Analysis of “The Open Window” by Saki: Summary & Themes of Short Story (H. H. Munro)

“The Open Window” might be Saki’s most anthologized and widely read short story. It’s very short, easy to read, and highly entertaining, making it a standout even among Saki’s stories.

Summary of “The Open Window”

Framton Nuttel is in the country for a nerve cure. His sister didn’t want him to be isolated, so she’s given him letters of introduction to all her acquaintances in the area.

He calls on Mrs. Sappleton, but is let in by her niece, Vera, a young lady of fifteen. She asks if he knows about the people in the area, particularly her aunt. He doesn’t know much at all, including whether she’s married or not.

Vera tells Mr. Nuttel the story of her aunt’s great tragedy. She indicates the large French window that is wide open. Exactly three years ago her aunt’s husband, two brothers, and their dog went out to hunt and never returned. They sunk in a piece of bog, and their bodies were never found. The aunt keeps the window open for them, believing they’ll come back through it.

Mrs. Sappleton enters excitedly, explaining that her husband and brothers will be home soon from shooting, and prattles on cheerfully. It’s horrible to Mr. Nuttel and he tries to change the subject. Mrs. Sappleton is distracted by the open window.

Mr. Nuttel explains his situation—he’s been ordered complete rest, no mental excitement, and no strenuous physical exercise. Mrs. Sappleton is bored, but suddenly perks up when she sees the men and dog walking toward the house. Mr. Nuttel looks sympathetically at Vera, but is shocked to see horror in her eyes. He looks out the window and sees the figures approaching.

Mr. Nuttel gathers his things wildly and flees the house, nearly colliding outside with a cyclist. Mr. Sappleton enters and asks about the man who just bolted from the house. His wife explains who he is, but can’t explain his sudden departure, as if he’d seen a ghost.

Vera offers an explanation. Mr. Nuttel must have panicked when he saw the dog, because he once had a traumatic experience—he was chased by a pack of wild dogs and had to hide all night in an open grave. These types of stories are Vera’s specialty.

Theme: The Power of Fiction

The power of a good story is clear, both in the inner tale Vera weaves and in the complete story that the reader gets.

Vera’s story works perfectly on Mr. Nuttel. She grounds it in sensory details, which contributes to its realism. She starts with the open window, which Mr. Nuttel can easily see, then moves to other things that make it feel real—going out shooting, a bog, the white coat, and the song that one of them sang.

Mr. Nuttel believes it, causing him to interpret Mrs. Sappleton’s normal words as proof of her insanity. Rather than snapping him out of the illusion, Mrs. Sappleton speaking truthfully of her husband and brothers ironically serves to strengthen the story, as Vera said she was in denial over their deaths.

Vera adds another nice touch to make their “supernatural” return more believable. She concludes her story by saying she sometimes has, “a creepy feeling they will all walk in through that window.” Mr. Nuttel has been perfectly set up for a shock, and he gets it.

Unlike Mr. Nuttel, the reader gets the complete story, inner and frame. The opening frame doesn’t give us any information that Mr. Nuttel doesn’t also have, so we’re on equal footing with him when Vera starts her story. The reader has the same reasons for believing Vera as Mr. Nuttel does.

After Mr. Nuttel flees the house in terror, we get to hear the explanation. It’s obvious that the men are alive and well, and only set out that morning. Vera invents a story about Mr. Nuttel that leaves no doubt she made everything up. Having the full story, we could easily feel more sophisticated and act like the ending was obvious.

I’m guessing that most readers are surprised by the reveal, proving the effectiveness of a well crafted story. We can get caught up in a completely made up scenario, just as Mr. Nuttel did. This is one of the main reasons we enjoy fiction so much.

Other themes that could be explored include:

  • Deception
  • Perception
  • Appearances vs Reality

1. What clues are given to suggest the surprise ending?

In a story this short, there aren’t going to be a lot of clues, but there are some:

  • Vera is curious about how much Mr. Nuttel knows about her aunt and the people in the area.
  • “Something about the room seemed to suggest masculine habitation.”
  • Mr. Nuttel happens to visit on the anniversary of this terrible tragedy.
  • Mrs. Sappleton seems normal enough.

2. Is Mr. Nuttel gullible? What about the readers?

Somewhat, but it’s understandable under the circumstances. He has no reason to doubt Vera’s story. Of course, when the returning men and dog turn the situation supernatural, he certainly could have realized at that point. It’s believable that he doesn’t, though, as he’s there for a nerve cure, so he’s not feeling the best. It’s not clear exactly what his problem is, but it’s reasonable to assume he’s not thinking normally. In his fragile mental state, Vera’s story and her subsequent acting overwhelm his logical side. If we want to call him gullible, it’s only due to his temporary condition.

A reader might judge Mr. Nuttel gullible without also applying the quality to themselves because they know they’re experiencing a piece of fiction. Being surprised by the ending doesn’t make one gullible, as a piece of fiction could present something paranormal as being “real”. As a reader, it’s only the fact we can see that the story ends in a few paragraphs that suggests a twist ending.

In all, the story’s twist ending comes off as very effective, entertaining and fair. “Romance at short notice was [Vera’s] specialty”, and it was Saki’s as well.

3. What does the open window symbolize?

Vera makes the open window a symbol of Mrs. Sappleton’s (supposed) insanity, as she believes her dead loved ones will walk through it.

We would generally expect an open window to symbolize transparency, honesty or freedom. Saki (and Vera) cleverly uses these associations to add to the veracity of the story. The ending subverts our expectations, as Vera also turns it into a symbol of deception.

The Young Girl’s Name

Another interesting point is the niece’s name, Vera, which means truth or faith. This is another subversion, as Vera seems to be a habitual liar. She doesn’t have much interest in the truth, and putting faith in what she says leads Mr. Nuttel and us astray.