“The Open Window”—Saki’s tale of the anxious Framton Nuttel’s ill-fated encounter with the precocious young storyteller Vera in the English countryside—is, ultimately, a satire of excessive decorum. Saki wrote the story during the Edwardian Era (1901-1914), when British social mores were beginning to loosen. In the story, Saki positions the excessive social graces of the previous period as shallow and arbitrary, but also as actions that, ironically, allow for rudeness and deception.
In “The Open Window” etiquette is the enemy of candor. Rigid social expectations lead to stilted, awkward conversations, as characters must say what is proper rather than what they actually feel. For example, Mr. Nuttel cannot simply offer a sincere greeting or compliment to Vera upon his arrival at the Sappleton home. Instead, he must navigate the overly-complicated task of saying “the correct something which should duly flatter the niece of the moment without unduly discounting the aunt that was to come.” The result is silence: concern over saying the right thing results in Mr. Nuttel unable to think of anything to say at all. Saki further lampoons societal norms of conversation by writing that Vera only continued speaking after judging that she and Mr. Nuttel “had had sufficient silent communion.”
Etiquette also manifests as a form of insincerity. Mr. Nuttel’s sister has written letters of introduction to locals she met while living in the countryside, in the hopes that meeting with them will help assuage her brother’s anxiety. Yet despite asking these people for what is essentially a favor, she cannot bring herself to characterize them all favorably; she says to her brother that only “some of them, as far as I can remember, were quite nice.” With his sister having already written letters, propriety dictates that Mr. Nuttel visit certain homes despite having no meaningful connection to their occupants. Mr. Nuttel proceeds with these social callings despite his—it turns out warranted—doubts that his “formal visits on a succession of total strangers would do much towards helping to cure his nerves.”
Mr. Nuttel feeling obliged to visit strangers, and those strangers feeling obliged to host him, creating the opportunity for (and perhaps ensuring) awkwardness hidden behind a veil of politeness. Saki then further points out the ridiculousness of the situation by showing how these interactions between utter strangers also create the opportunity for deception. Upon learning that the man she has been tasked with greeting is clueless about her family, Vera entertains herself by spinning a tale about her aunt’s tragic history—subverting expectations of propriety to satisfy her own decidedly improper ends.
Preoccupation with etiquette not only allows Vera to get away with her lies, but also results in Mr. Nuttel being made a fool of. His head spinning with Vera’s story about the deaths of her male relatives, Mr. Nuttel becomes terrified upon seeing “ghosts” return to the Sappleton home and flees “without a word of good-bye or apology” (and also nearly collides with an innocent cyclist in the process). A situation spawned by decorum has ironically resulted in the anxious Mr. Nuttel coming across as a rude, and as such implies that the original social mores governing politeness and decorum are themselves hollow and absurd.
The Absurdity of Etiquette ThemeTracker
The Absurdity of Etiquette Quotes in The Open Window
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.
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.
"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 wide-spread delusion that total strangers and chance acquaintances are hungry for the least detail of one's ailments and infirmities, their cause and cure.
"A most extraordinary man, a Mr. Nuttel," said Mrs. Sappleton; "could only talk about his illnesses, and dashed off without a word of good-bye or apology when you arrived. One would think he had seen a ghost."