Born to British parents in Burma (which was at the time a British colony) and working there as an adult for a few years in the Imperial Police, Saki saw firsthand what the outer reaches of the British Empire looked like, and he brought this awareness to “Sredni Vashtar.” The title character of the story, Sredni Vashtar, is a ferret whom the story’s main character, a lonely boy named Conradin, has come to imagine is a god. As a name, Sredni Vashtar invokes prominent gods of Hinduism, like Vishnu (the creator of the universe) and Shiva (the destroyer of the universe), and so the story links Conradin’s made-up religion with those of the British colonies, such as India, that British considered “pagan.” In addition, Conradin’s cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, acts as a kind of “colonizer” in the story, ostensibly watching over Conradin and setting restrictions on his behavior for his own good, but secretly despising him and enjoying the power she wields over him. While Saki himself may certainly be accused of perpetuating stereotypes about colonized people (portraying the “brown” ferret god as savagely violent, for instance), in the story he masterfully portrays how Mrs. De Ropp’s seemingly good intentions are actually based on cruelty, and he ties this cruelty to racist British ideas about what constitutes “respectable” behavior and how the British then use these ideas to justify their own continued rule over their colonies. The violent climax of the story—in which Mrs. De Ropp seeks to further control Conradin by getting rid of the ferret but is instead killed when she opens Sredni Vashtar’s cage—can be read as indicating Saki’s pessimism about the prospects of the British Empire, as it suggests that continued British rule is likely to result in eventual revolt and bloodshed. As it turned out this was true: Britain lost most of its empire within four decades after “Sredni Vashtar” was published in 1912.
While the story takes place entirely in one isolated estate in England, the actions of the respectable but loathsome Mrs. De Ropp parody the actions of the British Empire, both at home and abroad. Mrs. De Ropp is very strict about where Conradin can go and what he can do, limiting him to one barren garden where she can constantly watch him. This mirrors British colonial practices, where the colonizers tended to swoop in, extract valuable resources (leaving behind a metaphorical barren garden), then institute restrictive colonial governments that left locals with little say about what happened in their own lands. Perhaps Saki is even suggesting that the British try to “play God” in foreign countries, since restrictions that Mrs. De Ropp places on Conradin are a parody of the restrictions God placed on Adam in the Garden of Eden. Some of Mrs. De Ropp’s actions are an even more direct parody of British history. When she kicks out the “Anabaptist” Houdan hen, for instance, she is unintentionally re-enacting a real moment in history when Anabaptists were expelled from England.
The abandoned shed exists in a space that is both part of Mrs. De Ropp’s garden and not, evoking the dual status of British colonies. Within the shed, Conradin is able to build a vibrant imaginative world, totally unlike the boring world of British respectability that his cousin represents. The wildness of this world—its only inhabitants are animals, one of which is extremely dangerous—evoke mainland British ideas about the colonies, some of which were famously popularized in Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. Mrs. De Ropp’s strong, perhaps irrational desire to control what goes on inside the shed can also be read as a parody of British imperial ambitions. She wants to remove the wild animals from the shed, just like the colonizers who wanted to “civilize” the lands they conquered. In each case, doing “what was best” for the powerless involved the powerful oppressing them even more.
Ultimately, it is Mrs. De Ropp’s insatiable desire for control that leads to her downfall, foreshadowing a similar fate for the respectable British Empire she represents. Saki makes it clear that, while Conradin celebrated Mrs. De Ropp’s misfortunes with festivals to Sredni Vashtar, in reality, not even Conradin believed that he had any power to actually cause her harm. Mrs. De Ropp’s interference in the shed, then, is totally unnecessary—it’s an excuse to further show her power, when that power was already fully established. Such a show, then, does nothing except potentially overextend herself in a way that might—and does—make her vulnerable. Mrs. De Ropp easily gets rid of the Houdan hen, suggesting that she does indeed have power, even in Conradin’s realm. But her success the first time leads her to become overconfident, and this causes her to mistake Sredni Vashtar for a bunch of guinea pigs, leaving her vulnerable to his fearsome fangs. Given how the shed has been characterized as a wild place and how the ferret is specifically described as “brown,” it isn’t a stretch to view Mrs. De Ropp’s fate as Saki’s own prediction for the fate of the British Empire abroad.
In the end, the dissolution of the British Empire was perhaps more violent than anything Saki could’ve predicted in 1912. While many former British colonies achieved independence through largely nonviolent means, this transition was made possible by the two World Wars, both of which resulted in tremendous destruction and which weakened Britain as an imperial power. As Saki predicted, the start of a new era was made possible through the violent death of the old one.
British Colonialism ThemeTracker
British Colonialism Quotes in Sredni Vashtar
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.
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. The Woman indulged in religion once a week at a church near by and took Conradin with her, but to him the church service was an alien rite in the House of Rimmon. Every Thursday, in the dim and musty silence of the tool-shed, he worshipped with mystic and elaborate ceremonial before the wooden hutch where dwelt Sredni Vashtar, the great ferret.
Something perhaps in his white set face gave her a momentary qualm, for at tea that afternoon there was toast on the table, a delicacy which she usually banned on the ground that it was bad for him; also because the making of it ‘gave trouble’, a deadly offence in the middle-class feminine eye.
‘Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.’
Sredni Vashtar went forth,
His thoughts were red thoughts and his teeth were white.
His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death.
Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful.
And presently his eyes were rewarded; out through that doorway came a long, low, yellow-and-brown beast, with eyes a-blink at the waning daylight, and dark wet stains around the fur of jaws and throat.
‘Whoever will break it to the poor child? I couldn’t for the life of me!’ exclaimed a shrill voice. And while they debated the matter among themselves, Conradin made himself another piece of toast.