Sredni Vashtar the Ferret – or should we call him Brian?
If…then…so…hypothesising in English
Professor David Crystal tweeted early on in our lockdown phase that the term ‘social distancing’ was a misnomer. We had been asked to enter a period of physical distancing. Social contact could continue, and in fact would be vital for all sorts of reasons, without us being physically close. Some found this pedantic. I personally found it hopeful and reassuring.
We all know social contact via phone or video link is not the same as being in a room together – and this is the aspect of education, in its fullest sense, in schools, that is most missed. What students learn – what they make sense of and how they make sense of it – is hugely influenced by the social context and climate in which they learn. Don’t take it for granted – how we are together needs to be part of what we talk about and negotiate.
So – with my family Let’s Think in Lockdown continuing – an email was sent out to all as a preface to our next lesson:
Hello Let’s Think Community!
I think the community is beginning to gel even with lack of actual contact. I do sense from listening to the kids that sharing your ideas with others can feel very exposing and scary. We completely realise this in Let’s Think and we work to make everyone feel safe. Even though we are family, it may feel even harder for the kids – because of age gaps and because we don’t usually talk in this more formal, academic way with each other. I do want them to give the group feedback as much as possible because this is what grows efficacy and understanding. You hear yourself giving words to ideas that are just beyond your individual thoughts – and you remember that you did this and that others were interested.
I am hoping that we are all ‘catching’ the nature of the discourse of purposeful enquiry. No-one’s ideas are ever judged as right or wrong, but they are valued and considered. It should start to feel like the norm that you will be asked to explain your thoughts so that they become more available to others. This is not a challenge but comes from a position of interest. It is fine to disagree with others but the disagreement needs to be explained. Our big picture aim is to move from thinking – which is fast, instinctive, often emotional…to reasoning, which can only happen if we slow down, relate this new content and context to other examples and experiences we may bring to it, consider alternative viewpoints, test out the evidence base.
Cue session 4… Sredni Vashtar
The central reasoning pattern for our next session was cause and effect. We might think that this is a concept more central to thinking in science or history than responses to literature. In fact it is just as central and its non-algorithmic complexity is perhaps too often not acknowledged. We had already begun to enter this complexity with The Bridge. The simple logic of ‘If the woman takes a lover, she is immoral and we do not like her as a character’ doesn’t necessarily hold true in the context of narrative. It depends on the values the reader brings to the story. It depends on the kind of story and the writer’s purpose in writing it. It depends on whether the writer renders her sympathetic. There are ways of presenting an extra-marital affair as a good, even heroic choice. A writer’s intent affects their choices which play out in the effect on the reader.
We cannot, however, predetermine the algorithm a reader will need to construct a hypothesis about writer’s intent from the clues they are given through the text. But we can predetermine a purposeful pathway through a text that supports them to practise this thinking, drawing their attention to central conundrums in the text.
If this is how I am responding, what in the story made me respond in that way? What might this suggest about the writer’s intent? And as I apply this thinking to further related features of the story, does my hypothesis stand up to testing? This process ask readers to be aware of their own thinking, (metacognitive) and able to manage a reading process that keeps doubling back on itself to deepen the critical sense-making (self-regulatory). As the group’s mediator I often steer these two processes. As you follow the progress of the lesson – notice how many times we had to return to and rethink about the same short text.
The lesson is based on a shared reading of a short story written in the early 1900s, ‘Shredni Vashtar’ by the writer known as Saki (H.H. Munroe), available here.
It is the story of a sick young ward, Conradin, who has been given only a few years to live by his physician and who is forced to live with his loveless older cousin as guardian. Conradin, we are told, lives through his imagination. Lonely and unloved, he focuses much of his attention on two pets he has managed to secretly acquire and hide in a shed at the bottom of the garden. One is a large, docile hen, which he loves and strokes. The other, a pole-cat ferret, he keeps locked in a cage and prays to like a God.
Our group had been fed some information about pole-cat ferrets, (see images above) asked to read the first 2 pages of the story, (up to the point where Conradin prays to his pole-cat god ‘Do one thing for me, Sredni Vashtar.’) and to consider together this question:
- Why does Conradin choose a pole-cat ferret for a pet?
- Why does he not choose something like a rabbit or a guinea pig that he can stroke?
I cue in younger member of family 1
Because he liked ferrets (rising intonation – with a shrug)
Have you ever been there, teachers?
This answer is not absent of logic at all. Conradin chose a ferret, therefore, Conradin likes ferrets. Effect traced back to cause.
What it ignores is that writers create stories with their own internal logic. Part of the pleasurable challenge in reading, that we had begun to discuss in The Bridge lessons, is in applying our deductive logic to the architecture of the fictional world. Through systematic testing, we can build plausible inferences about characters and eventually hypotheses about what a writer might be encouraging us to think about them.
So what does a teacher do with an answer that hasn’t begun to use the details of the story, only their own knowledge of life? I need to work with this young person’s cause and effect thinking and help them to apply it within the story. The knowledge of ferrets being vicious had been shared with the group, but this knowledge was currently not being brought in to play.
Okay – let’s go back to the question for a moment. How is a pole-cat different to a rabbit?
Pole-cats are a bit vicious but rabbits are more cuddly.
So if we go back to the story, why might Conradin choose something that is vicious? That seems like an odd choice.
(Looks up to the ceiling…)
Let’s all go back to the story – just the first few paragraphs – are there clues as to why he might choose a vicious pet?
Back to the text
It says that he gets pleasure from things that ‘displease’ Mrs de Ropp. Maybe he wants to annoy her.
Thankyou, family 2?
Yeah, we thought he might actually want to hurt her with it. He wants to use it for revenge.
He’s not a pet though. The hen is like a pet, but he treats the ferret like a god. It says he prays to it.
He doesn’t want it to be cuddly. Gods aren’t things you cuddle.
I think he wants something powerful because he has no power. It represents the power he wants to have over his guardian
This ripple of collaborative reasoning was starting to happen without a need for me to cue in speakers. This is really gratifying, particularly in a ‘Celebrity Squares’ video call. But I have to keep an eye on whether we have lost our first speaker. The last comment on the ferret ‘representing’ something about Conradin has taken several plausible deductions and linked them to a hypothesis of the symbolic intent behind the writer’s choice of this beast. It’s a long way from ‘He likes ferrets.’ Time to pause and take stock…
So shall we pull together what we are saying so far? Conradin might want a vicious animal that can annoy or even harm his guardian, he wants it to be powerful and he sees it as a god, not a pet. Are we all happy with this?
Now, X could you tell us what you meant when you said the ferret ‘represents’ power?
He imagines the ferret having the power that he wishes he had. It’s like a symbol of the revenge and the anger he wishes he could unleash on the ‘Woman’
(Lots of nodding)
And how do we feel about this young boy?
We feel sorry for him
So – let’s move to the second part of the question. Conradin asks Shredni Vashtar to ‘do one thing’ for him? Go back to your group and decide what you think is the most plausible answer. Make sure you use what we know about Conradin from the story to explain your answer.
Back to the text
The quite speedy consensus was that Conradin wanted the ferret to hurt Mrs De Ropp – some thought to kill her, but the agreed hypothesis was that he was praying for some sort of revenge. I pushed the group to crystallise their evidence with an alternative hypothesis.
Some groups I’ve taught have suggested that Conradin might want the ferret to kill him, as he is so sick and unhappy. Which do you think is more likely – wanting to die or wanting revenge?
Back to the text
Much more specific and linked evidence was then brought to bear to decide that these characters exist in a dark, cruel world in which pain is inflicted with relish. Revenge was more plausible than him wanting to die.
We read the rest of the story together, to discover that Mrs de Ropp does indeed suffer death at the jaws of the ferret. The wonderful ambiguity in the story – the complex logic we are asked to enter in this narrative world – is that Conradin has prayed for this death, admits that ‘although he prayed he did not believe’, and then is ‘rewarded’ at the sight of his ‘great pole-cat ferret’ emerging from its secret shed its jaws dripping with blood.
Back to the text
…to make sure we all had made the same inference about what had happened. It took some time, in fact, for the whole group to agree that the guardian was dead and not injured. How would you know?
Back to the text
Eventually – some of the younger members brought to our attention the screaming of the maids and their despair in having to ‘break it to the poor child’.
They wouldn’t act like that or say that if she were just a bit injured.
A much more confident deduction.
I will summarise what happened in the next section of the lesson – where groups decide whether Conradin is guilty of murder, manslaughter, or this death is purely accidental. Strangely, in the KS3 classroom, this tends to be a challenging decision to make. With the family, perhaps the greater experience of legal language and the world of jurisdiction led the group to agree quickly that Conradin could never be found guilty and was not controlling the behaviour of the ferret. But I had heard by listening to my own kids an unease that the boy can celebrate victory at the end of the story.
So we are we saying we are happy with the end of the story and we don’t judge Conradin in any way?
We said before that we felt sorry for him – is this the same at the end?
Quite a few adults were happy to argue that the horrible guardian had got what she deserved and they were glad that Conradin was free of her. It was the right and ‘just’ ending.
Then we felt the benefit of having that huge band width of wisdom and experience in our group.
This writer is writing at the same time as Nietszche’s ideas were catching fire across Europe. I mean, I don’t know if he was influenced by Nietszche’s views on religion, but it seems like this is a story about the Judeo-Christian tradition. He boiled this down to religion being about deliverance or judgement.
So deliverance would be going to heaven and judgement would be revenge?
Yes, so much of this language is echoing religious tract: ‘such was the passing of Sredni Vashtar’– and this name of the ferret and the whole story sounds like a God from an Indian religion. I mean, he’s not called Brian, is he?
There was a release of laughter in all the Zoom Celebrity Squares – but what a rich opportunity for cause and effect thinking. The group began to speculate how we would have reacted differently in all sorts of ways if this were about Brian the ferret. It made me wonder why we don’t have this as one of our strategic questions…
I still needed to return to the ending that most of the group had interpreted as ‘just’.
So we all agreed that through most of the story we have a lot of sympathy for Conradin. Is this the same at the end?
Yes, yeah, yeah
He is the hero.
It reminds me of a fairytale or fable with simple good and bad characters and the good wins in the end.
It’s a short story – and this genre can carry a simpler, tighter message than a novel
But I could see one young person who looked uneasy with this talk.
Let’s go back and read the final paragraph one more time.
Final return to the text
Cue in the thinker who had looked uneasy…
It’s not right. He starts to realise that his guardian could be dead and he celebrates with more toast. It’s pretty weird. I mean, we did feel sorry for him, but this is just…it’s not..right.
Do you think he’s not so sympathetic at the end then?
No – it’s pretty dark. I mean, we sort of wanted him to win, but…he’s pretty unpleasant.
I invited the group to think, beyond the session, whether they knew other characters from books, films or programmes with problematic heroes like Conradin. The writer or film maker is testing out what we can accept. One of my own kids instantly mentioned ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’ novels.
Later in the week, my nephew in Year 9 applied this thinking to Hamlet in his home-school work.
I think Hamlet might be a play without a hero. I don’t think I would have thought that without Let’s Think.
This session brought in to focus the systematic, at times playful, experimentation necessary for cause and effect thinking to emerge in English.
- What if he chose a rabbit instead of a ferret?
- Is it more likely he wants to die or seek revenge?
- What if this ends up in a court if law – would he be found guilty?
- What if the ferret is called Brian…?
- What if we are not entirely comfortable with Conradin’s victory at the end?
And finally – there were all those moments when we had to return to the text – go back, test that out, does it stand up…I’ll leave you with one of my nephews:
Let’s Think is a great way to spend time with family even when you’re miles away from each other. It helps people construct opinions on what you think of a certain extract or short story, then expand on your thinking as a group, which makes it way more fun! I have improved so much since we started. I’ve got better at explaining my ideas in English, and even understanding questions in Maths and Science as I am reading more carefully.