with their muddy shoes. Paying very little attention to her guest, Mrs. Stapleton continues to talk about shooting, lamenting how few snipe there are this season and expressing hope that winter will bring a healthy supply of ducks.
Framton listens, aghast at the grimness of the situation. He attempts to shift the conversation away from the hunting expedition, but Mrs. Stapleton cannot be redirected, frequently looking expectantly out the open window as she prattles on about hunting. In a final desperate attempt to shift the conversation, Framton explains the trouble he’s been having with his nerves. Mrs. Stapleton cannot contain her yawn as Framton details the differing medical opinions regarding the proper diet for a man in need of a “nerve cure” (225).
Suddenly, Mrs. Stapleton jumps to attention and excitedly remarks that the hunting party has finally returned. Unbelievingly, Framton looks to Vera, expecting to share with her a look of pity at the depth of Mrs. Stapleton’s delusions. But Vera does not return his gaze. Instead, she looks out, horrified, onto the lawn. Framton quickly turns towards the window and notices the silhouettes of three men, each armed, walking towards the house. One of them has a white coat draped over his arm; following just behind is the silhouette of a small hunting spaniel. The men enter the house and one of them sings out “Bertie why do you bound?”
At that moment, Framton grabs his belongings and bolts out of the house, narrowly escaping a collision with a passing cyclist on the street.
One of the men, presumably Mr. Stapleton, asks Mrs. Stapleton about Framton’s quick exit. She explains that the fleeing man is named Mr. Nuttel and wonders why he looked as though “he had seen a ghost” (227).
Just then, Vera interjects that it must have been the dog that frightened Framton. She then tells a short, extravagant story detailing Framton’s supposed deep phobia of dogs stemming from an awful incident in which a pack of dogs chased him through a South Asian cemetery and forced him to hide away all night in a freshly-dug grave.
The story has a tripartite structure: the first part beginning with the conversation between Vera and Framton, the second with the entrance of the aunt, and the third with the return of the hunting party (Peltzie 703). Saki employs flashback to divide these three parts, interrupting the present with a story-within-a-story inspired by Vera’s imagined past. Like many of Saki’s stories, “The Open Window” features a surprise ending when the reader discovers that Vera, whose name signifies veracity (i.e. truth), is ironically anything but truthful (Marcus 4).
Just as Vera tricks Framton, so Saki tricks readers by leading them to believe that Vera is a credible storyteller. He does this in part by making Vera a young girl. In Saki’s time it was rare for a woman to be portrayed as “cunning” or “conniving” (Gibson 170-171). Rather, women and girls were frequently cast as the more trustworthy characters, whereas men and boys were the rascals. By casting the troublemaker as female in his story, Saki counters stereotypes about the proper way for young women to behave (Gibson 161).
Though this story does cast a girl as troublemaker, Vera’s brand of troublemaking is distinct from that of Saki’s male characters in other stories. She relies on her imagination to execute pranks whereas Saki’s boy characters usually rely on destruction or aggression (Byrne 195). Saki’s characterization of Vera also provides some clues to the careful reader about Vera’s true nature. Chief among them is his characterization of Vera as a storyteller whose specialty is “[r]omance at short notice” (Saki 227; Gibson 159). Critics have often understood Vera to be a representation of Saki himself and a “personification of narrative ‘authority’” (Gibson 159).
Vera is also an important character in “The Open Window” because she introduces childhood, a theme common in many of Saki’s stories. Saki frequently portrays childhood as an unfortunate state of children being trapped in a boring, adult world. This perspective stems, in part, from H.H. Munro’s own upbringing. Like many of Saki’s children, Vera is under the watch of the aunt, an imposing figure from whom she desires escape (and achieves it through imaginative storytelling and trickery). The window is a representation of this desire to escape. It is a symbolic window to a different world through which Vera can travel into an alternate reality entirely of her own making. In this way, Vera’s tall tales are a means of escapism from life in the boring, adult world.
Saki’s stories frequently satirize and subvert the order of the Edwardian upper-middle class world of which H.H. Munro was a part. In “The Open Window” he does this by troubling and transforming the “rural” and calm setting of the formal house visit. Vera’s story imbues the otherwise mannered and bourgeois scene with a grim tale of death and delusion. The tale becomes darker still when the aunt enters because Saki continues to describe the setting as a cheerful one even amidst the aunt’s clear and tragic misunderstanding. Using words like “bustled,” “whirl,” and “cheerfully,” Saki subverts the traditional setting of the Edwardian sitting room with the grotesque. This transformation is necessary to liven up the boring and mundane life in Edwardian society.
Wildness/Chaos vs. Order
Saki disrupts the otherwise placid house visit with such strange occurrences as a supposed ghost siting and a tragic death. The open window is the vessel through which this chaos enters the orderly sitting-room scene. The particular type of chaos Saki utilizes in this story is closely related to his fascination with the wild: it involves wild dogs, dangerous terrain, and a forest. Saki commonly uses chaos to mock the customs of English society, preferring the chaotic to the boring order of adult life.
Empowerment (at expense of adults)
Closely related to Saki’s preference of chaos over order is his frequent positioning of children as foils for frail adult characters. Vera, the child in this story, repeatedly bests the adult characters with the power of her imagination. She finds a particularly good target in Framton, whose nerves make him a natural audience for her trickery.
Desire to Escape
Both Framton and Vera possess a strong desire to escape. Vera seeks escape from the adult world she inhabits through her imagination and storytelling. Framton is brought to the rural town out of a desire to escape and recover from his nerve disorder. While Vera’s escape proves fruitful and entertaining, Framton’s is not so successful: it provokes more chaos than calm.
Power of Storytelling
Saki commonly uses the ‘story within a story’ technique in his works. He takes this a step further in “The Open Window” by using Vera as storyteller to convey a theme about storytelling as an art form. Saki and Vera both rely on the short story to fool their audience. As one who relied mainly on the short story to capture his ideas, Saki includes storytelling in this work to communicate its unique compatibility with the comedic tale.
This theme is closely related to the chaos vs. order theme. Several characters allude to the supposed peacefulness of the rural setting: Framton’s doctors suggest it as a retreat to calm his nerves and Framton himself is surprised to find that tragedy would ever occur in the rural landscape. Ironically, the setting becomes another source of anxiety for Framton with the addition of Vera’s storytelling.
Satirization of Edwardian Society
Saki is well known for his satirical illustrations of Edwardian English society. “The Open Window” is yet another example of these satirical writings. Mockingly, Saki exposes the absurdity of the house visit during conversations between Framton and Mrs. Sappleton. Both find the encounter “purely horrible” and Mrs. Sappleton can barely contain a yawn as her guest discusses his medical idiosyncrasies (226).
Comedy plays a significant role in “The Open Window.” Vera’s stories, although perhaps initially credible, are revealed at the end to be fantastical and comedic fantasies of a child’s making. Thus comedy is posited as a refreshing contrast to the dull and adult setting and lifestyle.