There are two opposing forces in Saki’s “Sredni Vashtar”: the traditional, “respectable” Christian religion embodied by the prim and controlling Mrs. De Ropp and the wild, “pagan” religion embodied by the ferret-polecat Sredni Vashtar (who, in the lonely imagination of Mrs. De Ropp’s young cousin and ward, Conradin, is a god). Like the Judeo-Christian God, Mrs. De Ropp is seemingly omnipotent, always able to see and judge what Conradin is doing in the garden through one of her many windows. Also like the Judeo-Christian God (at least in Saki’s satirical take on British Christianity), she has strict rules and commandments about what Conradin can and can’t do, often preventing him from doing things he enjoys—even things as simple as eating toast with his tea. By contrast, the religion that Conradin invents around Sredni Vashtar follows no strict schedule, provides no rules of conduct, and focuses on fantasies of violence—and gives Conradin a sense of freedom. While the story’s portrayal of both Christian religion and of Conradin’s “pagan” religion are not particularly nuanced and are largely satirical, the central thrust of Saki’s satire is to use Conradin’s cult of Sredni Vashtar as a foil to expose the stiff, cruel, and imagination-killing qualities that he saw in British organized religion.
Mrs. De Ropp’s devotion to Christian religion is one of her central character traits, and it’s no accident that Saki portrays her as repressive and controlling, and focused on arbitrary ideas about what is “good” for Conradin that are less based on reason and more on denying him pleasure. One of Saki’s most effective pieces of satire in the story is the scene where he reveals that Mrs. Ropp typically prevents Conradin from having toast because it’s “bad” for him and too much of a hassle for her to make. Bread is a common religious symbol, evoking communion wafers, the unleavened bread that God commands the Israelites to eat in Exodus, and the parable of the loaves and fishes—in fact, it might be the most good-for-you food in all of Christianity. The fact that Mrs. De Ropp denies Conradin toast suggests not only that she is stingy and mean but that she is actually a hypocrite who can twist morality to be whatever she wants it to be. Perhaps the most villainous quality of Mrs. De Ropp is that she invades Conradin’s shed, which is the one place where his imagination is free. This suggests intolerance on her part, because even though Conradin was not doing anything that affected her, she still felt the need to stop him. Because the story so closely associates Mrs. De Ropp with British Christianity, the story implies that British Christianity is also characterized by intolerance, hypocrisy, petty cruelty, and the need to stamp out all forms of imagination under the guise of doing what’s “best” for others.
While Saki was perhaps most interested in satirizing the puritanical qualities of Protestant British Christianity, his story also satirizes so-called “pagan” religions. While the cult of Sredni Vashtar is portrayed as more vital and exciting than Mrs. De Ropp’s Christianity (and arguably as even more powerful, given her demise at the end of the story), Saki portrays its rituals as largely arbitrary and guided by superstition. Even in Conradin’s own fantasies, it isn’t clear if sprinkling stolen nutmeg on festival days has any effect on what happens in the real world. Though Conradin designs his religion to be the exact opposite of Mrs. De Ropp’s, at times Saki suggests that the two of them are actually quite similar. In particular, after the Houdan hen is sold, Conradin begins treating Sredni Vashtar more like a personal Protestant Christian God, saying nightly prayers, bestowing him with omnipotence, and even singing hymns.
Ultimately, while Saki satirizes both the Christianity of his fellow Britons as well as the “paganism” of religions that were more exotic to him, his story “Sredni Vashtar” does pick a clear winner between the two. When Mrs. De Ropp comes face-to-face with the great ferret Sredni Vashtar, her God is powerless to protect her from the fierce pagan deity. Perhaps Saki is satirizing the weakness of the Christian God more than he is extolling the virtues of foreign gods, but he does seem to find something vital and hopeful in the cult of Sredni Vashtar. Despite the gruesome violence, the story ends on an optimistic note, at least for Conradin, who is finally able to enjoy a pleasure that his cruel cousin had long denied him—toast. The ending may reflect Saki’s own hope for a future Britain that has moved beyond the petty, hypocritical Christianity embodied by Mrs. De Ropp.
Religion Quotes in Sredni Vashtar
Conradin was ten years old, and the doctor had pronounced his professional opinion that the boy would not live another five years.
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.
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.
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.
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.