At the heart of Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar” is a lonely young boy named Conradin, who escapes from a real world that he hates by imagining that the polecat-ferret that he keeps in a cage in an abandoned toolshed is actually a pagan god named Sredni Vashtar. This violent, impatient god that Conradin invents is the polar opposite of Conradin’s older cousin and guardian, Mrs. De Ropp, who is very religious in a more traditional Christian way and who constantly watches over Conradin and prevents him from doing things he enjoys. At first, it seems that Conradin’s elaborate mythology of Sredni Vashtar is nothing more than the imaginings of a lonely child trying to escape a harsh reality. But when Mrs. De Ropp discovers the ferret and vows to get rid of it, Conradin begins praying to Sredni Vashtar to “do something” to change his circumstances, and the line between fantasy and reality becomes blurred: Sredni Vashtar ends up killing Mrs. De Ropp. Ultimately, Saki leaves it ambiguous as to whether the ending of “Sredni Vashtar” is really a moment of divine intervention inspired by Conradin’s imagination-fueled faith or if it’s just a morbid coincidence. In this way, the ending of the story makes clear that “respectable” people like Mrs. De Ropp can’t conceive of all that’s possible in the world, and, further, that sometimes it isn’t even possible to tell the difference between the imagined and the real.
While Conradin’s escapist fantasies are his own invention, they are a reaction to his experience of real-world events. In particular, Conradin’s fantasies arise from his resentment toward his respectable cousin Mrs. De Ropp. The cult of Sredni Vashtar (Conradin’s invented pagan religion) is described as a religion that “[lays] special stress on the fierce impatient side of things, as opposed to the Woman’s religion [i.e., Mrs. De Ropp’s Protestant Christianity], which, as far as Conradin could observe, went to great lengths in the contrary direction.” Saki’s phrasing is humorous, since it is clearly Conradin who is setting his religion in opposition to Mrs. De Ropp’s and not the other way around. Moreover, the irregularly scheduled festivals of the cult of Sredni Vashtar also seem to be directly connected to events in the real world. The longest festival lasted the three-day period during which Mrs. De Ropp was suffering from a toothache. At this point in the story, there is clearly a cause-and-effect link between the real world and Conradin’s fantasies, but the influence goes one way, with real-world events dictating what happens in Conradin’s fantasies.
Though Conrad’s invented religion gives him joy and a sense of freedom, initially even he doesn’t actually believe in it. When Conradin begins to actually pray to Sredni Vashtar to “do one thing for me,” however, the line between an imaginary religion and an actual religion begins to blur a bit. When Conradin prays “Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar,” he does not specify what the thing is, trusting his great ferret god to be able to figure it out. By doing so, he suggests that Sredni Vashtar is omniscient, a truly godlike trait. This increasing trust in Sredni Vashtar’s power doesn’t seem to represent real religious devotion from Conradin (given his skepticism later that his prayers will actually be answered), but it does suggest a deeper commitment to the elaborate fantasy he’s created. Conradin’s devotion intensifies when Mrs. De Ropp finds the key to Sredni Vashtar’s hutch in Conradin’s room and goes to get rid of the animal (which at that moment she thinks is a guinea pig). Conradin in that moment even begins to chant a battle hymn describing Sredni Vashtar conquering his enemies. Yet even as Conradin desperately chants, the narrator notes that Conradin doesn’t believe his own prayers. Conradin’s religion still doesn’t exist anywhere other than in his imagination. Even so, his invented religion takes up an increasingly large part of his thoughts and provides him solace in a miserable moment, suggesting that the made-up religion is gaining power, even if this power is still limited to what goes on in Conradin’s head.
However, when at the climax of the story Mrs. De Ropp is killed by the Sredni Vashtar, it seems so much like an answer to Conradin’s desperate prayers that it calls into question the divide between an imaginary religion and a real one. Saki deliberately withholds information so that it’s impossible to tell exactly what happens at the end of the story. While Conradin is able to imagine a likely scenario (that the short-sighted Mrs. De Ropp leaned in too close to the straw where Sredni Vashtar was hiding), there is no way of knowing if this is actually what happened. The narrator’s perspective mirrors Conradin’s, watching the action from a distance far outside the dark shed. What is not in doubt, though, is the fact that Mrs. De Ropp has been killed by Sredni Vashtar. The shouting of the maid and the confusion of the other servants all attest to the fact that Conradin has not simply imagined the death of his guardian. But how the death occurred—whether it was just an unlikely everyday accident or whether Sredni Vashtar truly did gain some sort of power from Conradin’s worship—is left in the dark of that shed.
The story’s ambiguous ending makes it impossible to tell exactly where the line between imagination and reality ends. Ultimately, Conradin’s imagination triumphs over Mrs. De Ropp’s petty practicality, and as a result, the climax of the story has a tinge of fantasy, like a darkly comic fairy tale, even though there is no explicit evidence of any supernatural events. To try to figure out whether Conradin’s prayers were really answered by Sredni Vashtar would be futile and perhaps missing the point—only in the dull mind of someone like Mrs. De Ropp are fantasy and reality so easily distinguishable.
Imagination vs. Reality ThemeTracker
Imagination vs. Reality Quotes in Sredni Vashtar
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.
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 as to what an Anabaptist was, but he privately hoped that it was dashing and not very respectable. Mrs De Ropp was the ground plan on which he based and detested all respectability.
‘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.
And while the maid went to summon her mistress to tea, Conradin fished a toasting-fork out of the sideboard drawer and proceeded to toast himself a piece of bread. And during the toasting of it and the buttering of it with much butter and the slow enjoyment of eating it, Conradin listened to the noises and silences which fell in quick spasms beyond the dining-room door.
‘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.