Analysis of Saki’s The Penance

One of Saki’s [H. H. Munro’s] tragicomic explorations of the gap between imaginative children and conventional adults, “The Penance” first appeared in the Westminster Gazette on September 24, 1910.

Octavian Ruttle has recently killed the neighboring children’s tabby cat, which he thought had been killing his chickens. The children, unfortunately, witnessed the death over the wall between the houses, and they utter one word in unison to the feline-slayer: “Beast!” Ruttle’s peace offerings to the children are spurned, and he soon realizes that, in fact, rats have been eating his poultry. One afternoon, desperate to placate his little foes, he brings out his two-year-old daughter Olivia to charm them and picks some flowers from his garden for the three siblings. But while his back is turned, the children take Olivia to Octavian’s piggeries, where they hoist her onto a sty roof, threatening to throw her to the swine. As the parties negotiate terms, Olivia falls into the muck. Octavian tries to reach his slowly sinking daughter but cannot move in the quagmire of mud. Panic-stricken, he agrees to the children’s demands—for half-an-hour, he will stand in a white sheet by the cat’s grave, holding a candle and saying, “I’m a miserable Beast”—and the trio pass a short ladder down to him so he can crawl slowly across it and extricate his daughter from the mire. That evening, Octavian serves his penance, and “the next morning his eyes were gladdened by a sheet of copy-book paper lying beside the blank wall, on which was written the message ‘Un-Beast.’

”Saki is an expert illustrator of the difference between adults’ and children’s worlds, exemplified here by the “high blank wall” between Octavian and his unnamed juvenile opponents, a barrier that “would not be more impervious to his explanations than the bunch of human hostility that peered over its coping.” As in the better-known “Sredni Vashtar” (published just four months earlier) or “The Lumber-Room” (1913), children’s private, devoutly animist rituals and beliefs eclipse their public ties to family, friends, or neighbors. The children morally equate humans and beasts by suggesting that Olivia’s death is compensation for their cat’s and telling Octavian that he is a “Beast.” In an echo of “The Schartz-Metterklume Method,” they use their basic knowledge of bloody events in adult history against adults. The “standing puzzle” of this intelligent, moral child-force reveals the blandness, immorality, and hypocrisy of an unfeeling, hidebound Edwardian society.

Many critics have pointed out that Ethel Munro’s biography of her brother suggests that Munro’s harsh upbringing in the household of two aunts in Pilton—as outlined in his sister’s 1924 memoir—is reflected in Saki’s stories of children wreaking revenge on adult guardians. “The Penance,” with its children growing up in England while their parents are “in India,” certainly seems inspired by the animal-loving Munro’s children’s time together in 1870s Devon while their father was in Burma, when, as Ethel writes in her 1924 memoir, “there were the three of us, and we lived a life of our own, in which the grown-ups had no part.”

Analysis of Saki’s (H. H. Munro) Stories

Saki. The Complete Saki. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1982.


Categories: British Literature, Literature, Short Story

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: