Author Background

Saki is most famous for his witty and sometimes macabre short stories though he did write other forms of literature too. Often he satirized the Edwardian society that he was part of. When Munro lost his mother while he was still a child, he along with his siblings, were brought up by his grandmother and aunts in a strict puritanical household that was devoid of all fun. This experience is no doubt reflected in the short story Sredni Vashtar.

Relevance of the Title

A short story is by its very nature concise but that is not to say it is always simple. The title goes a long way in telling something about the story. In Sredni Vashtar, the central character is ten year old Conradin but it is the eponymous ferret that takes the story forward. Conradin can’t do much by way of action considering he is just a child and one who is terminally ill but the caged ferret is the instrument to bring Conradin’s wishes to fruition. There is also the novelty value of the words Sredni Vashtar. It is difficult to understand how the ten year old could have thought of such a name for his animal god but it does arouse the curiosity of the reader. Finally, Sredni Vashtar is a symbol for all the diverse themes that this story touches upon.

Main Themes

The main themes of Sredni Vashtar are imagination and reality, interpersonal relationships and religion. The boy, Conradin almost exclusively lives in his imagination as he is not permitted to do anything that would normally appeal to a boy of ten. The orchard and garden are out of bounds as are the interesting rooms in the house. An array of windows open out to the garden and one of them might open suddenly with his cousin calling out to him to desist from doing whatever young boys do.

The boy hates his guardian and lavishes all his love on the Houdan hen. The guardian then has the hen taken away. The boy channelizes all his hatred and prays to his god, which is a caged ferret, to help him. In the child’s mind, this god, Sredni Vashtar is capable of annihilating its enemies. Conradin almost wills the ferret to attack Mrs De Ropp.

Mrs De Ropp singularly lacks all understanding of a child’s mind. The orphan boy has only five years left to live in this world but instead of bringing in some joy and fun into his life she ensures that it is dull and drab. So unhappy is the child, he almost loses his will to live for those five years even. Conradin is denied the simple pleasure of eating toast with his tea on the pretext that “it was bad for him”.

Religion too appears as a theme in Sredni Vashtar. The formal religion that Mrs De Ropp follows leaves Conradin dissatisfied so he seeks solace in the one that he fashions for himself, presided over by the blood thirsty Sredni Vashtar. When full of despair and thirsting for revenge he prays to it, the ferret god does not forsake the boy.

Characters

Sredni Vashtar has only two characters – Mrs De Ropp and Conradin, the ten year old protagonist of the story.

Conradin

Conradin is a ten year old orphan who is entrusted to the care of Mrs De Ropp. Suffering from some terminal illness, Conradin has been given less than five more years to live. To Conradin, Mrs De Ropp stands for “three – fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real”. All that he is left with is his imagination. That is what lets him live. Without his imagination, Conradin would have died long ago. Conradin is checked at every turn by his guardian; while she is always polite, she goes out of her way to deny him the simple pleasures that would bring joy and satisfaction. Conradin hates her with a ferocity that is frightening.

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A few paragraphs into the story, the reader sympathizes with the absence of love in his life; he has nothing to love either. It is easy to understand why he lavishes so much affection on the hen and the ferret god whom he fears too as it has sharp white fangs. It is when his beloved hen is taken away from him that Conradin becomes obsessed with the idea of revenge and prays to Sredni Vashtar to kill his guardian. Conradin seems to grow before our eyes once Mrs De Ropp is killed. Till then he was a normal child in conflict with a cruel world outside. There is something sinister and frightening about the nonchalant way in which he butters his toast when all around him is panic and fear.

Mrs De Ropp

Mrs De Ropp is Conradin’s guardian. She is not too pleased with the idea of having to care for the boy; at any rate she has no ideas on keeping a dying child happy and pleased. She does not actively dislike Conradin but she also does not mind taking away from him all that gives him pleasure. She does not let him go into the orchard claiming that the fruit on the trees were too rare and precious to be plucked by him. Toast with tea is banned for the vague excuse of being “bad for him”.

For a time the presence of the tool shed and its attraction for Conradin escapes her attention. Once she is aware of the presence of his beloved pet, the Houdan hen, she has it taken away. Still not satisfied, she sails forth to investigate why the tool shed attracts the boy so. The caged ferret resents her intrusion and kills her. If she had let the boy be, there is no doubt she would have survived.

Plot

Conradin is a ten year old boy who is under the care his guardian, Mrs De Ropp. He suffers from a terminal illness and has but five more years to live. Mrs De Ropp does not relish her responsibility of caring for Conradin. She cares little for keeping Conradin happy. He has no one to love him and no object to love. He has only his imagination to fall back on and he peoples his life with phantom characters. The neglected tool-shed in a corner of the garden become a refuge when the real world turns too oppressive. In it he keeps his most cherished possessions – a Houdan hen and a caged ferret. While he lavishes his love on the hen, he fears the ferret and its sharp fangs. This fear makes him invest notions of great power in the ferret and it turns into a God with the outlandish name Sredni Vashtar. Conradin conducts strange rituals to please the god who he thinks will make his wishes come true.

When Mrs De Ropp becomes aware of the presence of the hen, it is taken away. Conradin’s hatred for his guardian finds a focus now and he prays for it to take revenge. Mrs De Ropp realizes that Conradin spends an inordinate time inside the shed and goes to investigate. The next we know is that the ferret has escaped from the cage and killed her. Conradin is pleased at this outcome.

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Summary

Conradin is a ailing ten year old boy with just five more years living under the care of his guardian, Mrs De Ropp. Under the guise of doing good, Mrs De Ropp destroys what little joy Conradin has. He takes shelter in his imagination, peopling his life with phantom characters. But he also has two living pets hidden in an abandoned tool shed in the garden. One is a hen that he loves dearly. The other is a sharp fanged ferret that he loves but fears more. He soon invests it with supernatural powers and it turns into a god named Sredni Vashtar. Special occasions, like the three days when his guardian had a tooth ache, are celebrated as festivals with special offerings made to the god.

Soon Mrs De Ropp realizes that Conradin spends a lot of time in the shed. The hen is discovered and sold. Conradin’s hatred for his guardian now becomes pathological and he fervently prays to his god for one special wish. The guardian is aware that something more remains hidden inside the shed and goes in to investigate. The boy has no hope nevertheless prays fervently to his god. He eagerly watches the entrance to the tool shed. The maid goes in to summon the mistress to tea but comes out screaming. There are shouts, crying and panic. But Conradin is composed and butters his toast calmly. His wish has come true – the ferret has killed Mrs De Ropp.

Metaphors

Saki was himself subjected to cruelty by a sadistic aunt during his childhood. Many of his stories have cruel and uncaring adults and suffering young children. For Conradin, the tool shed is a haven to which he can escape when life becomes too oppressive outside. His guardian denies him simple pleasures in the name of doing him good. In the shed he has hidden two living things, a hen and a caged ferret. While he loves the hen, he worships the ferret as a god as it symbolizes power.

There are several things the boy longs for but cannot attain. He suffers from a dreadful illness that is sure to kill him soon. The cousin keeps even the mediocre fruits in the garden out of his reach. Hot buttered toast which is denied to him becomes a symbol for the freedom that is denied to him. In the end when Mrs De Ropp is dead and he is free, he helps himself to hot buttered toast.

Language

Saki wrote stories that were deceptively simple. He does not use complicated metaphors or unnecessary sentences. Everything is pared down to the minimum. The only thing exotic here is the title. Sometimes the things that Saki leaves unsaid are more eloquent. For example, after the hen is taken away and Conradin appears distraught, the guardian offers him toast. He refuses to have it. “I thought you liked toast”, she says. “Sometimes” replies Conradin. That one word expresses so much. Later, when he fervently prays to Sredni Vashtar, he asks for “one thing” without specifying what it is. Gods are supposed to know everything. Only at the end we know that he had prayed for Mrs De Ropp’s death.

Important Quotes

1. Mrs De Ropp was Conradin’s cousin and guardian, and in his eyes she represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real; the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination.

Saki says that the larger part of the world stands for those things that are required and are there but that is the part that is unpleasant too. Ranged against this majority was the minority made up of Conradin and his imagination. He was constantly battling a larger enemy.

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2. In the dull, cheerless garden overlooked by so many windows that were ready to open with a message not to do this or that or a reminder that medicines were due, he found little attraction.

Conradin feels spied upon all the time. A bank of windows opens out into the garden and any of them could be flung open and admonitions thrown out. The garden itself was not a pleasing one. Conradin was as though in prison with no place where he could do what he pleased.

3. And one day, out of Heaven knows what material, he spun the beast a wonderful name and from that moment it grew into a god and a religion.

Conradin’s secret refuge was the abandoned tool shed in which he kept his two pets – a Houdan hen and a caged pole-cat ferret. They were his pride and joy. On them he lavished the love that had no other outlet. The ferret, he feared too as it had sharp fangs and a lithe body but it was a treasured possession. One day he gives it a name spun from his imagination and it gets transformed instantly into a powerful god that the boy prays to every Thursday.

4. On one occasion, when Mrs De Ropp suffered from toothache for three days, Conradin kept the festival during the entire three days, and almost succeeded in persuading himself that Sredni Vashtar was personally responsible for the toothache.
As days go by, for Conradin, the ferret assumes the persona of a real god capable of causing pain and misfortune to Conradin’s enemies. Mrs De Ropp’s toothache would have been a real god-send as he would have escaped the constant monitoring that he was subjected to usually. Conradin’s festival was usually on Thursday but on this occasion, he had a three-day celebration.
5. Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.

Conradin’s frequent trips to the tool shed did not escape his guardian’s gimlet eyes. One night, without his being aware, his precious hen is taken away and sold. This news affects him profoundly. His only refuge now is his god, Sredni Vashtar. He implores the god for a boon without specifying what he wants. After all, gods are omniscient.

6. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.
By the end, ten year old Conradin has an adult nonchalant air. The entire household is in tumuly following Mrs De Ropp’s death. The maids believe that the boy will be shattered by the news and don’t want to be the ones who will break it to him. But ironically, Conradin knows just what has happened and he exults in it.

Questions

1. Why is Conradin’s imagination the mainstay of his life?
2. Why do you think Conradin hates his guardian? Give two examples to support your answer.
3. The tool shed is a refuge for Conradin. But he keeps it a well guarded secret. Why was this so?
4. Saki employs ironic humor in Sredni Vashtar. Pick out any two examples.
5. “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.” Why does Conradin implore Sredni Vashtar to help him?
6. Can it be said that Mrs De Ropp brought about her own end? Support your answer with relevant arguments.