By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The 1911 short story ‘Sredni Vashtar’ contains many of the ingredients we find in Saki’s best fiction: it challenges the idea that children are innocent and free from designs or cunning (or, indeed, evil), it pricks the pomposity of adults and their conservative treatment of children, and it suggests a kinship between children and animals, something we can also observe in Saki’s earlier story, ‘Gabriel-Ernest’.
But ‘Sredni Vashtar’ might also be considered a darker version of the familiar trope found in children’s fiction: the idea of the child having a wish granted. It might also be viewed as a satirical take on religious practice and observance. The story is shot through with Saki’s celebrated wit, and deserves closer analysis. You can read the story here.
First, a brief summary of the plot of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. Conradin, a young boy of ten, has a deadly disease. He lives with his cousin and guardian, Mrs De Ropp, whom he dislikes. He likes to spend his time in the garden shed among the two living companions he likes: a hen and a ferret. The latter has become more than a pet: Conradin has made him the basis of his own personal religion, and he worships the ferret as a god, giving it the name ‘Sredni Vashtar’ and bringing it offerings of stolen nutmeg. The shed has become his own private church.
But Mrs De Ropp thinks Conradin has been spending too much time in the shed, so she sells the hen. Conradin knows that the ferret, his god, will be next, so he prays to Sredni Vashtar to help him, without literally stating what he wishes for – though it involves Sredni Vashtar bringing ‘death’ to his enemies. Sure enough, when Mrs De Ropp goes into the shed to fetch the ferret, she is killed by Sredi Vashtar, who emerges from the shed with ‘dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat’ – his victim’s blood.
The ferret drinks some water from the brook, and then disappears out of the garden. Conradin nonchalantly toasts some bread and eats it with lots of butter, while the maid discovers the dead body of Mrs De Ropp and the visitors to the house (presumably neighbours, relatives, and officials) wonder how they will break the news of his guardian’s death to ‘the poor child’.
It is significant that Mrs De Ropp is short-sighted, for at least two reasons. First, it means that she is oblivious to Conradin’s facial expressions and what he’s up to half the time, allowing him to get one over on her. Second, her myopia might be analysed in more metaphorical terms, as symptomatic of her moral ‘short-sightedness’, in selling Conradin’s beloved hen when she knows he enjoys spending time with the animal.
Just as we talk about a particular act being ‘short-sighted’ because it fails to predict the long-term damage that act will do, so Mrs De Ropp sows the seeds of her own destruction when she gets rid of the hen. Indeed, we are told that she is ‘locked out’ from the realm of his ‘imagination’. She has hardened into adulthood and lost the imagination and invention associated with childhood.
Similarly, Conradin belongs to the stock of young male characters – boys or youths, either in adolescence or a little bit younger – who populate much of Saki’s best fiction. Nobody could do wild teenagers or ‘feral ephebes’ – in the phrase coined by Sandie Byrne to describe such characters in her book, The Unbearable Saki: The Work of H. H. Munro – quite like Hector Hugh Munro. But Conradin seems almost psychopathic in his calmness after the event: his cousin has just been brutally killed by his pet ferret, and yet he seems entirely unmoved as he makes his toast.
It seems unavoidable that Saki’s own upbringing – when he was still Hector Hugh Munro – played a part in determining the sort of stories he wrote, and ‘Sredni Vashtar’ might almost be read as the revenge of the young Munro on his aunts, who raised him, and were by all accounts were not very pleasant. (Munro’s father was an Inspector General for the Indian Imperial Police; his mother died when he was just a year old, after she was charged by a cow. She was pregnant at the time, and the shock caused her to miscarry; she died soon after.)
But perhaps any further probing into Munro’s biography is unnecessary (to say nothing of the possibilities that psychoanalysis might present – animals as well as children are often wild and off the leash in Saki’s stories, just like the cow that did for Munro’s mother when he was so young).
We speculate that Conradin shows signs of the psychopathic cast of mind, given his nonchalant munching upon his toast at the grisly end of ‘Sredni Vashtar’. But what makes Saki’s story, as with much of his fiction, so much more than just a showdown between the evil precocious child (one wonders whether Eoin Colfer, creator of the teen criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl, had read Saki) and his ‘respectable’ and conservative adult antagonist (who is almost always female in Saki’s stories) is the way he weaves in elements of childlike ignorance amongst the cunning and evil plotting:
The Houdan hen was never drawn into the cult of Sredni Vashtar. Conradin had long ago settled that she was an Anabaptist. He did not pretend to have the remotest knowledge of what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable.
In Saki’s fiction, nothing is worse than to be ‘respectable’. But the above excerpt brings home the cleverness of Saki’s fiction: his ability to tell the story largely through the child’s eyes, and to capture his (and it is usually a ‘he’) innocence as well as his calculating evil or his scheming side. In the last analysis, although children appear to have lost their innocence in Saki’s world, they still thrive on imagination and creativity and, every now and then, Saki lets a little bit of the ordinary child shine through.
If this short summary and analysis of ‘Sredni Vashtar’ has piqued your interest, you can pick up all of Saki’s wonderful stories in the affordable collection, The Collected Short Stories of Saki (Wordsworth Classics). Continue to explore his wonderful fiction with our analysis of ‘The Lumber-Room’ and our discussion of his hilarious cat story, ‘Tobermory’.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
I don’t think Conradin is evil at all. Saki implies that he doesn’t have much wrong with him, but his aunt and the doctor will kill him between them simply because they have no idea how to deal with children. In the end he will give in to their idea of him and die. He doesn’t set Sredni Vashtar on his aunt, just lets things take their course. Indeed, there is a moment when he loses his faith and accepts that his wonderful god is just a ferret – until the god comes to his rescue. His reaction to the aunt’s death is not psychopathic, but child-like. (The young Sitwells, told that some children who had come to tea were sad because their mother had died looked blank. “Why did they cry?” they inquired.) The aunt didn’t love Conradin. Conradin didn’t love the aunt.