Review: The Lumber Room by Saki

Easily digested and fun to read, The Lumber Room, a tale of one boy’s struggle against the foolishness of adults, makes for an excellent introduction to the short story form.

From the first paragraph, our hero Nicholas is presented as a troublemaker and a rebel against the established order. An incident involving a frog in the breakfast bowl makes clear his goal: to prove that “older, wiser, and better people” can in fact be “profoundly in error in matters about which they had expressed the utmost assurance.”

The aunt, principal antagonist of the The Lumber Room, is described as “one of those people who think that things spoil by use and consign them to dust and damp by way of preserving them,” establishing in few words her position as an oppressive force. The other children in the story are mentioned offhandedly as Nicholas’ “boy-cousin and girl-cousin and his quite uninteresting younger brother,” suggesting that our protagonist considers them below him and unworthy of further description. His opinion of them may be due in part to their deference towards their aunt—an attitude which he, significantly, does not share.

The namesake of the story, the lumber room, is an storage nook of old tapestries, animal-shaped teapots and books with beautiful pictures. It represents an escape from the stifling rules and punishments imposed on Nicholas by the aunt. A book he picks up contains images of fantastical birds, a symbol of freedom. The tapestry, however, is the most important object in the room, transfixing Nicholas from the moment he lays eyes upon it. The scene it depicts mirrors his own situation: the hunter in the tapestry, momentarily basking in his triumph, will soon have to face the advancing wolves.

Later in the story, a rain-water tank catches and imprisons the aunt when she falls down, placing her at the mercy of Nicholas. This mishap of the aunt’s is deliberately structured: not only does it show a subversion of her power over Nicholas and the other children’s lives, it also happens to occur within her garden, on her home turf, heightening the effect of irony and highlighting the fragility of her apparent power. The aunt’s authority suffers another blow when her “punitive expedition” to Jagborough Cove turns out to be a failure.

The effortlessness and effectiveness of undermining the aunt encourages Nicholas, causing him to think back to the hunter in the tapestry scene and consider the man’s predicament in a more optimistic light. Although the hunter only has two arrows left in his quiver to repel four preying wolves, he may yet find a way to preserve himself, if he has the sense to run and leave the fallen stag to sate the wolves. Similarly, Nicholas, despite his seemingly powerless position with regards to his aunt, can hope to rely on both wits and coincidence to challenge her despotic control over the “bare and cheerless” household and, more importantly, over himself.

Rating: 4/5 ★