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The lumber room

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by Hector Munro

Hector Munro (pseudonym Saki, 1870—1916) is a British novelist and a short-story writer. He is best known for his short stories. Owing to the death of his mother and his father's absence abroad he was brought up during childhood, with his elder brother and sister, by a grandmother and two aunts. It seems probable that their stem and unsympathetic methods account for Munro's strong dislike of anything that smacks of the conventional and the self-righteous. He satirized things that he hated. Munro was killed on the French front during the First World War. In her Biography of Saki Munro's sister writes: "One of Munro's aunts, Augusta, was a woman of ungovernable temper, of fierce likes and dislikes, imperious, a moral coward, possessing no brains worth speaking of, and a primitive disposition," Naturally the last person who should have been in charge of children. The character of the aunt in The Lumber-Room is Aunt Augusta to the life.

The story starts with the exposition. The readers are told that “the children were to be driven, as a special treat, to the sands at Jagborough…”, but Nicholas wasn’t allowed to go with everybody else. He was punished. The setting doesn’t occupy any special part of the story – it is scattered throughout. However the lumber-room is of greatest importance – it combines both pleasant and unpleasant things: dust, dust and dump, plain black cover and objects of delight, a living breathing story, a hanging glowing in wonderful colours, the colouring of a mandarin duck. That just means that to some people one and the same thing or object may seem ugly, for others – beautiful.  Nicholas is able to see the lumber-room’s treasure. That’s why the function of the setting is to characterize the protagonist.

Then follows a flashback, when the readers get to know Nicholas’ sin.  The protagonist complained of having a frog in his wholesome bread-and-milk and refused to eat it. The fact was that there really was a frog inside – Nicholas had put it inside himself. For that he was punished. It doesn’t mean he was deprived of anything. His aunt immediately thought out a treat for other children, except for Nicholas, who, in fact, wasn’t really disappointed.

Then the aunt forbade Nicholas to go into the gooseberry garden, but she was sure he would make a few attempts, just because she had forbidden it. That’s why she spent a lot of time in the gooseberry garden herself, pretending to have some undone work there. Nicholas indeed made a few attempts to get into there, but in fact he had no intention to do it – he just enjoyed annoying his aunt.

The next moment of complications reveal the true intention of Nicholas for the afternoon – to get into the lumber-room and discover its secrets. He had been nourishing the plan for a long time; he even had a practice in unlocking doors.

 The lumber-room indeed proved to contain a lot of secrets and treasure – it completely came up to Nicholas’ expectations.

Few minutes or even hours were spent by discovering the lumber-room’s treasure. The thing that caught Nicholas’ eye for a long time was a picture of a hunter, hunting a stag and being a prey for a pack of wolves at the same time. Nicholas tried to guess what could have been possibly done to save the hunter. How could he escape the fate of a prey? And how would the wolves act in the circumstances? There were also objects in the lumber-room “of delight and interest claiming his instant attention”: twisted candlesticks in the shape of snakes, a teapot fashioned like a china duck, a large square book with plain black cover full of coloured pictures of birds.

Meanwhile the aunt was looking for Nicholas and screaming out his name. The screams soon changed into shrieks; and that made Nicholas leave his cozy nook and go to the gooseberry garden. It turned out that the aunt was in trouble – looking for Nicholas she examined every place in the garden and accidentally slipped into the rain-water tank. She couldn’t get out by herself and asked Nicholas for help.

However, Nicholas decided to play a little bit. He said he was forbidden to go into the garden. He spoke to his aunt as if she were the Evil Spirit trying to tempt him to commit evil, which as he perfectly knew, was nonsense.

Then comes the most tensed moment of complications – Nicholas asks his aunt if there will be strawberry jam for tea this afternoon. At that moment the readers may feel as if Nicholas is trying to racket his aunt. The aunt convinces him there will be strawberry jam for tea this afternoon thinking at the same time that there will definitely be no strawberry jam for Nicholas this afternoon.

Then follows the climax of the story. Nicholas still continuing his game says that his aunt would never give the children strawberry jam for tea.  Now the readers understand that Nicholas wasn’t racketing – he was just deriding his aunt’s logic.

In the denouement of the story the readers observe tea that evening, which was held in a fearsome silence. Everybody was disappointed: the tide prevented children from going to the sands of Jagborough, Bobby’s boots were too tight and caused him pain; the aunt “maintained the frozen muteness”. Nicholas, however, was absorbed by his thoughts about the fate of the hunter from the picture. “…it was just possible, he considered, that the huntsman would escape with his hounds while the wolves feasted on the stricken stag.” So the readers see that Nicholas was perhaps the only one who enjoyed the afternoon.

As we see the story is based on several conflicts, but the main one can be referred to the type of “one set of values against the other set of values”. Thus the main characters represent two completely different ways of perceiving the world around them. The aunt is practical, down-to-earth, a real hard head, who thinks she has a lot of logic. Nicholas is sensitive, curious, and dreamy but also with the logic of his own. The difference also lies in treating other people – if the aunt likes to command, to obey others and sometimes to hurt them, Nicholas rejects such methods.

There are external conflicts as well: man against man (Nicholas against his aunt), generation gap problems, to a certain extent. But they are unimportant; their aim is just to give grounds for the development of the main type of conflict.

The choice the author made which type of narration to use contributes to the aim of the story, which is to show the readers the motives of the two characters. The author uses third person narrative and the narrator is the omniscient author as there is the internal analysis of events.

 The main focus of interest is the study of motives and thoughts of the characters, their feelings and emotions.

The author is limited as he shows us only the thoughts of the protagonists, and no thoughts of the minor characters. Besides the author is detached as he conceals his own point of view, or it’s better to say – he doesn’t reveal it directly, but throughout the story the readers can feel that his sympathy is at the boy’s side.

The author uses different means of characterizing the protagonists: both direct and indirect ones.

The aunt has an unwarranted stretch of imagination; she was a woman of few ideas, with immense power of concentration. She had a watchful eye. Then she is characterized through her actions. She invented a special treat just to punish Nicholas, so she was pretty vindictive and spiteful. She understood that the punishment didn’t have any effect and invented another one – she forbade Nicholas to go into the gooseberry garden. She pretended to have some work there, but in fact she had none. That tells us the aunt was petty, paltry, small-minded, and mean-spirited. His logic wasn’t flexible at all as we can observe from the dialogue in the garden.

Then there is a psychological portrayal and analysis of motives as we observe when the ant thinks of not t giving Nicholas strawberry jam for tea; and that tells the readers she wasn’t an honest person. She also seems to like nobody; she suspects Nicholas of committing bad deeds even before he hints at it. She has somewhat perverted ideas of pleasure and punishment which do not correspond to the children’s liking. That can suggest that she takes a narrow view of everything, and judges everyone according to herself.

She is also characterized by her speech. Almost all the sentences she uses are imperatives. Fetch the little ladder… I told you not to, now I tell that you may. Don’t talk nonsense. Go and fetch the ladder. That suggests that she is too bossy to ask anything, she is used to command. A lot of what she says isn’t true as the readers can see, that’s why she can be characterized as a liar: How they will enjoy themselves! I can see you all the time. Certainly there will be.

In order to understand one more means of characterization we are at first to give a character sketch of Nicholas.

Directly he is described as a skilled tactician who doesn’t intend to shift from favourable ground. He is characterized by his actions. He places a frog in his meals just to prove others he is right this time. That embarrasses his aunt and she “punishes” him. But the readers soon understand Nicholas knows everything about her aunt, he can easily predict her every action. So we understand that he frog was just a way of getting the rest of the family out of the house. That really proves Nicholas was a tactician, smart, observant, sensible. Then the readers get to know his true intention – he wanted to discover the treasure of the lumber-room. He stole the key and unlocked it. Before that he practiced in unlocking doors – that suggests he was a smart and careful boy. He observed everything in the lumber-room – nothing escaped his attention: twisted candlesticks in the shape of snakes, a teapot fashioned like a china duck, a large square book with plain black cover full of coloured pictures of birds and a picture of the huntsman. That tells the readers Nicholas was very sensitive, he had a strong feeling for beauty, he had a poetic nature. At the same time he was a small devil: he decided to punish his aunt, to mock at her – he used her own logic to keep her in the rainwater tank. In the denouement of the story he again thought about the picture he saw in the lumber-room. That tells us he was a very extraordinary person; that some objectively unimportant things meant really a lot to him. So he had indeed great power of imagination.

As for speech characteristics, Nicholas uses a lot of repetitions, which either proves his stubbornness or means that he is repeating the phrases for his aunt – for her to understand: You said there couldn’t be possibly a frog in my bread-and-milk; there was a frog in my bread-and-milk. …you weren’t listening. You often don’t listen. He also uses some contractions and ellipses like who’s calling, why not, you weren’t listening, I wasn’t, I’m not etc. Emphatic inversion tells us about his emotional state: How did she howl!

One more means of characterization used is the foil technique. The aunt is dogmatic, prosaic, practical, pedantic, philistine and down-to-earth. Nicholas is quite the opposite – sensitive, poetic, light-minded.

The tone the author assumes towards the readers is familiar as there are no indices of official style and some colloquial words and phrases, as well as some intensifiers and parenthetical words: as a mater of fact, however, some asperity, immense power, to sell oneself.

The tone the author assumes towards the subject-matter is ironic. The irony is achieved by both linguistic and extra-linguistic means: there is a discrepancy between who was supposed to be punished in the beginning of the story and who was really punished in the end of the story. The irony is also based on the fact that being practical and material doesn’t necessarily means being smart and clever.

Linguistic irony is achieved by epithets (decent tears, high spirit, trivial gardening operations, self-imposed sentry-duty, stale delight, material pleasure, undreamed-of creatures), metaphors and clichés (forbidden paradise, a plan… germinated in his brain, for the eyes to feast on, golden minutes, the Evil One tempting to be disobedient),  intensifiers (profoundly, utmost, perfectly, considerably, immense), alliteration (dust and dump, first and foremost), hyperbole (punitive expedition, frozen muteness), periphrasis (It was probably the first time for twenty years that any one had smiled in that lumber room). We also notice an instance of pure irony in the story when the aunt is referred to as “the older and wiser and better”, which we know isn’t true.

We also observe some symbols in the story. The lumber-room represents something which is subjectively precious. Some people like the aunt think it to be a dustbin, for others like Nicholas it’s a treasure. Thus the title of the story orients the readers towards the subject matter and at the same time emphasizes the importance of this symbol. The picture of a huntsman symbolizes Nicholas’ vivid imagination and sense of beauty.

Summing up we may state that the message of the story is: There has always been a conflict between poetry and prose, between practical and beautiful, between kindness and cruelty. But on the example of Nicholas and his aunt we can see that the entire negative which is personified in the aunt can be defeated by its own methods.

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