Saki’s short story ‘The Interlopers’, included in the collection The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, published posthumously in 1919, is a suspenseful tale of intense enmity, eventual reconciliation, the power of nature, and the ironies of fate. The dramatic reversals, clever endings, and ingenious articulation that Saki is famous for are on full display in this story.
‘The Interlopers’ | Summary
The story starts with Ulrich von Gradwitz patrolling his forest land with other foresters. Poised with the rifle, he hopes to kill his archenemy Georg Znaeym. Their enmity stems from the family feud that started three generations earlier when the courts ruled in Gradwitz’s grandfather’s favor and evicted Znaeym’s family from the forestland. The latter never ‘acquiesced in the judgement’. With Gradwitz and Znaeym at the head of their respective families, the already known public feud becomes an intensely personal one since each is after the other’s blood.
Ulrich senses something somewhere in the woods and detaches from the others to find out the source of the slight commotion. And as fate would have it, this prowl brings him face to face with his bitter enemy. They are both armed but they, both products of civilization, hesitate a moment before taking aim. Nature, meanwhile, intrudes upon the scene with equal violence: a lightning suddenly causes a ‘mass of falling beech tree’ to ‘thunder’ down on the two enemies. Both are buried under the branches now.
Ulrich is grateful he is alive but is enraged to find out that his enemy, too, is alive. They are both badly injured but they share threats and insults nonetheless. Ulrich, after much struggle, is able to get hold of his wine flask. The wine comforts him. Feeling pity for Georg, he suddenly extends the flask to him. Georg is too bitter to reciprocate this friendly gesture from his enemy. However, both of them can sense that they are in danger now, and both decide to make amends for their past conduct. Ulrich extends his hand of friendship, desiring to end the long feud between their respective families then and there. George does not refuse the offer this time, wondering how much it will help the community in general if the two of them can put their animosity behind them and co-exist in harmony.
After this ‘dramatic reconciliation’ the two men cry out for help, together. Their cries are answered by footsteps from far away. They think probably Ulrich’s group is coming forward. Help is near, they think. However, Nature, once again, decides to upset hopes: the approaching creatures are not Ulrich’s men but wolves.
‘The Interlopers’ | Analysis
The story is fraught with tension and violence, and the theme of human animosity and hatred is at the heart of it. Indeed, the same is implied by the title of the story too. Both Ulrich and Georg are metaphorically, and sometimes even literally, blind with mutual hatred. Let us look at Ulrich’s first thoughts after the trees fall on both of them: “Relief at being alive and exasperation at his captive plight brought a strange medley of pious thank-offerings and sharp curses to Ulrich’s lips.” Immediately after narrowly escaping with life, gratitude should have been the only thing on his mind. Ulrich, instead, makes room for some hatred even now, wishing for his enemy’s harm.
The text also shows that both the men were perfectly aware that their long-drawn feud did all harm and no good to all around and to themselves. Let us see, for instance, a part of Georg’s monologue:
“How the whole region would stare and gabble if we rode into the market square together. No one living can remember seeing a Znaeym and a von Gradwitz talking to one another in friendship. And what peace there would be among the forester folk if we ended our feud to-night. And if we choose to make peace among our people there is none other to interfere, no interlopers from outside…”
In harmony and unity lies strength. Yet the men have hitherto chosen to satisfy their violent egos rather than listen to the voice of reason.
However, the capacity of humans to rise above petty rivalries when faced with common adversity is also a prominent theme in the story. Both Ulrich and Georg display nobility of character when they decide to end their feud that night and cry out for help together. However, tragically, it is too late for them.
Power is a prominent presence in the story. Characters and entities from nature are forever locked in war. At first, this is manifested by the deep animosity between the two men, each of whom tries to harm the other. Gradually, as they reconcile, nature becomes the sole entity that can wield any sort of power. Even such a thing as the wine flask seems a ‘Heaven-sent draught’ to Ulrich. It even appears that nature can sometimes be patronizingly merciful too: “It was an open winter, and little snow had fallen as yet, hence the captives suffered less from the cold than might have been the case at that season of the year”. However, it is truer to say that nature, after all, is indifferent. And it is the most powerful of all. So the reconciliation of the nemeses does not meet with the poetic justice that could ensure a happy ending to the tale; nature intrudes upon the tale one last time through the wolves.
Another theme of the story is the tragic twists of fate. By the way, fate plays out in the story, the reader might be reminded of the celebrated stories of another master of the genre of short stories, O. Henry. Perhaps this depiction of fate and nature, and the general setting of the story where two men are forced to undergo the vagaries of nature, find some resonances in the tradition of literary naturalism.
The story is set in a forestland in the Carpathian Mountains in Europe. It is winter when the events of the story unfold.
Narrative style and techniques
Saki uses a third-person omniscient narrator to narrate this story. However, the omniscient narration is used in the way thrillers would be narrated: the expositions are slow, full of unexpected turns, and detached, and hence, all the more dramatic. Take for example, some instances from the very opening paragraph:
“…a man stood one winter night watching and listening, as though he waited for some beast of the woods to come within the range of his vision, and, later, of his rifle. But the game for whose presence he kept so keen an outlook was none that figured in the sportsman’s calendar as lawful and proper for the chase; Ulrich von Gradwitz patrolled the dark forest in quest of a human enemy.” (Italics added)
The italicized parts show how the narration repeatedly surprises the reader. Instances like this abound in the text. Another example of this highly effective technique would be the way the sudden meeting of the two men is reported. This is suspenseful narration at its very best.
Another way Saki manages to hold up the tension and suspense of the tale is through the immaculate pacing of the storytelling. Just when the two enemies meet, the readers are allowed a foreboding sentence: “The chase had come to give full play to the passions of a lifetime”. However, then, the action pauses as the men eye each other in eager anticipation but civilized hesitation too.
Coincidences have been employed in the story to great effect. For example, the coincidence of the two archenemies meeting suddenly, the coincidence of the trees falling on them at a particularly tense moment- all of these work together to the crafting of this thrilling story. Coupled with these techniques is the detached manner of narration that lends the story a good contrast to the exciting events being narrated.
The masterful narration effectively sets up expectations throughout the text, and then upsets them only to create newer tensions out of them. Narrative reversals are used in the opening and closing paragraphs of the story to mirror the change that comes about in the relationship between the two men. Let us take one example. Towards the opening of the story, we get this sentence:
“If only on this wild night, in this dark, lone spot, he might come across Georg Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness – that was the wish that was uppermost in his thoughts”. Towards the end, we get this: “And each prayed a private prayer that his men might be the first to arrive, so that he might be the first to show honourable attention to the enemy that had become a friend.”
Irony is prominently used in the story. The twist at the end, to pick but one of many examples, is a splendid example of situational irony. The reader expects a happy ending to the tale thanks to the humanitarian gestures shown by the two men at long last. Instead, it is a pack of wolves charging to the scene.
Irony runs through the very fabric of the tale. Indeed, it is highly ironic that two fierce enemies should reconcile poignantly only to lose their lives to wild animals. The irony is accentuated by the fact that these two men have always tried to harm each other, trying to put more and more distance between them. Now, harm comes their way through wolves, creatures that always hunt in packs, united.
The literary device of foreshadowing is used with great care in the story. In the opening paragraphs themselves, the foreboding tone of the story is established by the exposition of the history of violence between the two families: “The feud might, perhaps, have died down or been compromised if the personal ill-will of the two men had not stood in the way; as boys they had thirsted for one another’s blood … and this wind-scourged winter night Ulrich had banded together his foresters to watch the dark forest.” This, coupled with the ominous descriptions of nature, prepares the readers to expect tragic outcomes at the end. Only that the tragic outcomes do come but after a glimmer of hope, thereby heightening the tragedy of the two men.
Title of the Story
The title of the story packs a layer of irony. Who is/are the interloper(s) in the tale? Ulrich and Georg see each other as interlopers. From the narrow, materialistic perspective, humans consider one another interlopers in the lands they ‘own’. Nature, however, is the grand scheme of things manifest in the story, and in the grand scheme of things, both these men are interlopers, and nature is her own mistress with no owner.
‘The Interlopers’ – About the author
Saki is the pen name of British writer Hector Hugh Munro. He is known for his witty short stories that are some of the best examples of social satire in literature. Himself influenced by the likes of Oscar Wilde, Saki’s sharp and intelligent writing influenced such authors as P. G. Wodehouse in turn.