The Toys of Peace: Theme & Analysis

Instructor: Erica Schimmel

Erica has taught college English writing and literature courses and has a master's degree in children's literature.

'The Toys of Peace' might seem like a simple story about a couple of boys playing with toys, but there's a lot going on under the surface. This lesson will analyze two of the themes found in this short story by Saki.

Background Information

What toys did you like to play with as a child? Did you go for dolls? Action figures? Have you ever stopped to wonder what influenced your choice in toys? If so, you've thought about some of the themes, or main ideas, at work in Saki's short story ''The Toys of Peace.''

Like most mothers, Eleanor Bope is concerned about the type of toys her sons are playing with. She believes that it is possible to curb a boy's natural enthusiasm for violent games by giving them ''peace toys.'' She's not alone in this idea: her brother Harvey also thinks it's an interesting idea. And recently, the National Peace Council has announced they will have a display of these ''peace toys'' at an upcoming Children's Welfare Exhibition to try and give parents an alternative to more common war toys. Eleanor convinces Harvey to buy some civilian toys for her two sons - Eric, 11, and Bertie, 9 1/2 - to see whether they can't get them to start playing peaceful games instead of the war games the boys usually play. Unfortunately, despite Harvey's best attempt, the boys instead find imaginative ways to use the ''peace toys'' in their war games.

Now, you might be saying the kids were used to playing war games and they were studying historic battles in school, so it makes sense that's what was on their mind. And you wouldn't be wrong. But the bigger themes in Saki's story circle around questions about what influences the boys to play this way. Let's take a look at a couple of themes in the story.

Shaped By Our Surroundings?

If you've ever thought about whether we are more influenced by our genetics or by our environment, you've thought about the question of nature vs. nurture. Those on the ''nature'' side of this debate argue that we are most affected by our genes - they would say we don't only get physical traits like eye color from our parents, but also behavioral traits. Those on the ''nurture'' side, though, might agree our genes have some effect on us, but not as much as our surroundings, life experiences, or how we are raised.

It wouldn't be surprising if this sounds familiar, since the ''nature vs. nurture'' debate has been around for quite a while and is still being researched today. In Saki's story, Eleanor believes if children are given ''peace toys'' they will learn to prefer them to toy soldiers and guns. So, she seems to be the ''nurture'' side of this argument.

Harvey tends to agree with her that it would at least be good for children to not play such violent games. But, Harvey also points out that ''there is primitive instinct to be taken into consideration'' because they have people in their family who committed violence in the past. He also kind of brings up even more questions when he spends time wondering whether it would be possible to teach a history course without making any mention of war or violence. Seems like it would be impossible. Is that because humans are naturally violent? Even though he agrees with Eleanor overall, and ends up buying the ''civilian'' toys, he is still showing us the ''nature'' side of the question.

Boys Will Be Boys?

Another aspect of the main question is whether our choices in games is a result of gender. If you've ever been toy shopping, you know there is a distinct difference in the toys marketed for girls versus those marketed for boys. Where do you go if you want to find toy guns or soldiers? You got it, the boys' toy aisle. So the question comes up: are boys naturally drawn to violence?

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