Tension permeates the powerful narrative of “Sredni Vashtar.” Saki does an amazing job at bringing it out through the eyes of Conradin: a miserable child who is as sickly as he is unfortunate.
Saki uses Conradin’s point of view because this main character is not just a sickly kid who is unaware of his surroundings, or one who is chided away from misery by the mercy of his innocence. Quite the contrary.
Conradin is fully aware of his boring and miserable life, and equally cognizant of his guardian’s (Mrs. De Ropp) dislike of him. Moreover, Conradin hates his guardian just as badly as she hates him.
Hence, the tension is clear from the start when the narrator explains that, in Conradin’s eyes,
[Mrs. De Ropp] represented those three-fifths of the world that are necessary and disagreeable and real
Saki also uses a powerful choice of words to indicate the extent of pressure that Conradin lives under.
He tells us that De Ropp is perfectly fine with “thwarting” Conradin “for his own good.” She also forbids that he picks fruit from her few fruit trees in the garden, finds it troublesome to make even a slice of toast for the child, and does nothing but tell him “don’t do this”, or “don’t do that.”
Mrs. De Ropp will not “openly” tell Conradin how much she dislikes him. However, she pushes him around, treats him poorly, and obligates him to attend church services.
In turn, Conradin
hated her with a desperate sincerity which he was perfectly able to mask.
This hatred that Conradin feels is all the more irksome to us, as readers, particularly when we realize that this is a small child having such raw and ugly emotions. Yet, Conradin considers this hatred of Mrs. De Ropp as one of his very “few pleasures.”
All of these details illustrate a very clear picture of tension:
- Mrs. De Ropp and Conradin hate each other while living under the same roof.
- They live together in a very dull environment where she “thwarts” and smothers him.
- Mrs. De Ropp seems to be waiting impatiently for the death of Conradin who, according to the doctor, “would not live another five years.” There is an indication in the first two lines of the story suggesting that Conradin may have even heard his guardian speak of this.
[The doctor’s] opinion was endorsed by Mrs. De Ropp, who counted for nearly everything.
If this is the case, then add “impending death” as yet another factor of tension in the household.
- Conradin masks his hatred, and hating DeRopp is a pleasure to him.
Additional evidence of tension is found in the fact that Conradin needs his imagination to escape; to survive, even.
In his imagination, he hopes for a day where he can get away from his actual existence. Also, in his imagination, that “unclean thing” that he considers Mrs. De Ropp to be is off-limits. She does not have entrance to it. Therefore, we get a picture of a child who hides within his home to perform imaginary rituals, all for the sake of trying to exist within a harsh and horrid environment.
All of these pieces of evidence are greatly indicative of a dull and sad existence, where tension is everywhere, and death, in whatever form it chooses to appear, lurks all too near.