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Sunday, October 4, 2015



Conradin, a ten-year-old boy whom the doctor has given less than five years to live, is antagonized by his cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, who seems to take delight in thwarting him under the guise of taking care of him. Conradin finds escape in his vivid imagination and in an unused toolshed, in which he keeps two pets—a Houdan hen, on which he lavishes affection, and a ferret, which he fears and comes to venerate as a god.
Conradin names the ferret Sredni Vashtar and worships the beast as his god, bringing it flowers in season and celebrating festivals on special occasions, such as when his cousin suffers from a toothache. When his cousin notices him spending too much time in the shed, she discovers the Houdan hen and sells it. She is surprised when Conradin fails to show any emotion at the news, but Conradin changes his usual worshiping ritual. Instead of chanting Sredni Vashtar’s praises, he asks an unnamed boon of his god. Every day he repeats his request for the one wish from the ferret. Mrs. De Ropp, noticing his frequent visits to the toolshed, concludes that he must have something hidden there, which she assumes to be guinea pigs. She ransacks his room until she finds the key to the cage and goes out to the shed.
As she goes to the shed, Conradin watches her and imagines her triumph over him and his subsequent declining health under her oppressive care. He does not see her emerge from the shed for a long time, however, and he begins to hope, chanting to Sredni Vashtar. Finally, he notices the ferret coming out of the shed with dark, wet stains around its mouth and throat.
The maid announces tea and asks Conradin where his cousin is. He tells her that Mrs. De Ropp has gone to the shed, and the maid goes to announce tea to her. Conradin calmly butters his toast, relishing every moment as he hears the scream of the maid and the loud sobs and talk of the kitchen help, followed by the footsteps of someone carrying a heavy burden. Then he hears the kitchen help discussing who will tell the young boy the news as he takes another piece of toast to butter.



This short, macabre story is chilling in its portrayal of the fiendish young boy. Saki takes the boy’s point of view toward the annoying, officious cousin, who, the boy believes, delights in tormenting him. The boy lives almost entirely in his imagination. The real world is that which is ruled by adults such as his cousin, who are most disagreeable to him. In this aspect, Conradin seems to be a perfectly normal child at odds with the demands of the cruel outside world. What sets Conradin apart from other children is his almost pathological escape from reality and his achieving his revenge through the agency of the wild animal. What is usually only imaginary to a child is carried to fruition, and the child relishes it.
Conradin’s veneration of the ferret comes to take up more and more of his waking hours after his cousin has sold his beloved hen. It becomes an obsession with him, and the reader finally comes to understand that he prays that the beast will kill his cousin. When the ferret actually kills the cousin, the most shocking thing is the boy’s nonchalant, almost happy acceptance of the event. It is the boy’s reaction to the killing that takes the story out of the realm of reality.
Although Conradin’s condition is unusual in that he has been diagnosed as having a short time to live, he could, to an extent, be perceived as a typical boy escaping in his imagination from the cold world. Even his adoration of the ferret seems to differ only in degree from what could be considered normal. Sometimes normal children imagine killing their adult antagonists, and in this case, it could be considered accidental that his cousin is killed (although Conradin makes no effort to warn her, he fully expects her to emerge from the shed victorious, as she usually does when in conflict with him). However, the realization that his prayers have been answered and his cold, calm acceptance of the accomplished fact are shocking.
In a sense, then, the story can be seen as a child’s fantasy of getting even with the nonunderstanding world of adults. It is a kind of wish fulfillment of which many children dream. The horror is that Saki presents it as a reality, and the boy as fully enjoying the event.





All of Saki’s short stories are very short and to the point, and “Sredni Vashtar” is no exception. Many of his stories are also as macabre as this one. What distinguishes Saki’s stories is his ability to capture the feelings and attitudes of children toward their elders. That he was reared by two aunts, one of whom acted sadistically toward children, is probably what motivated Saki to fill so many of his stories with young children and sadistic elder guardians. His purpose is usually achieved by a quasi-objective narrative stance, in which the narrator interprets events from the point of view of the young protagonist but pretends to relate events objectively, as in this story.
The narrator at the beginning depicts the situation as Conradin views it. To him, Mrs. De Ropp represents “those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real,” while “the other two-fifths, in perpetual antagonism to the foregoing, were summed up in himself and his imagination.” The fruit trees in the “dull cheerless garden” are described as being “jealously apart from his plucking, as though they were rare specimens of their kind blooming in an arid waste.” It is an adult narrating the perceptions of a child.
Mrs. De Ropp becomes for the boy the epitome of all that is respectable, and thus the antithesis of all that he holds dear. When she has sold his beloved hen, he refuses to let her see how deeply he feels the loss, but he is described as hating the world as represented chiefly by Mrs. De Ropp. His antipathy takes the form of his devoting his energies to praying more fervently to his animal god.
Saki cleverly omits mentioning the subject of Conradin’s supplication to Sredni Vashtar, and while the cousin is in the toolshed to get rid of the ferret, the narrator describes Conradin’s imagining his cruel cousin’s final triumph over him by extirpating the one creature he so venerates. Then, as Saki obliquely informs the reader of the demise of the hated guardian, his description of Conradin calmly eating and enjoying his butter and toast heightens the reader’s sense of shock.


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