Saki is the true master of witty & macabre storytelling. He proves himself to be a person who does not analyse situations at their face value & gets into the minds of people professing certain ideas. For H.H. Munro, also well known as Saki, the world of simplicity is a world full of weird possibilities. He advances this theory of his, in his story ‘The Stalled Ox’ which appears in the 1914 collection ‘Beasts & Super-Beasts’.
In the story like in most of Saki’s witty stories, especially in this collection of short stories, he presents to the reader an almost ideal set up, where suddenly an unusual problem arises where absurdity begins leading to an anti-climax of a conclusion which at times shocks a person or makes the reader grin wisely. In the story, the main character is an artist named Theophil Eshley who paints cattle for a living, not because he is obsessed with the theme of dairy farming but because as Saki states, it has become his trademark. This trademark has been linked to him to such an extent that even his two attempts to break away from his own tradition leads him to failure. In the first paragraph of the story itself, one gets an idea of the hum-drum life of a simple painter who to us on the face of it, will never amount to anything in life but a cattle painter. Saki however, points to us an alternate philosophy to our prejudiced theorization in the form of his ‘problematic situation’.
Most of Saki’s problematic situations are life changing. In this narrative as well, the issue brought to the notice of the artist Eshley by his neighbour Adela Pingsford changes the artist’s life forever. The situation is urgent & absurd to a logical thinker, but simple enough as it goes where probabilities are rampant. Eshley is faced with a situation in which an animal….an ox holds a prominent position. Saki I have observed enjoys to use animals of all kinds, as miscreants of the human world of so called ‘order’. Infact wherever there is a slight trace of order going on, an animal like a piglet, a cock, an elk etc.., play the role of the tutor of humility.
In the story, an ox has entered the garden of the artist’s neighbour which she definitely objects to, as the alleged ox was upsetting her chrysanthemums. The neighbour implores the artist to drive the wayward ox away from her garden. She is of the opinion that since Eshley the artist was a cattle painter, he would be having a sort of ‘extra’ knowledge about how to get an ox off her land. There issues forth a cacophony of crazy dialogues which is hilarious in its simplicity & forwardness.
An avid Saki reader would definitely be aware of the fact that dialogues are of the utmost importance in the author’s short stories. Dialogues are the tools which Saki uses to dish out to the voracious reader of satire a hilarious stream of wacky possibilities which seem so real & yet so fantastic. The dialogues between the artist Eshley & his neighbour Adela are ingenious. The absurdness of human thought & action is presented by Saki very vividly.
Eshley in the story asks rather odd questions to his flushed neighbour that increase the flame of her rage. Eshley also is so indifferent to the whole situation that makes the reader want to chuckle out loud. Sarcasm is used by Saki to the fullest especially through the person of Adela. When Eshley quaintly asks whether the ox won’t just go out on its own, Adela angrily retorts that if it was the beasts initial intention she would not have taken the trouble to meet the artist in the first place & ask for help. Also, when Eshley very feebly tries to drive the stalled ox away with cries of ‘Hish’ & ‘Shoo’, Adela indignantly states that the next time a hen sets foot into her garden, she would definitely call the artist for his assistance in the form of his useless bird calls like ‘Hish’ & ‘Shoo’.
I’ve noticed also where this story is concerned (as well all of Saki’s short stories) Saki has been able in single sentences even to satirise a lot of events, institutions, ideologies & people. Example is when Eshley mocks the cinema when he states that the oxen that are rounded up on screen may be fake even though they contain a lot of horses to help along with many ‘accessories’. He also picks on The Royal Academy stating that they prefer ‘orderly & methodical habits in its children’.
Another part of the story that amuses me is the almost human side that is given to the ox which seems quite devoid in the artist or the artist’s neighbour. The ox is the one who understands that he is not welcome in the garden after a pea-stick is thrown at him & thus drags himself into Adela’s morning room. Adela on the other hand is flabbergasted when she sees the ox entering her morning room & makes the hilarious statement that where personal preference was concerned, she preferred the ox to stay in the garden rather than in her house. She is also the one who induces the novel idea into the artist to paint the picture of the ox in her morning room which he undertakes to do immediately after it was suggested. The situation seems absurd & nonsensical but Eshley’s painting of, ‘Ox In A Morning Room Late Autumn’ makes him a real success at last although it does not improve his equation with his neighbour. The story is an anti-climax typical of Saki where the ox that caused a lot of trouble becomes a sensation in the world of art.
In all, the story of ‘The Stalled Ox’ appealed a lot to my taste in subtle humour as well as my love for macabre literature.