Gabriel-Ernest by Saki (H.H Munro) is an intriguing story about a boy who supposedly happens to be werewolf. This masterfully written story is peppered with Saka’s signature wit, humor and turn of phrase. Written from a third-person point of view, Gabriel-Ernest is a horror/suspense story which hooks the reader right till the end, without allowing the one to draw definite conclusions. On the face of it, the story appears to deal with the encounter of a character called Van Cheele with a wolf-boy. However, on a deeper analysis, one realizes that Gabriel- Ernest explores the complex themes of identity, paranoia, ambiguity, acceptance and takes a fresh look at the very idea of Truth itself. Read the critical analysis of Gabriel-Ernest by scrolling below.
GABRIEL-ERNEST | SUMMARY
The story opens with Cunningham remarking that there is a wild beast in the woods of his friend, Van Cheele, as the two travel towards the station. Being a loquacious talker, Van Cheele brushes off the remark made by his friend. On reaching the platform, Cheele asks Cunningham about the “beast”, which the former dismisses as his imagination. After seeing off his friend, Van Cheele takes to the woods for his customary evening walk. He is in for a surprise. On the shelf of a smooth stone overhanging a pool of water, he notices a feral boy sunning himself, after seemingly having dived into the pool. The mysterious boy seems to be lazily staring at him. Intrigued by the sight, Van Cheele wonders who the boy is and what he could have been doing in the forest. The story of the Miller’s son being lost near the pool momentarily crosses his mind, only to be displaced by the realization that this boy, unlike the Miller’s lost infant son, is an adolescent.
Van Cheele questions the boy about who he is and what he has been doing in the forest. The boy responds by saying that he lives in the forest by hunting on wild animals and hints at having tasted the flesh of human babies. His uncanny nature initially intrigues and later unsettles Van Cheele. He orders the boy to stay away from the woods and threatens to use force, if necessary. In response, the boy dives into the pool and appears right in front of the bank near which Van Cheele has been standing. The suddenness of movement and agility of its execution throws Cheele off the balance and he falls prone in front of the boy. The mysterious kid gives out a snarly laugh and disappears into the thicket.
On his way home, Van Cheele tries to think of local occurrences that might yield clues to the nature of this wild boy. Later that day, his unusual silence catches the attention of his Aunt who tries to humor him.
The next morning, he decides to visit Cunningham and ask him what he’d really seen the previous day. He walks into his morning room to have his customary cigarette when he’s startled to find the wild boy lying sprawled on the ottoman in a relaxed and defiant manner. He thunders at the boy and tries to cover the naked kid with a newspaper. His aunt interrupts this conversation by entering the room and Van Cheele introduces the boy to her a poor kid who had lost his way and his memory. On her part, the aunt pities the kid and resolves to take care of him. She immediately sends for the page boy to get fresh clothes. The wild boy is made to change and is rechristened as Gabriel-Ernest by the aunt. However, Van Cheele is still suspicious of the kid. The fact that his dog and his canary bird seemed to be terrified of the boy strengthens his doubts.
Having resolved to meet Cunningham immediately, he sets off to his friend’s house. Cunningham is initially hesitant to speak about what he saw in the woods the previous day. On further insistence, he reveals that he saw a boy in the woods while watching the sunset and that the figure of the boy was replaced by a black wolf during sundown. A chill runs down the spine of Van Cheele. He rushes to his house to inform his aunt about the nature of the boy. He is told by the aunt that Gabriel has been sent to accompany a Toop child to his house which is situated near a stream.
Cheele dashes off to catch hold of the boys. The sun is on the verge of setting. Despite his best efforts, he fails to find the boys on time. The sun sets, darkness spreads cross the horizon and heart-rending shriek of a little boy pierces the air.
Upon reaching the stream, all that is found are Gabriel- Ernest’s discarded clothes. The boys are never to be seen again and it is assumed that Ernest stripped off his clothes, in a bid to save little Toop who might’ve fallen into the stream. He is hailed as hero by many but Van Cheele refuses to believe this theory.
He even refuses to subscribe to a brass memorial for Gabriel-Ernest that is set up on his aunt’s initiative.
GABRIEL ERNEST | ANALYSIS
Saki (H.H Munro) has been hailed among the greatest masters of the short story. His astute observation of human nature and sharp wit makes his short stories immensely pleasurable to read. Saki uses short, deft strokes to create compelling character sketches and fabricate impressive plots.
The tone of Gabriel-Ernest is set by the first line itself when Cunningham, Van Cheele’s friend remarks:
“There is a wild beast in your woods,”
Saki is a master in in understanding and shaping his readers’ expectations. The first line of the story does precisely this. By making one of his characters warn the other of a beast in the very first line itself, Saki heightens the expectations of the reader whilst promising them a compelling tale that he is going to tell.
Foreshadowing is a literary device that Saki is a master at deploying. What was true of the first sentence of the story in the above-mentioned paragraph is also true in his description of the bittern in Van Cheele’s room:
He had a stuffed bittern in his study, and knew the names of quite a number of wild flowers, so his aunt had possibly some justification in describing him as a great naturalist.
The presence of a stuffed dead bird in Van Cheele’s study connotes the idea of death and horror. By introducing the image of a dead bird in the first few paragraphs, Saki hints at the possible nature of events that are to come. This literary device of foreshadowing is so easy to miss, yet difficult to ignore once the reader’s attention is directed towards it.
Also, the stuffed bird which is devoid of the real matter within it is symbolic of its owner whose knowledge about things is of superficial nature, devoid of any depth. That is Saki’s use of symbolism right there.
CHARACTER SKETCH OF GABRIEL-ERNEST
The boy whom Van encounters is a truly mysterious character. We do not have a backstory about who he is, not do we know what ultimately happens to him. We do not even know his name and the name of Gabriel Ernest that is given to him is given by a woman who has absolutely no clue of who or what she is dealing with.
This mystery has been sustained by the author’s writing style as well. One notices that there is a huge difference between Saki’s description of Van Cheele and the boy. While Saki uses irony and sarcasm while describing Van Cheele to the point of making him a caricature, he refrains from fully describing the actual nature of the boy. The few phrases that are used to describe him and his behavior makes him even more mysterious. Usually, descriptions are used to reveal the nature of a character. The author’s description of the boy conceals, rather than revealing his character.
The literary technique of zoomorphism is employed to describe wild boy. He is likened to various animals throughout the story. At different points, the boy’ s demeanor is likened to a tiger, an otter, a faun and finally, a wolf. This further adds to the mystery surrounding the boy.
Whether Gabriel-Ernest is a waif or a werewolf has been explored towards the end of this analysis. We do not know who he actually is. What we definitely know about him may be summed up in two words : Mysterious & Misunderstood.
CHARACTER SKETCH OF VAN CHEELE
Besides being a suspense story Gabriel Ernest is also an example of how a skillful character sketch may be drawn by a writer through suggestions and illusions. In this regard, the character sketch of Van Cheele is exemplary feat. The superficial, unthinking and boastful nature of Van Cheele is sufficiently revealed in the first few paragraphs of the story. The fact that he brushes off his friend’s remarks and that he goes for long walks to observe the natural world with the motive of using them to impress listeners in the next conversation, speaks volumes about the nature of this man. He seems to think less and speak more, quite the empty vessel of that famous saying. In all, Cheele is quite a flat character.
Van Cheele is easily taken in by appearances and prejudices than well-reasoned arguments, which makes him prone to hasty conclusions. These character traits seem to affect his judgement of the wolf-boy.
GABRIEL ERNEST | THEMES
Gabriel Ernest explores the complex themes of fear, authority, paranoia, identity, belonging and ambiguity of truth.
Humans tend to control what they understand and fear what they don’t. The theme of fear and control is intertwined in the story. This is brought out in Van Cheele’s interaction with the wild boy.
Van Cheele seems to believe that he has complete authority over his woods. He commands the boy to leave ” his woods” and even threatens to use force, if necessary. Despite living in Van Cheele’s forest, the boy does not recognize his authority. He is a free spirit, a thoroughgoing rebel who doesn’t obey Van Cheele. The idea of authority is turned upside down when the boy jumps into the pool and appears before Van Cheele, causing him to fall prone in front of the person who he had commanded to leave his forest, some moments earlier. This brush with the Unknown turns out to be the undoing of Van Cheele’s authority. From this point onwards, we realize that it is the boy who controls the action and the seemingly authoritative position that Van Cheele held, vis-à-vis the boy, is seen for what it really is: a complete farce.
The theme of identity and belonging is also reflected in this interaction. The idea of home is a crucial point into which one’s identity and a sense of belonging coalesce. Van Cheele commands the boy to leave the forest, a place where he had been living and in doing so, evicts him from what was his home. This act leads to a retaliation in which the boy offsets the power equation by entering (or rather, invading) Van Cheele’s home itself !
The theme of paranoia is astutely portrayed in the story through the character of Van Cheele who is paranoid about the nature of the boy. Paranoia is a child of fear and doubt, two important traits that Van Cheele has been portrayed to possess in the beginning of the story. Because Van Cheele is only superficially aware of the things around him, he is prone to doubt when met with the unknown. Accordingly, his seemingly bold and commanding nature with which he brushes off his friend’s comments and the way he “demands” the boy to leave the forest hides under it a good deal of insecurity and fear. His need to command betrays a certain sense of insecurity, which the boy is quick to smell. His threat of using force makes the boy dives into the pool and appear right before him, making him lose his balance. Him falling prone towards is a symbolically significant moment in the story.
GABRIEL-ERNEST | THE USE OF IRONY
The use of irony is a recurrent feature in most of Saki’s stories, and especially so in Gabriel-Ernest. Whether it is verbal irony or situational irony, Gabriel-Ernest is replete with this favorite literary device of Saki’s. The dismissive manner in which Van Cheele brushes off Cunningham’s comments about a wild beast in the beginning of the story is what comes back to haunt him, later on.
Cheele’s attempts at explaining away the wild boy’s presence to his aunt as a vagrant child ironically endears him to her and allows the wolf-boy to get closer to the Toop child whom he supposedly eats up.
It is a matter of verbal irony that the boy is named “Gabriel” – the name of an angel for someone who is supposedly a werewolf.
Towards the end of the story, a case of dramatic irony is evident when the character who has supposedly killed Toop is hailed as a savior and for whom a memorial is erected for all eternity!
GABRIEL-ERNEST | STYLE, GENRE , LITERARY BACKGROUND
Gabriel-Ernest is a horror story with a great deal of suspense. In fact, the suspense is built by the first line of the story itself when Cunningham remarks that there is a wild beast in Van Cheele’s woods. The climax of the story is reached when Cunningham reveals what he saw that evening. While the story ends in irony, the suspense is maintained even after the story ends as we do not know for sure the identity of the Gabriel-Ernest, or what actually happened to the two boys.
The idea of wild children and wolf boys had long captured the Victorian imagination. With England’s history of colonization, tales of children being raised by animals in exotic lands was something that readers were all too familiar with (Think of Mowgli, for example). Gabriel-Ernest seems to have inherited this tradition. Only in this case, it is coupled with the obsession of Gothic fiction with gothic creatures like the werewolves.
SO WHO IS GABRIEL-ERNEST REALLY? | AN IDENTITY FASHIONED BY AMBIGUITY AND IRONY
Perhaps the most important literary techniques that lend an entirely different dimension to the story is the use of irony and ambiguity. True, Gabriel-Ernest is a suspense story about a rather strange boy. True, it resembles a horror story, for the most part of it at least. However, beyond the excitement and the suspense of it looms the larger issues of paranoia, perception, identity and the very idea of Truth itself. The story is very ambiguous about the origin, nature and even the fate of the wolf-boy. While the narrative is told by a third person narrator, most of the story unfolds through the perspective of Van Cheele. What he had encountered could be a werewolf. However, it could be. It isn’t really concluded that the boy actually is one. There is a vast difference between the two and it is worth the analysis.
So, the question really is: Is Gabriel-Ernest a werewolf?
In the absence of any hard evidence about Gabriel Ernest being a werewolf, whatever we know about him is derived from two sources: the boy himself and Cunningham who had seen “a wild beast in the woods”. Let’s examine the two.
Let us look at the boy first. The boy presents himself as someone who engages hunting animals in the forest and claims to have tasted human flesh. However, we do not know whether he is serious about what he actually says. In any case, he doesn’t seem to take Van Cheele seriously and we certainly cannot take seriously what he says to a person whom he does not take seriously in the first place!
Moreover, even if we are to consider his words as true, what could be the motivating factor for him to reveal his secret to a complete stranger, and a hostile one at that. In short, why would he blow his own cover in front of the man who claims to own the forest he’s been hunting in?
It seems to be the case is that deep down Van Cheele is afraid of who/what the boy proclaims himself to be. He quickly associates the boy’s remark about having tasted human flesh two months earlier with the incident of the missing child. Fear and doubt are the two sworn enemies of reason. These two factors could have led him make inferences that aren’t all to reasonable. Devoid of such presuppositions, his aunt seems to like the boy and finds nothing wrong with him
Furthermore, we do not find any hard evidence of anybody seeing the boy actually transform into a wolf or eat the Toop child. Even in the end, he might really have stripped himself to save the other kid from drowning.
So, let us play Sherlock for the moment:
The final lines of the story when they found his clothes may yield some clue. In no way does the story say that the clothes were torn or damaged. Any transformation from the figure of a boy to that of a wolf should do considerable damage to the clothes as the body structure of the two isn’t the same by any stretch of imagination.
This leads us to the second source from whom we hear about the wolf-boy i.e. Cunningham
Cunningham, for one is an artist and has a rather imaginative disposition. The first time he sees the boy he likens him to be ” a faun from the Pagan myths”. So, the very moment he sees the boy, his artistic mind is already adding more to what actually exists in front of him. It is very important to analyze his words carefully when he describes the moment when the sun goes down:
But just then the sun dipped out of view, and all the orange and pink slid out of the landscape, leaving it cold and grey. And at the same moment an astounding thing happened–the boy vanished too!”
“What! vanished away into nothing?” asked Van Cheele excitedly.
“No; that is the dreadful part of it,” answered the artist; “on the open hillside where the boy had been standing a second ago, stood a large wolf, blackish in colour, with gleaming fangs and cruel, yellow eyes.
From what we he says here, we find that he does not actually see the boy transform into a wolf. One moment he sees the boy and another moment, he sees a black wolf in its place. That the boy turned into a wolf is an inference which Cunningham draws. There are many inferences that could be drawn in such a situation, and some very logical ones too. It might as well have been that the boy actually ran away from a wolf which Cunningham saw the next time he looked at the place where the boy had erstwhile been standing. Anyone in the boy’s place would run for his life if attacked by a wolf! Again, considering the fact that Cunningham was observing this from a distance (he saw “cruel, yellow eyes” from that distance!) and the extreme speed in which the boy moved in his previous encounter with Van Cheele, this doesn’t seem to be a far-fetched explanation.
Also, Cunningham himself does not completely believe what he saw. He initially describes what he saw as his “imagination”. By his own admission, he doesn’t believe himself and tells Van Cheele that his “mother suffered from brain disease”, before describing the vision. It seems that he does not trust his memory. So, the entire line on which Van Cheele makes his judgements about the boy comes from a source of rather doubtful credibility.
So, are we saying that the boy wasn’t a werewolf? Absolutely not. This still is a suspense story with Gothic undertones. What we are saying is that we do not know for sure. We do not know whether he is a werewolf neither do we know whether he isn’t one, and this is the result of a masterful use of ambiguity with which Saki enchants and entertains the reader.
A Parting Word:
In light of such ambiguity, a great clue might have been left by Saki right in the middle of the story and right under our noses. Let’s read the manner in in which Van Cheele introduces the boy to his aunt:
“This is a poor boy who has lost his way–and lost his memory. He doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from,” explained Van Cheele
Considering Saki’s penchant for irony, it is tantalizing to think whether Van Cheele mightn’t have been unwittingly describing the truth about the boy: that he was actually was “ a poor boy who has lost his way–and lost his memory” !
With the lack of hard evidence of him being a werewolf and the doubtful credibility of sources that claim that he is, this would be the greatest irony of the story and a masterstroke by the writer who is widely regarded as the master of irony.