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Sredni Vashtar by Saki: Summary & Characters

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Saki's short story 'Sredni Vashtar' goes against many common expectations that readers hold. In this lesson you will explore the story and learn about the characters.

Surprising the Audience

Have you ever read a story where the characters acted completely different than you expected? Sometimes the actions of characters can come as a surprise to the audience, especially when the characters subvert, or go against, the stereotype they initially seem to be part of. For example, we as readers often expect children to act innocent and sweet, especially in older stories. As a result, we are surprised when they act or think in dark and disturbing ways.

One example of a story that subverts expectations of children is ''Sredni Vashtar'' by Saki. The story was published in the early 1900s. Readers would not expect the 10-year-old protagonist, or main character, of the story to think about harming other people. Yet this is exactly what happens.

The Main Events

The story begins by telling us about the main character, a 10-year-old boy named Conradin. He is sick, and the doctor believes he won't live to be 15. Mrs. De Ropp, his guardian who is also his cousin, agrees with the doctor. The two cousins dislike each other, though Conradin is more conscious of his dislike than Mrs. De Ropp. For her, we see that ''Mrs. De Ropp would never, in her honestest moments, have confessed to herself that she disliked Conradin, though she might have been dimly aware that thwarting him 'for his good' was a duty which she did not find particularly irksome.''

Essentially, this is saying that she would never admit to disliking him, but thwarting him, or making it so he cannot do the things he likes, does not bother her.

Conradin spends his days in their dreary, boring garden. He dislikes the garden, but has a small shed that he keeps his greatest treasures in. These are a Houdan hen and a polecat ferret. Mrs. De Ropp has no knowledge of the ferret, whose name is Sredni Vashtar.

Conradin keeps a polecat ferret in a cage.
Polecat ferret

A Dark Religion

Conradin is terrified of the ferret, but he quite literally worships it. He has been exposed to religion by going to church with Mrs. De Ropp, but he takes an opposing track to what he learns there. The church preaches patience, but Conradin's private religion stresses impatience and ferocity. Sredni Vashtar is the vengeful god of this religion.

Conradin makes up his own rites and ceremonies related to things that happen in his life. For example, he sacrifices nutmeg when Mrs. De Ropp gets a toothache. This shows how much he dislikes her, and what a dark edge he has. On other occasions he brought flowers or berries as sacrifices.

The Fall of Mrs. De Ropp

Eventually Mrs. De Ropp sees Conradin's interest in the shed, and tries to discourage it by selling the chicken. She does not initially see Sredni Vashtar. Following this, Conradin begins praying to the ferret to ''do one thing'' for him.

Mrs. De Ropp notices that Conradin is still going to the shed, so she finds the key to the ferret's cage in his room and goes to see what he is hiding. Conradin watches her do this, and worries that she will simply capture the ferret. He begins praying especially hard to Sredni Vashtar, asking him to kill Mrs. De Ropp. This, again, goes against what we think of children. You wouldn't expect a 10-year-old to pray for someone's death!

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