H.H. Munro was the NYTimes crossword across clue last week, and as it so often happens, I just happened to be talking about H.H. Munro to the sophomore English class these first days of school. Just name dropping Saki, his pseudonym, caught their attention.
“What kind of a name is that?” they asked.
When I told them he might have been referring to the Saki monkey, a small South American primate, they concurred that he had chosen a cool pen name.
Saki’s short stories open our World Literature course which complements the Modern World History course offered the same year. Our students will be reading complex texts required by the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards (CCSS), and complex texts are those that meet four criteria:
1) Meaning: Multiple levels of meaning (such as satires, in which the author’s literal message is intentionally at odds with his or her underlying message).
(2) Structure: Complex, implicit, and (particularly in literary texts) unconventional structures.
(3) Language: Figurative, ironic, ambiguous, purposefully misleading, archaic or otherwise unfamiliar language
(4) Knowledge Demands: Everyday knowledge and familiarity with genre conventions required; cultural and literary knowledge useful.
Saki’s work meets the CCSS criteria above, but I have learned that the practice of close reading never follows the lengthy tortuous path suggested by Common Core developers who have no classroom experience. My students stray.
The text selected was “The Interlopers”. (SPOILER ALERT For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story and want to read it before I reveal the plot twist, link to the text. There is also an audio-text.)
To prepare students, but careful not to “overteach” before reading, I gave students slips of paper with 25 words from the story. The slips including some of the more difficult vocabulary (languor, succor, marauder) and some plot details (woodland, feud, detest). Some of the students sorted the words alphabetically, but others grouped words that shared some commonality. After a few minutes of discussion, we joined together to predict what the story would be about using the grouped words; there would be a dispute in the forest that was linked to some feud, just like the feud in Romeo and Juliet.
Then we read the story.
Thirteen minutes later, some heads shot up. They had reached Saki’s iconic last word…”wolves!”
“Wolves!” one student questioned, “does that mean they die?”
There was much stirring. Some seemed surprised; others seemed confused.
In contrast, I thought the ending was obvious. Two men, trapped under a tree, end a bitter feud over forest land only to eaten by wolves.
Several, but not all, of my students thought differently.
“They weren’t rescued?” asked Kailey, “but one of them said he had men that would be there to rescue them in the forest.”
“He was bluffing,” responded Logan. “He was trying to scare the other guy when they first met.”
“But there was a gun,” pointed out Stephan, “one could have used the gun.”
“They had their arms ‘pinioned’,” I responded, trying to slip in another vocabulary word, “pinioned means to tie up the arms of…”
“They could have wriggled out when they saw the wolves,” insisted Stephan, “the rush of adrenaline would make them so strong, they could un-pinion their arms.”
“But there is no evidence to show that,” I responded. “The last word is their last word because the wolves come upon them.”
I had thought the story was straightforward. There were no flashbacks, and no change in setting. This was, according to Aristotle, a story that demonstrated unity of time, unity of place, and unity of action.
Yet the conversations in the room showed the text’s complexity. Saki’s The Interlopers has all the elements suggested by the CCSS. There is the figurative language in the character Ulrich’s statement, “We have quarrelled like devils all our lives over this stupid strip of forest, where the trees can’t even stand upright in a breath of wind.” There is the ironic wish, “If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness – that was the wish that was uppermost in his thoughts.” There is also the multiple meaning in the revenge sought by man and the revenge exacted by Nature. Our close reading should have been “textbook”. The evidence proved the characters’ demise…or did it? I began to consider the renegade students’ position.
“See,” insisted Kailey, “look at the text, Georg says he has seven men out with him before the tree fell. These seven men would hear their screaming.”
“Yes, there would be screaming. Their last words were, ‘AHHH!!! OUCH!!! THAT HURTS!!'”Jay yelled.
“But that does not mean they were definitely eaten,” corrected Kai, “this guy Saki wants you to make up your mind.”
Which is true. Saki does not end the story with screams of pain or with tales of rescue. He trusts the reader to use evidence to make up his or her own mind. Several of my students did not want to see Ulrich and Georg meet their demise, especially when they had settled their long standing feud.
The class discussion continued with each piece of evidence for the “eaten by wolves” side being countered by evidence from the “escaped with their lives” side. The students were definitely close reading, but they were exploiting Saki’s ambiguity to defend their differing positions. A case could be made for both.
Yes, they understood the importance of irony in the story, and yes, they were familiar with plot twists, but they still held out hope. Saki had made them care for these characters in the 2100 words of this short story. He had given just the right amount of contradictory information to leave room for just a sliver of hope. A 99 and 44/100’s sort of hope.
Did they hold out hope because of their youth? Aristotle suggests that, “Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope.” Yet, Aristotle is also credited with saying, “Hope is the dream of a waking man.”
In retrospect, Saki himself would probably have enjoyed their commentary. I discovered too late for the discussion that Saki has been quoted as saying, “A little inaccuracy sometimes saves a ton of explanation.”