H. H. Munro was born in Burma under the British Raj but moved to England to be raised by his aunt and within the English education system after the sudden death of his mother. Munro remained part of English society into adulthood and participated in society in many ways. However, under the pen name "Saki," his short stories often criticized and satirized society in Edwardian England, especially from the point of view of children and outsiders. In "The Storyteller," Saki satirizes society's values with regard to raising and educating children, especially through the character of the aunt who cannot control or answer the questions of the children she watches over.
Saki's satire of Edwardian England often went hand in hand with the theme of questioning authority. In "The Storyteller," this can be seen most importantly through the children asking questions to their aunt and telling her directly when they think her answers are unsatisfactory. In addition, the character of the bachelor shows how adults can also question and disrupt existing structures of authority and power.
Childhood and Adulthood
In "The Storyteller," a large contrast is drawn between children and adults. The adults seem to have a responsibility to raise the children in a certain way, but they do not agree on what this role is or what the children should be learning. The children are shown to be full of natural energy and curiosity, but are also shown to be shaped by the adults they interact with. This can be seen in the children and aunt being described as behaving similarly in the beginning of the story ("Both the aunt and the children were conversational in a limited, persistent way" ), Bertha (the little girl in the bachelor's story) behaving the way adults have instructed her to and rewarded her for, and the children changing their behavior after the bachelor's story. Saki, who grew up in Burma with his parents and then was sent to England to live with his siblings and aunt after the sudden death of his mother, believed that one's childhood has a large impact on one's adult life, and shows this both through the children in the story and the adults' differing view on how best to raise children.
The defining feature of the children in the train carriage throughout the beginning of "The Storyteller" is their curiosity. They are described as asking questions beginning with "Why?" (1) constantly, such as "Why are those sheep being driven out of that field?" (1) and "Why is the grass in the other field better?" (2). Saki shows that the aunt does not encourage this curiosity, giving the children unsatisfactory answers and then trying to quiet and distract them with a story. The bachelor also does not seem pleased with the curiosity of the children, finding their incessant talking annoying. It is hard to say whether Saki himself takes a stance on curiosity, but he makes it clear that it is an integral part of childhood, especially in developing how children interact with adults and understand the world around them.
Goodness is the quality the aunt seems to want to encourage in the children. This vague quality of "goodness" is what the aunt espouses in her story, as she says that the child in her story was saved from danger because the people in her village knew and appreciated how "good" (4) she was. The Bachelor parodies and undermines this quality in his own story, in which a "little girl named Bertha, who was extra-ordinarily good" (5) ends up dying because of the medals given to her for this goodness. Saki asks the reader to question what true goodness means, especially in the moral education of children, and whether it will truly result in good fortune.
A value Saki seems to believe is more important than goodness is imagination. The aunt is scorned by the children and the bachelor for not being able to come up with good, even imaginary answers to the children's questions. In contrast, the bachelor is able to answer all of the children's questions about his story with elaborate, imaginative answers that impress both the children and the aunt. The reader might remain critical of this trait, however, as the bachelor does not seem to care about the children learning the truth about the world.
Another value Saki seems to find natural in children and perhaps all people is pride. In the main story in which the children, aunt, and bachelor ride on the train, one of the young girls is very proud of the piece of poetry she has learned (somewhat) and she recites it over and over, perhaps trying to elicit more praise from her siblings or the adults. Furthermore, within the bachelor's story, Bertha is shown to be proud of her goodness, especially of the praise and awards she has gotten for it from adults, but her wearing her medals with pride is what allows the wolf to find and kill her. Saki also shows that not only children can be proud of their skills, as the bachelor is clearly proud of his storytelling abilities and perhaps even of the fact that he taught the children to question authority and demand more imaginative stories.
The Storyteller Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for The Storyteller is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.