IT was a hot afternoon, and the railway carriage was correspondingly sultry, and the next stop was at Templecombe, nearly an hour ahead. The occupants of the carriage were a small girl, and a smaller girl, and a small boy. An aunt belonging to the children occupied one corner seat, and the further corner seat on the opposite side was occupied by a bachelor who was a stranger to their party, but the small girls and the small boy emphatically occupied the compartment. Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way, reminding one of the attentions of a housefly that refuses to be discouraged. Most of the aunt’s remarks seemed to begin with “Don’t,” and nearly all of the children’s remarks began with “Why?” The bachelor said nothing out loud. “Don’t, Cyril, don’t,” exclaimed the aunt, as the small boy began smacking the cushions of the seat, producing a cloud of dust at each blow.
“Come and look out of the window,” she added.
The child moved reluctantly to the window. “Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?” he asked.
“I expect they are being driven to another field where there is more grass,” said the aunt weakly.
“But there is lots of grass in that field,” protested the boy; “there’s nothing else but grass there. Aunt, there’s lots of grass in that field.”
“Perhaps the grass in the other field is better,” suggested the aunt fatuously.
“Why is it better?” came the swift, inevitable question.
Students have often heard of irony but avoid discussing it as they feel uncertain about its meaning.
Your discussion of irony can help you gain an A grade.
Irony sets you apart from those who remain quiet or ignorant about its existence.
Saki’s story here is a profoundly ironic tale and its use of irony gives it humour and a wide appeal.
I would recommend anyone who is coy about irony to read this and then give Irony a real go in their writing and discussion.
Saki’s The Storyteller is anti-smug, anti-self righteous, anti-sanctimonious.
And it’s a lot of FUN!
For children frequently find the imagination of grown ups rather lacking in invention. Adults seem to have little capacity for exciting answers, being dulled by conformity, routine and age.
This confrontation between imaginative curiosity and moral rigidity provides the story with its ironic centre or heart.
For who or what will win out?
Who or what SHOULD win out?
Who will finally OCCUPY the landscape and territory of childhood?
Saki’s story opens in the claustrophobia of a railway carriage. An aunt and three small children appear to be travelling together and the Aunt is finding their company difficult as she lacks the imaginative resources to deal with the children’s curiosity and questions.
A bachelor looks on, an adult witness to the Aunt’s lack of success in entertaining her charges. It is the contrast/conflict between the Aunt’s moralising, imaginatively dampening behaviour and the anonymous bachelor’s child like, free-wheeling, anti-moralisng SUBVERSIVE tale that forms the story’s heart.
I love the apparently random quality of the bachelor’s intervention. His spontaneous tale frees up the imaginations of his audience and gives them the opportunity rather than ‘permission’ to think the unthinkable!
Look at the careful choice of descriptive words in this opening. These evoke a sense of heat, monotony and imprisonment.
Even ‘Templecombe’ the name of the destination seems formal, pompously religious and unpromising. And this is where the children aka ‘charges’ are travelling towards.
The journey feels oppressive. The children and the reader long for escape!
We feel we are there in the railway carriage as bored as the children by the aunt’s unconvincing ‘moral’ speeches and behaviour.
I love Saki’s clever delineation of each characters’ size and position in the carriage-their physical geography almost! It makes the conversations seem all too real and vivid, even though tortuous and dull!
This heightens the sense of subtle war fare or combat that is going on between them. They have taken up their positions and fight it out in this special space or ‘ground’.
Ordinarily students and writers are told not to repeat a word, yet here Saki’s use of ‘small’ creates a sense of repetition that mimics the movement of the train and the claustrophobia of the carriage for both children and adults.
For the children are acutely aware of their difference from their dull, adult Aunt and we feel the reverse is true too.
For the Aunt is acutely aware of her difference from the children. She is temperamentally ill equipped to deal with the children yet ‘deal with them’ she must!
Thus the conflict is vividly represented through the description of space and size.
The Aunt’s words are full of censure(‘don’t!’) and the children keep challenging these imperatives. (‘Why?’)
Even a chance of perspective and focus through looking out of the window, fails to alleviate the dissatisfaction felt by those in the carriage.
For looking at grazing cows fails to ignite anyone’s interest and adverbs like ‘weakly and ‘fatuously’ underline the failure of the aunt’s responses to the children’s questions.
Her fault we feel lies with her desire to turn every experience and utterance into a moral lesson.
How deadening for the life of anyone’s imagination!
We return to the deliciously wicked irony thrown in casually at the beginning that : ‘An aunt belonging to to the chidlren..’
The adult feels she should be in charge and in control yet the narrator tells us otherwise. The aunt belongs to the children as if she is a tiresome commodity they have to take somewhere and deal with…
She is also ‘an aunt’ and this ironic use of the indefinite article ‘an’ reveals how interchangeable she really is-at least from the children’s point of view.
Perhaps of curse this is why there is such conflict anyway. The aunt knows she is far less powerful than she aspires to be and thus spends her time attempting to control those whom she has little power over at all.
This is a keenly realised irony!
The children are far more dangerous in their thoughts and words than she is and they have the ability to challenge her and reduce her to silliness with ease.
The interest of the tale is created by the bachelor (ironically childless we feel) offering to entertain the children rather more successfully than their aunt.
More to come on Saki!
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