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Of the many short stories by Saki, I found Sredni Vashtar to be one of the darkest. While many of his stories are morbid, Sredni Vashtar has a young boy praying for the death of his guardian to something he imagines to be a god. Sredni Vashtar and The Lord of the Flies are tales which honestly talk about the darkness in children.

The Lord of the Flies was motivated as a counterpoint to another work. What inspired Sredni Vashtar?

  • FWIW, I believe Heinlein's Tunnel in the Sky was written as a counterpoint to The Lord of the Flies. I hadn't known previously that LotF was a counterpoint to something else; thanks. – Wildcard Jun 30 '17 at 21:14
  • What other work was The Lord of the Flies a response to? – Shokhet Jul 4 '17 at 16:59
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    @Shokhet Wikipedia says: 'Golding wrote his book as a counterpoint to R.M. Ballantyne's youth novel The Coral Island, and included specific references to it, such as the rescuing naval officer's description of the children's pursuit of Ralph as "a jolly good show, like the Coral Island".' – muru Jul 5 '17 at 2:59
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Firstly thanks for a question about Saki, one of my favourite authors sadly forgotten between Wilde and Wodehouse.

I think this is a matter of interpretation; I have read all of Saki's short stories multiple times, and I don't find Sredni Vashtar to be one of the darkest, or even dark at all. I think it's just a combination of two things:

  • Many of Saki's stories have a humorous opposition between a child (or young person) and an aunt or similar guardian. (Seen in Wilde and Wodehouse too.) The most satisfying example is in The Lumber Room, where Nicholas outwits his cousins' aunt (inimitably described by Saki as "the aunt-by-assertion" and "the soi-disant aunt"). But of course similar examples are scattered throughout the stories.

  • Many of Saki's stories use death humorously: in Esmé we have a boy being eaten by a hyena (feels morbid typing it here, but the story is hilarious); we have the same being discussed at great length by Clovis in The Quest; in Laura we have her joking about her death and then dying (sandwiched between two delicious sentences), The Unrest Cure is a joke about genocide written when it must have been absurd, and so on. (And minor examples abound, such as the death at the end of Tobermory.)

So, if you don't take the death of Conradin's guardian seriously, Sredni Vashtar is a typical Saki story: there's an imaginative boy (or sometimes it's a girl, as in the stories featuring Vera, most famously The Open Window); he's clever but the adults are rigid and oppressive; he has a world of his own (greatly amplified by his imagination) in which the adults have no admittance and would not understand anyway; and just once, he gets his satisfaction. What's not to like? :-)

I would not compare it to The Lord of the Flies, which I found truly dark and frankly will probably not read again. On the other hand, each time I dip into Saki it's pure joy and (somewhat horrified) laughter, and I don't think we need to consider stories like Sredni Vastar as being about the darkness in children. Saki's children are independent and consider themselves superior to the adults; any harm wished on the obtuse adults is purely secondary and comes from indifference or a wish to break free, rather than malice.

TL;DR: The fact that Sredni Vastar fits into a general pattern of Saki stories and characters means that we need not look for any special inspiration for it specifically.

  • Sredni Vashtar was probably the first Saki story I read, and I have read a number of them afterwards, but whole most of them seem humourous to me, SV never really did (including Esmé which just felt odd, The Open Window, which I read second and was certainly humourous). – muru Feb 28 '17 at 13:57
  • @muru Esmé has some of my favourite lines: “She was looking about as pale as a beetroot that has suddenly heard bad news”, ““‘You’re looking nicer than usual,’ I said, ‘but that’s so easy for you’” and mainly, the Baroness’s growing annoyance at Constance's questions, culminating with “I am perfectly certain that at the Last Judgment Constance will ask more questions…”. The total lack of ceremony with which “You have killed my Esmé” surfaces is typical Saki. “there was an air of patient understanding about him, as though […] we disapproved, but which he felt to be thoroughly justifiable.” – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '17 at 15:59
  • @muru As for Sredni Vashtar, I must admit that despite the death, the boy's victory is not as satisfying to me as in The Lumber Room. It does have some good lines (what I remember most is the one about the Anabaptist, and the absurd hymn “His enemies called for peace, but he brought them death / Sredni Vashtar the Beautiful”, but there are many such as the one about the fruit-trees, “the Woman”, and “Such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar” characteristically paying more attention to the fate of the ferret than that of the woman). Still, it does have flaws, such as more "tell" than "show". – ShreevatsaR Feb 28 '17 at 16:11
  • @user14111 oh good point, looks like I've used the word "comeuppance" backwards, not sure how. Let me fix it (not sure what word I was thinking of... Something weaker than "revenge") – ShreevatsaR Aug 23 '18 at 13:14
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It seems that Sredni Vashtar, like many of Saki's stories pitting children against adults, was inspired from his childhood. Saki had lost his parents at an early age, and was fostered by tyrannical aunts. From Reading Saki: The Fiction of H.H. Munro by Brian Gibson:

Munro's true mother was run over by a cow and Ethel notes that Aunt Augusta was afraid of the creatures, [...] this bovine-induced tragedy seems significant, given Saki's "preoccupation with animals that attack women"; these attacks seem both imaginative recreations and reworkings of Mary Munro's death — perhaps helping her son to deal vicariously with the loss — and fantasies of surrogate-mothers' deaths. Ethel Munro herself notes that Aunt Augusta and Aunt Tom were "guilty of mental cruelty; we often longed for revenge".

Saki's stories, perhaps reflecting Munro's absence of or yearning for his mother, do not show the defeat of a mother as often as they revel in the defeat of aunts or other female guardian figures by fate, animals and children. [...] In the much-anthologized "Sredni Vashtar", Conradin's revered polecat-ferret kills his strict cousin-guardian Mrs. De Ropp after she kills Conradin's pet Houdan hen, echoing Munro's childhood loss of a favourite Houdan cock.

(Ethel Munro is Saki's sister.)

And later on, while discussing The Lumber-Room, The Penance and Sredni Vashtar:

This sense of surveillance, of being trapped by a guardian's watchful eye, more in keeping with Victorian than Edwardian settings for child-centered fiction, suggests these tales tap into the adult Munro's remembrance of his 1870s childhood.

  • Oh yes of course. This is an "inspiration" I guess for about something like three-fourths of Saki's stories, and not Sredni Vashtar specifically. Kipling and Wodehouse, among others, had similar childhoods (raised by non-parents), except Wodehouse remembers it fondly. I think, though, that the pitting of children/the young against aunt-like adults is a universal theme (seen in Wilde and Wodehouse too), and even those with happy childhoods can find it enjoyable. :-) Children fighting adults is a typical Saki story; Sredi Vashtar doesn't particularly stand out in this regard IMO. – ShreevatsaR Mar 7 '17 at 6:34
  • @ShreevatsaR ah, but the way you dismiss it, one would think it's common knowledge and anybody who has read a Saki story would know it. It isn't. I didn't know it. It seems you're focusing on my special regard for SV, but the question here is not whether SV is special. The question is what inspired SV, and whether or not that inspiration was also behind any or all of Saki's other stories is absolutely irrelevant. – muru Mar 7 '17 at 6:40
  • Sure, I thought you were asking for inspiration behind the “darkness” of this story specifically; I didn't realize you were asking about its basic theme, which is also the general theme of many of his stories. That's fair. BTW, you may enjoy reading this by Hitchens (who was also a fan of Wodehose): it mentions the childhood that gave rise to “the most-fearsome aunts in fiction”. – ShreevatsaR Mar 7 '17 at 6:53
  • @ShreevatsaR yes, if there was something unique behind SV, I'd have loved to know that, but if not, then the general inspiration would do fine. – muru Mar 7 '17 at 6:57
  • BTW, given that the question starts with “Of the many short stories by Saki, I found Sredni Vashtar to be one of the darkest. While many of his stories are morbid, Sredni Vashtar has...” don't you think the question seems to suggest that Sredni Vashtar stands out from the rest of Saki's stories (and that that's what the question seems to be about)? – ShreevatsaR Aug 23 '18 at 14:15

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