“The Wolves of Cernogratz” by H.H. Munro (aka Saki) opens on a baroness who is hosting some guests in her recently acquired mansion and is explaining to them the legend associated with the house. Unexpectedly, the baroness’s governess, Fraulein Schmidt, interjects and says that the baroness’s account is inaccurate; the wolves only howl for members of the von Cernogratz who are dying, and a tree falls when the von Cernogratz’s soul leaves their body. The baroness criticizes her for speaking up against her, which prompts the governess to explain that she is the last living von Cernogratz, and she heard these tales from her father. Once she departs the party, the guests rail on her story and make fun of her. Only one man, Hamburg, believes what Schmidt has said. The baroness states that she is planning to fire Schmidt after the holidays. This will never come to pass, however, because the governess falls ill around the holidays and is bedridden. The governess laments over her sickness as it leaves her having to do things for herself, and she is talking to her guests about this tragedy when the howling of wolves sounds from outside. Alarmed, the baroness rushes to see the governess, who tells her that she is dying and to leave her alone to die with the wolves’ sounds. When the baroness rejoins her guests, they are all startled by the sound of a falling tree. The next day, the governess’ name appears in the paper, as the last von Cernogratz.
In this piece, I tracked the occurrence of arrogance and complacency in the characters. Knowing that Saki was a satirist who loved to make fun of the Edwardian time in England, Saki’s repeated use of negative and snooty character actions summarize a good half of what he is commenting on in this story; he views the elite of the day as thinking they are better than one another and this creates an obvious and easy pathway to being a social commentary. The people, especially the women, in his day took themselves extremely seriously and there seems to be very little room for compromise or open-mindedness as displayed by the baroness in her complete disregard for her governess’s assertions.
The second highlight I tracked was deliberate lies or mild deception, of which there were so many! The baroness uses the doubt over what the governess has said to twist her into appearing to be an insane woman, essentially gas lighting her room, and paints her in a light that not only makes the governess look very negative, but also to bolster her own reputation all at once. This is most evident in the last sentence, where the baroness has released a statement to the press that she was a close friend of the late great heir of the von Cernogratzs. The governess is not entirely guilt-free either; we are not sure by the end of the story whether or not she was telling the truth at all or if the situation of her death was peculiar on accident or on purpose or really an act of god. We read this story all the way to the end to get answers to the mysterious legend of this mansion, but are ultimately left unanswered.
- Why didn’t Saki tell us for sure whether or not the governess was a Cernogratz?
- Is this short of a story effective enough to be a proper social commentary?
- Does it even matter if the story is answered or finished if the whole point is to satirize?