A reading of a classic short story
‘The Lumber-Room’ is a classic short story about a child who is too clever for the adults. Specifically, it is about how one clever but mischievous boy, Nicholas, seeks to outwit his aunt so he can gain access to the lumber-room with its hidden treasures and curiosities. But the story might also be viewed as an analysis of the nature of obedience, and the limited adult view of the world, when contrasted with the child’s more expansive and imaginative outlook. You can read ‘The Lumber-Room’ here.
In his Biography, Saki – real name Hector Hugh Munro – recalled his childhood of the 1870s, in which ‘the flower and vegetable gardens were surrounded by high walls and a hedge, and on rainy days we were kept indoors’ where the ‘windows [were] shut and shuttered’. It may be, then, that the adult Munro – reinvented as the Edwardian fiction-writer Saki – was recalling his own upbringing in ‘The Lumber-Room’, which sees the young Nicholas being kept indoors as punishment, deprived of the ‘treat’ of a trip to Jagborough Sands and denied access to the gooseberry garden outside the house.
But Nicholas is smarter than the aunt who endeavours to keep him indoors. First of all, he is told he will not be allowed to accompany his siblings on their day trip, because he refused to eat his bread-and-milk:
Only that morning he had refused to eat his wholesome bread-and-milk on the seemingly frivolous ground that there was a frog in it. Older and wiser and better people had told him that there could not possibly be a frog in his bread-and-milk and that he was not to talk nonsense; he continued, nevertheless, to talk what seemed the veriest nonsense, and described with much detail the coloration and markings of the alleged frog. The dramatic part of the incident was that there really was a frog in Nicholas’s basin of bread-and-milk; he had put it there himself, so he felt entitled to know something about it. The sin of taking a frog from the garden and putting it into a bowl of wholesome bread-and-milk was enlarged on at great length, but the fact that stood out clearest in the whole affair, as it presented itself to the mind of Nicholas, was that the older, wiser, and better people had been proved to be profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance.
This provides the essence of Nicholas’ character, and of ‘The Lumber-Room’: Nicholas’ aunt is mistaken in thinking that there isn’t a frog in his food, but only because she fails to ‘know her enemy’ and realise that Nicholas is the just the sort of boy who would have a frog in his food, if only because he’s also the sort of boy who would put one there. This failure of imagination, a failure to ‘read’ Nicholas and interpret the kind of person he is, represents the beginning of his aunt’s downfall.
As punishment – for refusing to eat his food, remember, not for putting a frog in said food – Nicholas is kept indoors all day while the other children are out playing. Once again, Nicholas outwits his aunt, convincing her that he longs to go exploring in the gooseberry garden, and thus decoying her into keeping stern watch on the garden, since she fully expects him to attempt to break out into that fruity paradise.
But this is just a distraction, since, knowing that he now has his aunt out the way, Nicholas is able to steal the key that unlocks the lumber-room of the house, and gain access to that forbidden chamber of secrets. Among other things, a tapestry catches his eye and fires his imagination:
A man, dressed in the hunting costume of some remote period, had just transfixed a stag with an arrow; it could not have been a difficult shot because the stag was only one or two paces away from him; in the thickly growing vegetation that the picture suggested it would not have been difficult to creep up to a feeding stag, and the two spotted dogs that were springing forward to join in the chase had evidently been trained to keep to heel till the arrow was discharged. That part of the picture was simple, if interesting, but did the huntsman see, what Nicholas saw, that four galloping wolves were coming in his direction through the wood?
His aunt, believing she must have missed him when he crept out into that gooseberry garden, goes looking for him, and ends up falling into the rain-water tank. She calls for Nicholas to come and help her to get out, but he tells her that he has been forbidden to set foot in the garden:
‘I told you not to, and now I tell you that you may,’ came the voice from the rain-water tank, rather impatiently.
‘Your voice doesn’t sound like aunt’s,’ objected Nicholas; ‘you may be the Evil One tempting me to be disobedient. Aunt often tells me that the Evil One tempts me and that I always yield. This time I’m not going to yield.’
‘Don’t talk nonsense,’ said the prisoner in the tank; ‘go and fetch the ladder.’
‘Will there be strawberry jam for tea?’ asked Nicholas innocently.
‘Certainly there will be,’ said the aunt, privately resolving that Nicholas should have none of it.
‘Now I know that you are the Evil One and not aunt,’ shouted Nicholas gleefully; ‘when we asked aunt for strawberry jam yesterday she said there wasn’t any. I know there are four jars of it in the store cupboard, because I looked, and of course you know it’s there, but she doesn’t, because she said there wasn’t any. Oh, Devil, you have sold yourself!’
There was an unusual sense of luxury in being able to talk to an aunt as though one was talking to the Evil One, but Nicholas knew, with childish discernment, that such luxuries were not to be over-indulged in.
Note the use of ‘childish discernment’ in that final paragraph: in ‘The Lumber-Room’ it is the child who is discerning, not the adult. ‘Childishness’ is thus turned on its head (Saki could easily have written ‘childlike’ and spoilt the effect with too much romanticism), and – in a paradoxical inversion that suggests Saki’s near-contemporary (and fellow wit), Oscar Wilde, the old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, and the young know everything.
‘The Lumber-Room’ ends with Nicholas walking away and leaving his aunt to be rescued by a kitchen-maid, on the grounds that he would be going against her own orders if he strayed into the forbidden garden to rescue her. The child turns the adult’s punitive rules against her; in doing so, he outwits her, adding her own lie – about there being no jam to have for tea – to the list of charges. Nicholas’ mind returns to the tapestry he had been captivated by in the lumber-room:
As for Nicholas, he, too, was silent, in the absorption of one who has much to think about; it was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.
If this makes the aunt a liar and a hypocrite, seemingly happy to disregard her own commands when it means saving herself from more time in the water-tank, then Nicholas is hardly innocent himself. In summary, he is the epitome of the mischievous child. ‘Nicholas’ suggests not only St Nicholas, patron saint of children, but also ‘Old Nick’, one of many nicknames for the Devil, a nod to Nicholas’ wayward and roguish nature. But in ‘The Lumber-Room’ it is the aunt who Nicholas fiendishly identifies with the Devil; and in at least one analysis or interpretation of ‘The Lumber-Room’, he’d be right. Social convention is stifling and dull; the imagination should not be caged by religiously observed rules. The delicious wit and enterprise of Nicholas is what thrills us in the story; his aunt, we feel, belongs in that water-tank with all the other boring adults.
If this short summary and analysis of ‘The Lumber-Room’ has piqued your interest, you can pick up all of Saki’s wonderful stories in the affordable collection, The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics). We highly recommend them all. Discover more about Saki’s fiction with our pick of his best stories, our analysis of his hilarious cat story, and our discussion of his ‘The Open Window’.
Image: Hector Hugh Munro (1870–1916), better known as ‘Saki’. Photo from The War Illustrated 31 July 1915. Via Wikimedia Commons.
The text under analysis is written by an outstanding British novelist and short story writer Hector Munro who is better known by the pen name Saki. He was brought up during his childhood, with his elder brother and sister, by a grandmother and two aunts. I can’t describe their relationship as real one, those which has got any normal family. So such upbringing influenced into the author’s character. At his stories he satirized things that he hated. By the way, the character of the aunt in one of his stories is Aunt Augusta to the life.
She was such a person who should be (as the author said) the last one in charge of children. Munro was killed on the French front during the First World War. The title of the story is “The Lumber Room”. This heading is absolutely thought-provoking, intriguing and misleading. What is a lumber room for us? It’s such a place where there are a lot of old, unnecessary things which you don’t want to through away. It’s something mystery, horrible place for adults. That is also the place where they do not want to stay for a long time. And it is forbidden place for children. But why?
It is incomprehensible for child’s curiosity. Let’s just remember ourselves when we were children. Everything was interested for us, including a lumber room. But when we become older we forget about that and it’s a pity. The story presents extremely topical subjects. Actually, the whole novel can be divided into two parts: Child’s world and Adult’s world. The main idea is to show the readers that you should never bring up children like she did. If you would like to see alive, kind, happy, optimistic and so on person you should let the child gets acquainted with the world.
It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t keep an eye on your child but you shouldn’t just lose all sense of fun, imagination. You should also be on the one level with your pupil but be more predictable. So the story tells about a little orphan Nicholas who was trusted to his tyrannical and dull-witted aunt. One day Nicholas was “in disgrace”, so he duped his Aunt into believing that he was somehow trying to get into the gooseberry garden, but instead had no intention of doing so but did sneak into the Lumber Room.
There a tremendous picture of a hunter and a stag opened to him. Soon his aunt tried to look for the boy and slipped into the rain-water tank. She asked Nicholas to fetch her ladder but the boy pretended not to understand her, he said that she was the Evil One. The contextual type of the text is presented by author’s narration, description and dialogues. The story is narrated in the 3rd person. This allows the reader to access the situation and the characters in an unbiased and objective manner. This is especially so because the characters are complex, having both positive and negative viewpoints. The third person point of view is impersonal which fits the impersonal atmosphere of the household.
Dialogues which are in the text are long and informative and sentences also are long and complex. The author’s choice of vocabulary and stylistic devices is admirable. The author uses a large variety of stylistic devices, such as epithets, which can be divided into two categories: those, which are related to Child’s world (grim chuckle, alleged frog, unknown land, stale delight, mere material pleasure, bare and cheerless, thickly growing vegetation) and the one, which depicts a Grown-up’s world lacking any clear thinking (frivolous ground, veriest nonsense, considerable obstinacy, trivial gardening operation, unauthorized intrusion).
They help the author to emphasize a deep dissension between generations, to convey a thrilling power of child’s creative mind. There are a lot of metaphors in the story: a circus of unrivalled merit and uncounted elephants (to lay stress on the Aunt’s narrow-mindness), the flawlessness of the reasoning, self-imposed sentry-duty (characterizes the Aunt as a very strict person), art of fitting keys into keyholes and turning locks, region that was so carefully sealed from youthful eyes, many golden minutes of a ridiculously short range.
With the help of these stylistic means the offer unfolds a theme in which stupidity, moral degradation, hypocrisy and ambition play their sorry parts. There are some similes in the text: Bobby won’t enjoy himself much, and he won’t race much either; the aunt-by-assertion (The author uses Nicholas’ own word choice to show that he does not accept his aunt’s authority over him. ) and some periphrases: the Evil One, the prisoner in the tank. (These devices provide author’s irony and essential clue to the character).
The author also enriches the story with a device of hyperbole: How did she howl. The following stylistic devices contribute to the expressiveness of the text. The charm of this story lies in its interesting plot and exciting situation. The problem between adults and children are one of the age-long topics. It’s evident that all it’s taken from his own experience. I like his way of writing. I think it should be one of those books which people who took care of children used to read as more often as they can. It will help them do not forget that they were children too.