Thursday, October 31, 2019

204. Cruel } Saki.

Of “The Open Window”

Penultimate to the story’s final declaration, Vera tells a second story to explain Mr. Nuttel’s abrupt departure from her aunt’s home. Mr. Nuttel, she tells her aunt and her three uncles, spent a “night in a newly dug grave” “somewhere on the banks of the Ganges,” pinned by “a pack of pariah dogs”—thus his fear of dogs (the uncles hunt with a brown spaniel). What this story does, aside from amusing Vera, is give cowardly Mr. Nuttel a backstory full of adventure, a backstory that suggests he isn’t a coward but a man with a well-earned phobia. I asked my students, Was this a kindness?

No. Any redemption Vera brought Mr. Nuttel was accidental. She tells stories because she tells stories. Vera is intelligent and bored, and cruelty is fine by her if it entertains. Like Saki himself.

Mr. Nuttel (“nut” or, as the English might say, “nutter”) suffers from a nervous condition. What that is, or what caused it, is not a concern of “The Open Window”; rather, its concern is with Mr. Nuttel’s masculinity. He is not like the uncles, as emphasized by Aunt Sappleton who complains, “They’ve been out for snipe in the marshes to-day, so they’ll make a fine mess over my poor carpets. So like you men-folks, isn’t it?” Not like Mr. Nuttel, who naturally would “not speak to a living soul,” as his sister scolds; Mr. Nuttel does not enjoy the boisterous company of men, or, we can assume, hunting, or playing with dogs, or teasing (as Ronnie, Aunt Sappleton’s youngest brother, does). Mr. Nuttle might be thinking about sex when he wonders “whether Mrs. Sappleton was in the married or widowed state,” but he’s so unattractively nebbish, he certainly hasn’t a chance with her if he is—she yawns when he speaks, perks up only when the uncles (real men) return: “‘Here they are at last!’ she cried.” Finally, Mr. Nuttel is frightened by “a self-possessed young lady of fifteen”—is it more than her story that makes Mr. Nutter nervous around Vera? He’s hen-pecked by his sister, boring to adult women, and unmanned by a girl.

“The Open Window” is cruel because it has no sympathy for the likes of Mr. Nuttel and assumes its audience won’t, either. How could they? He’s ill. His mental illness = a weakness of character that deserves to be mocked.

I write assuming you know the story, or think you do.It operates like a joke, so we remember the punchline (the uncles aren’t ghosts! Vera tells tall tales!) but not the details. It’s full of details to recommend it: the eeriness of Vera’s first story, Aunt Sappleton’s unintentional collaboration with her niece (“don’t they look muddy up to the eyes!” she says of the supposedly drowned uncles), the detail of the white mackintosh carried by Mr. Sappleton, and the story’s final line, “Romance at short notice was her specialty.”

As I recall the story, I overlook Vera’s cruelty and her age; I remember her as a little girl with a gift for morbid storytelling. I wrote that version of Vera in Color Plates (“Little Girl in a Blue Armchair”).

Stronger in my memory than Saki’s original is the audio version from Alfred Hitchcock Presents Ghost Stories for Young People (1962)—it changes quite a few details: Mr. Nuttel is an independently wealthy recluse who raises mushrooms and is a great reader of books and—perhaps this is why I forget Vera is fifteen?—he’s “ushered in [to the Sappleton home] by a very dignified ten year-old girl.” It’s kinder and spookier, too.