By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The English writer Hector Hugh Munro (1870-1916), who is better known under his pen name Saki, was a master of the short comic story and, in some ways, a missing link between Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse. What’s more, Saki was that rare writer who could write humorously, for an adult audience, about children without being twee or sentimental.
‘The Story-Teller’ is perhaps the most supreme example of this quality to his writing: a story in which a man entertains some young children on a train by telling them a story about a good little girl who is punished, rather than rewarded, for being so good.
You can read ‘The Story-Teller’ here before continuing on to our summary and analysis of Saki’s story below.
‘The Story-Teller’: plot summary
The story takes place on a train one hot afternoon. A woman is travelling on the train with her two nieces and nephew. Opposite where they are sitting is a bachelor travelling alone, who does not know the aunt or the children. When the children start fidgeting and misbehaving, the aunt tells them to come and look out of the window, in an effort to occupy their minds.
The children keep asking the aunt questions about the sheep in the fields, and her answers fail to satisfy them. So one of the two girls starts to recite the first line of the poem ‘On the Road to Mandalay’, over and over again because it’s the only line of the poem she knows.
Realising she is failing to control them, the aunt tells the children to come and sit back down while she entertains them with a story. They don’t seem too enthusiastic by this prospect, and they find her story dull and unrewarding: it tells of a good little girl who made so many friends through being good that, when she was attacked by a mad ball, lots of people came to her rescue.
The children deconstruct the story, pointing out that the girl would probably have been saved even if she hadn’t been so good, and the bachelor interjects, pointing out that she doesn’t appear to be a success as a storyteller. The aunt challenges him to do a better job, claiming it’s difficult to keep children entertained with stories, and the bachelor accepts the challenge.
He tells the children a story about a good little girl named Bertha who won three medals for being so good, and was allowed into the park owned by the Prince: something which was denied to other people. The bachelor describes the pigs in the park and the lack of flowers (because they had all been eaten by the pigs).
Then he tells the children about a wolf which came into the park and chased Bertha. Although she hid in the bushes, the clank of her medals alerted the wolf to her whereabouts, and he grabbed her and ate her.
The children pronounce the story to be ‘beautiful’, and the aunt calls it an improper story to tell to children. However, the bachelor points out that he managed to keep them quiet for ten minutes, which is more than she could manage. As he is leaving, he laughs to himself at the fact that the poor aunt will now be pestered constantly by the children for more improper stories.
‘The Story-Teller’: analysis
‘The Story-Teller’ is a kind of meta-narrative: not only does it contain a ‘story within a story’, but it is also a commentary on storytelling, and specifically children’s stories, which criticises those writers who believe children need to hear sentimental tales about children who are rewarded for being moral and well-behaved.
Saki was an Edwardian writer, but many children’s books of the early twentieth century still had a whiff of the Victorian nursery about them. When Lewis Carroll published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, children’s books were dominated by a strong whiff of morality: good children end happily, and bad children learn a valuable lesson and need to be made to be good.
By rejecting this, Carroll moved children’s fiction into new, more interesting directions, but a good deal of children’s books continued to carry this pious streak and moral heavy-handedness.
And yet, one need only open a book of the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm and other folklorists to discover some very gruesome and violent stories which date back centuries in many cases.
True, in most cases the children survive, unlike the hapless goody-two-shoes told about in ‘The Story-Teller’, but in the meantime they are sent into the woods to die (‘Hansel and Gretel’), poisoned by jealous women (‘Snow White’), or gobbled up by a wolf (in some versions of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’).
Children want to hear about such things, not because they are immoral and can’t tell right from wrong, but because they can tell when they are being preached at, and because they understand that good storytelling involves conflict, tension, danger, and suspense.
This is something that the bachelor in ‘The Story-Teller’ – Saki’s stand-in or representative in the story, of course – understands, and which the pious and rather clueless aunt doesn’t.
And because of this fact, he is able to get the children to behave while they are listening to him (ironically, by feeding them a decidedly amoral tale, he turns them into good, obedient children, at least for the duration of the story), whereas they have little to no respect for their aunt. In a characteristically witty touch, Saki’s narrator introduces her as an ‘aunt belonging to the children’, rather than the other way around.
And of course, the aunt has no authority because she cannot entertain the children and win their respect. They fail to respond to her simple commands not to do things (‘Don’t’ is the word which begins most of the aunt’s remarks, as the narrator observes) because their natural inquisitiveness is not being satisfied (most of their remarks begin with ‘Why?’).
We might ask if the story-within-a-story does itself have a ‘moral’, or at least a serious message to impart. On the one hand, the bachelor’s story about Bertha suggests that being good in itself does not guarantee that one will be kept safe from harm: a wolf is not going to care whether a little girl is well-behaved or not, and nobody comes to her rescue, unlike the girl in the aunt’s story.
Indeed, parading one’s goodness (as Bertha does with her medals) can even directly lead to harm, so we might even say there is an ‘anti-moral moral’ to the bachelor’s story, which is that people who are overly proud and virtuous may actively attract danger and harm, for a range of reasons. Certainly, people are often more determined to expose or bring down anyone who parades their virtue and pretends to be more morally pure than others.
So we can analyse the bachelor’s tale as amoral (bad things happen even to good people, in a soulless, random universe) or even as anti-moral (being overly virtuous can lead to one’s undoing). In either case, the children respond favourably to the narrative, not least because they already recognise it as somehow more true than the aunt’s overly saccharine tale about goodness being rewarded.
Another twentieth-century short story, written decades after Saki’s, which would be productive to pair with ‘The Story-Teller’ for a comparative analysis, is Shirley Jackson’s ‘The Witch’, which also sees a strange man entertain a child on a train while the child’s female guardian (in this case, his mother) looks on in horror at the inappropriately gruesome tale the stranger tells her son.
Both stories end with the male visitor leaving the train having sparked the child’s (children’s) interest, and in both stories the children are extremely inquisitive and imaginative.