Saki’s collection The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers was published posthumously in 1919. Saki had died three years earlier, the victim of a sniper’s bullet, and the stories in this volume—which included sketches of pre-war England as well as tales of war—were written while he served in France. “The Interlopers” was included in this collection. With its fundamental theme of the deadly repercussions of long-standing feuds and a willingness to commit violence, “The Interlopers” clearly represents the experiences of a man who is caught in a global conflict of massive proportions. The two characters in “The Interlopers,” Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym, hate each other for no other reason than they have inherited a feud from their grandfathers surrounding a piece of land. Like World War I, which took decades to erupt, the Gradwitz-Znaeym feud has reached epic proportions by the time the story takes place. The story shows the fatal mistake that Ulrich and Georg make in believing that either of them can truly possess this small piece of land. The forest that Saki creates in “The Interlopers” is wild and untamable; it is held in the thrall of nature and her creatures. In their forthcoming destruction of Ulrich and Georg, the wolves demonstrate their ownership of this savage domain.
Hector H. Munro—who took the pen name of Saki when he became a professional writer—was born December 18, 1870, in Burma, to a British army officer and his wife. After the death of his mother in 1873, Saki and his siblings were sent to Britain to be raised by their aunts.
Saki’s father retired from the army in 1888 and thereafter took Saki and his sibling on many trips to the European continent. Saki went to Burma in 1893 as a police officer. However, he soon contracted malaria and returned to Britain the following year. He moved to London in 1896 with the hopes of becoming a writer.
In 1899 Saki published his first short story, “Dogged,” and the next year he published a nonfiction book about the history of Russia. Also that year, Saki collaborated with political cartoonist Francis Carruthers Gould to create “Alice in Westminster,” a series of satirical pieces that attacked the British government’s handling of the Boer War in South Africa. The series was published in the Westminster Gazette and later collected in a book titled The Westminster Alice (1902). Saki and Gould collaborated again two years later on a similar project.
In 1902 Saki became a foreign correspondent for the Tory Morning Gazette. At the same time, he continued publishing short stories in the Westminster Gazette. In 1908 Saki left the field of journalism to devote himself to fiction writing. He published short stories regularly through 1914, by which time he had also resumed work as a journalist.
With the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Saki enlisted for military service. He was sent to the trenches in France in November. He served in numerous battles, but continued to write during the war years. He wrote many articles about the military life for the army newspaper. Saki was killed by sniper fire on November 14, 1916.
The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, which included “The Interlopers,” was published in 1919. Another posthumous collection, The Square Egg, and Other Sketches, with Three Plays, was published in 1924 and included Saki’s wartime writings.
The characters in “The Interlopers,” Ulrich von Gradwitz and Georg Znaeym, have been enemies since birth. Their grandfathers feuded over a piece of forestland. While the courts ruled in the Gradwitz family’s favor, the Znaeym family has never accepted this ruling. Throughout the course of Ulrich and Georg’s lifetime, the feud has grown into a personal, bloodthirsty one. As boys, they despised each other, and by the evening that the story takes place, the two grown men are determined to bring a final end to the feud by killing their enemy.
On this fateful evening, Ulrich gathers a group of foresters to patrol the land in search of Georg. Separated from his men, he hopes to meet Georg alone and, when he steps around a tree trunk, he gets his wish. The two men face each other with rifles in hand, but neither can bring himself to shoot the other. Before either man can act, a bolt of lighting strikes a tree. It falls over and pins them underneath its limbs.
The men are pinned down side-by-side, almost within touching distance. Both are dazed, injured, and angry at the situation in which they find themselves. Georg tells Ulrich that his men are right behind him, and threatens that, when they arrive, they will free him but roll the tree on top of Ulrich. To this threat, Ulrich replies that his men will arrive first and kill Georg. Both men know it is only a matter of waiting to see which group of foresters will reach them first.
Ulrich manages to draw his wine flask out of his coat pocket. He drinks some wine and, feeling something akin to pity, offers it to Georg. Georg refuses on the grounds that he does not drink wine with an enemy. During a few moments of silence, an idea comes to Ulrich. He proposes to Georg that they bury their quarrel. He believes that they have been fools and asks Georg for his friendship. After a long silence, Georg answers, accepting Ulrich’s proposal.
The men decide to join their voices together to shout for help. Suddenly, Ulrich sees figures coming through the woods. They shout louder and the figures come down the hillside toward them. Georg, who cannot see as well as Ulrich, asks which men are approaching. Ulrich does not reply. He has seen something horrible: it is not men who approach them—it is wolves.
Ulrich von Gradwitz
Ulrich von Gradwitz is a wealthy landowner. He has legal right to a disputed stretch of land but knows that Georg continues to hunt on this land. On the night the story takes place, he has organized a group of men to find Georg, whom he plans to kill. He considers Georg his enemy and calls him a “forest-thief, game-snatcher.” After the men get trapped under the tree, Ulrich offers Georg some of his wine and is the first one to put forth the idea of making amends. Ulrich is also the one who sees wolves approaching.
Georg Znaeym comes from a line of small landowners who have refused to accept the judgement of the courts regarding a disputed piece of land. Georg refers to the land as Ulrich’s “stolen forest.” He later accepts Ulrich’s offer of becoming friends, and speaks of the surprise this relationship will cause among the people in the community.
Ulrich and Georg are enemies who have brought a family feud over a piece of forestland to a murderous point. Since the original court settlement, which ostensibly ended the dispute, members of both families have participated in “poaching affrays and similar scandals.” Instead of dissipating over the years, the feud has strengthened throughout the lifetime of Ulrich and Georg, two generations removed from the original disputants. Saki does not reveal why the enmity has strengthened, merely alluding to the “personal ill-will” that exists between the men.
The hatred that each man feels for the other represents larger instances of animosity. At the time that Saki wrote the story, he was serving as a soldier in World War I, a conflict that developed out of inherited ethnic conflicts surrounding land claims that were unable to be satisfied by arbitrary judicial decisions. The drive of European nations to possess territory and build empires, and the desire of the ethnic nationals in Austria-Hungary to assert their independence helped fuel tensions that erupted in global conflict. Much like Ulrich and Georg, the
opposing sides in World War I carried generation-old dislikes to murderous proportions with a willingness to use violence to achieve their goals.
The uneasy relationship between Ulrich and Georg has repercussions within the community. Ulrich is the leading member of an important, powerful family. In response to Ulrich’s proposition that they end the feud, Georg notes the affect their friendship will have on the people around them. The ending of the quarrel would bring peace among the “forester folk,” and “wonderful changes” to the countryside. These comments allude to the difficulties that the long-standing feud has caused within the community in the past and the impact that any peaceful resolution would have on the future.
Man and Nature
The very title of the story alludes to the fact that the men are trespassing on the forest in their attempts to assert ownership of it. Although the courts judged that one man—Gradwitz’s grandfather—held title to the land, such claim can only be sustained by the laws of society. In truth, the men and their civilization cannot truly claim the land, as
Topics for Further Study
- Imagine that it is the day before the story takes place and you have been hired to mediate a peace between Ulrich and Georg. What would you suggest the men do to end their feud?
- Analyze Saki’s choice of title for his story. Who are the interlopers? Why are they interlopers?
- Saki wrote “The Interlopers” while he was fighting in World War I. In what ways might the story reflect the experiences of a soldier?
- Find a work of art that represents the story’s setting for you. Describe the artwork and why you feel it depicts the story’s setting.
- The story takes place in the Austro-Hungarian empire prior to World War I. Conduct research and write an essay about the society in which Ulrich and Georg lived.
- In the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Alexander Malcolm Forbes calls “The Interlopers” a parable. Define parable. How effective of a parable is this story? Explain your answer.
evidenced by their inability to tame the natural world. The tree’s attack on the men initiates this theme, and by the end of the story the men are about to fall prey to a pack of wolves. Each man has abused his rights by coming into the forest with the hope of killing his enemy to gain possession of the woods. However, the wolves, beasts that belong to the wild, appear to be the true victors in this conflict, as it is implied they will kill their human enemy and rid their world of these human intruders.
The Gradwitz family occupies a higher social class than the Znaeym family, and this is one of the reasons that the feud has lasted throughout the generations. The Gradwitz family is wealthy and owns forestlands that are “of wide extent and well stocked with game.” Ulrich lives in a castle. By contrast, Georg Znaeym comes from a family of “petty landowners.” Their insistence of gaining possession of a piece of land to which they have no legal right shows their own lack of territory. Georg continues to hunt upon the disputed land, which affords greater opportunity for game than the marshes where he is forced to hunt.
Point of View
“The Interlopers” is written from the third-person omniscient point of view, meaning the narrator sees and knows all. This point of view allows the narrator to present the history of the disputed land, explain how the similar personalities of Georg and Ulrich have brought the feud to a murderous brink, and explain the moral codes that govern the enemies. Each man’s perception of the events that have taken place are presented. Access to the thoughts and feelings of both men alerts the reader that the two are actually more alike than different, which further unites the men in their futile feud and even more futile impending death.
The dialogue in “The Interlopers” is important because it is the means by which the men express their willingness to step away from their feud. Ulrich, speaking first of the desire to “bury the old quarrel,” uses a brief speech to explain why he wants to be done with the past. Georg, in response, explains why he agrees with Ulrich’s idea. The dialogue is also important because it shows a basic connection between these two men, who have shared so much but have never seen eye-to-eye.
The ending of the story is not the real ending; rather, it is the implication of what the end will be. Ulrich first sees what is approaching them, and, when Georg asks what he sees, the answer of “Wolves!” closes the story. With this word, along with Ulrich’s “idiotic chattering laugh of a man unstrung with hideous fear,” the reader clearly understands the terrible death in store for the two men. It is not necessary for Saki to write this ending; its gruesome implication is horrible enough.
Saki personifies elements of the natural world. Nature becomes a violent beast that strikes out at the men for interloping on her territory. She physically knocks them down, felling a tree to attack them. In this portrayal, nature comes to resemble the men. The wind and the trees are also represented as living creatures. The “wind breathes,” and “the trees can’t even stand upright.”
World War I
In the late 1800s and early 1900s rivalries between European powers began to intensify. Imperialist states were fighting over land in Asia and Africa, ethnic groups were struggling for self-control, and nations were competing to build larger and more powerful military forces. In addition the region had developed a system of alliances in which nations would help each other out in disputes.
In 1914 a Serbian nationalist shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, which proved to be the spark that set off World War I. As tensions mounted between Austria-Hungary and Serbia, Germany (which was allied with Austria-Hungary) declared war on Russia (which was allied with Serbia). Germany expanded the conflict when it declared war on France and marched into Belgium to reach France, thus breaking an 1839 neutrality agreement. Great Britain declared war on Germany that same day. Other nations joined the fray, and eventually Europe was divided between the Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and the Ottoman Empire) and the Allied forces (Britain, France, Russia, Italy, and dozens of other nations).
The western front of the war stretched along eastern France, while the eastern front saw battles deep into Russia. Fighting also took place in the location of present-day Turkey, as well as in the North Sea. In 1916 the war in the west and the war at sea had reached a stalemate. However, early in 1917, Germany decided to use unrestricted submarine warfare and also sent a secret telegram to Mexico proposing an alliance against the United States. In April 1917 the United States entered the war on the side of the Allies.
In 1918 the Russians signed a separate peace treaty with the Central Powers. To many people, this signaled that the war would last years longer. Germany withdrew its troops from the eastern front and launched an attack on Allied lines in France. They came within 37 miles of Paris, France’s capital; however, the thousands of American troops that were arriving every month helped hold them back. The Allies launched a counteroffensive in July 1918. At the same time, the Central Powers were crumbling. Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire surrendered, and a revolution in Austria-Hungary brought the Hapsburg Empire to an end. Austria and Hungary formed separate governments and stopped fighting. The German government collapsed in November 1918. On November 11, 1918, an armistice was signed ending World War I.
The War in France
The western front of the war stretched through eastern France. The Allies stopped the first German advance in September 1914. In the First Battle of the Marne, French troops launched a counterattack. After this battle, both the French and German armies prepared to hold their ground. They resorted to a strategy known as trench warfare in which each side defends its position by fighting from the protection of deep ditches. Two massive systems of trenches stretched for 400 miles along the western front. The area between opposing trenches, known as no-man’ s-land, varied in width from about 200 to 1,000 yards. Each side made little progress. In the battle of the Somme, which lasted from July through November 1915, the Allies were only able to force the Germans to retreat by a few miles. Another battle at Verdun lasted for ten months. In these two battles alone, almost one million soldiers died.
By the time the Americans arrived in Europe in 1917, German troops were occupying parts of France and Belgium. American units joined the Allies along the western front and were instrumental in keeping the German forces outside of Paris. The Second Battle of the Marne, fought in the summer of 1918, marked the turning point of the war. Allied forces began to force the German retreat from France. By the time the armistice was signed in November 1918, Germany occupied only a tiny portion of French land.
British society underwent significant changes in the 1910s and 1920s. The discrepancies between the lifestyles of the rich and poor were far less evident than they had been previously. Fewer people had servants, poorer people had access to the same goods as the wealthy, and the middle-class came to hold greater political power. Many homes had modern amenities, such as electricity and plumbing.
Compare & Contrast
- 1910s: After World War I ends, forty-two countries, not including the United States, join the League of Nations, an organization officially established in 1920 with the intent to help maintain peace throughout the world.
Today: As of 2001, 189 countries around the world are member states of the United Nations. The UN was formed in 1945, ultimately replacing the League of Nations, with the dual mission of maintaining international peace and security and deterring aggressors.
- 1910s: By the middle of the decade, countries around the world are involved in World War I.
Today: Numerous regional conflicts are taking place in many locations around the world, such as the ongoing conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians in die Middle East or between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. The United Nations and countries around the world, particularly the United States, have been involved over the years in peace-brokering attempts.
- 1910s: On the eve of World War I, the Austro-Hungarian empire comprise a large mass of territory in central Europe. The empire’s loss in the war results in the breakup of the empire into the independent republics of Austria and Hungary. The empire also loses much of the territory it controlled with the creation of Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia.
Today: With the breakup of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s and the resulting demise of communism throughout Eastern and Central Europe, countries and new international boundaries have been created. The former Czechoslovakia has been divided into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. The former Yugoslavia has been divided into six nations: Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Herzegovina, Serbia, and Macedonia.
By the end of the decade, class distinctions had become notably less important in determining social groupings, even marriages.
World War I also engendered important changes. Millions of women entered the workforce, finding employment in government and private offices and in factories. Such increased economic opportunities contributed to women’s emancipation, and by 1918, the Franchise Act gave all women over the age of twenty-eight the right to vote.
The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers, the collection in which “The Interlopers” was included, was published in 1919, three years after Saki’s death. The title, one of two books published posthumously, collected thirty-three sketches and stories about prewar England and the war itself. Some of these pieces were humorous, some satirical, and some surprisingly grim.
In Britain, critics responded positively to the work, both for the pieces themselves as well as for Saki’s heroic death. Some critics speculated on why Saki did not gain more popularity during his lifetime, while others believed that his unexpected death would bring him fame. An anonymous reviewer for the Spectator notes that Saki’s “great gifts” consist of “wit, mordant irony, and a remarkable command of ludicrous metaphor.” However, the writer believes that Saki’s “intermittent vein of freakish inhumanity belied his best nature, and disconcerted the plain person.”
The Toys of Peace, and Other Papers was also reviewed in the United States, where the critic for the New York Times notes that knowledge of Saki’s tragic death blunted enjoyment of reading his lighter, wittier pieces. At the same time, this critic praises the collection: “They [the tales] show an understanding of the foibles and weaknesses of human nature, but never a contempt for it, nor any degeneration into bitterness.” This writer also singles out the “shock” felt at coming across “that grim story, ‘The Interlopers.’”
At the time he was writing, Saki was known for his playfulness and wit, his use of satire and irony, his craftsmanship, and his black comedy. In the decades since his death, these characteristics continue to be celebrated among Saki enthusiasts. However, as Adam Frost points out in an article that appeared in Contemporary Review in 1999, few critical works exist about Saki’s writing and literary development. Frost notes that Christopher Morley believed, “Fewer writers are less profitable to write about.” However, Frost finds this “a shame.” To Frost, Saki was “never just a humorist” but a knowledgeable writer who explained the culture of his day.
Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers. In the following essay, Korb examines how Saki explores the dual aspects of the hunt in his short story.
Adam Frost points out in a retrospective essay on Saki’s career appearing in Contemporary Review, that the author’s first published story, “Dogged,” ends in a “reversal [that] is typical of Saki”; in that story, the “owner becomes pet and vice versa.” Saki would repeat such use of a surprise ending throughout his career as a short story writer, perhaps most famously so in The Open Window. While that story’s ending brought about a comic effect, in “The Interlopers,” which Saki wrote at the end of his career, this pattern is now employed with a more vicious twist: the human hunters become the hunted. This motif is repeated in two different ways. Georg Znaym and Ulrich von Gradwitz are turned into game as each hunts the other, his lifelong enemy. More crucially, however, the men, pinioned under a fallen tree, are about to become the helpless quarry of a pack of wolves. A critic for the New York Times points out that “The Interlopers” differs from the other stories in The Toys of Peace—as it does, in fact, from the bulk of Saki’s short story oeuvre—in its grimness.
Saki places these two men in a setting that underscores their menacing intent. The forest in which the story takes place is primeval and infused with the ominous characteristics of an entity rife for the hunt itself. On this night particularly, there is “movement and unrest among the creatures that were wont to sleep through the dark hours.” The woods are dark and cold, and they contain a “disturbing element.” Ulrich peers through the “wild tangle of undergrowth” and listens through the “whistling and skirling of the wind and the restless beating of the branches.” Ulrich’s own actions further intensify this atmosphere, for he has placed “watchers ... in ambush on the crest of the hill.”
Saki immediately sets the atmosphere of the hunt with the story’s opening sentence. The reader is introduced to Ulrich, who stands “watching and listening, as though for some beast of the wood to come within the range of his vision, and later, of his rifle.” The narrative quickly reveals, however, that Ulrich is not hunting a beast but rather, he “patrolled the dark forest in quest of a human enemy.” That enemy is Georg Znaeym. Georg and Ulrich were born enemies, having inherited from their grandfathers a bitter feud over the very piece of land where Ulrich now stands. Instead of dissipating the feud over the years, “the personal ill-will of the two men” had made it grow; “as boys they had thirsted for one another’s blood, [and] as men each prayed that misfortune might fall on the other.” Now, each has independently determined to bring about the other’s death. To accomplish this goal, each has set out in the forest—knowing that is where his enemy lurks—with a “rifle in his hand ... hate in his heart and murder uppermost in his mind.” In these matching desires, Ulrich and Georg have transformed the other into prey. Thus, each man is at the same time the hunter and the hunted.
Despite actively placing themselves in these roles, the men are aware of the perversity of the situation. When they finally come face to face with each other and with the opportunity “to give full play to the passions of a lifetime,” neither can bring himself “to shoot down his neighbour in cold blood and without word spoken.” Both men are unable to give themselves up to the wildness of nature. They still respect “the code of a restraining civilization,” thus they recognize that murdering another human—in actuality, hunting him down—is unforgivable
What Do I Read Next?
- In Frank Stockton’s short story “The Lady or the Tiger” (1884), a princess is forced to decide whether to bestow upon her lover the fate of death or of marriage to another woman.
- Giving title to Saki’s 1919 collection, his short story “The Toys of Peace” relates a man’s attempts to convince his nephews to use their new toy, a model city, as an instrument of peace rather than of war.
- Saki’s “The Name-Day,” collected in Beasts and Super-Beasts (1914) also takes as its locale Austria-Hungary of the Hapsburg Empire. It centers around a train deserted on a railway track as wolves cavort around in the woods outside.
- “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891), by Ambrose Bierce, is about a Civil War prisoner who is about to be hanged. The prisoner escapes and traverses an eerie landscape to make his way home—or does he?
- Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” (1948), a shocking allegory of barbarism and social sacrifices, recounts the events leading up to a small town’s annual lottery.
- O. Henry, a master of the trick ending, wrote “The Furnished Room” in 1904. This short story tells of a young man’s futile search for his girlfriend and his eventual suicide.
“except for an offence against his hearth and honour.” Ulrich and Georg’s mutual indecision renders them unable to take action. They understand that fulfilling their desires would place them in opposition with the rules of society.
Nature, however, is able to act swiftly. A lightning strike makes a beech tree fall down upon them, pinioning them under its branches. The falling of the tree thus places both men in to the role of the helpless. They are cast into the role of “captive plight” of game in a trap. Like the animals they might hunt, no respite is available to them until their men come to release them. Their speech, as well as Saki’s narrative, reflects their understanding of this situation. Georg, “savagely,” sees Ulrich as “snared” in the forest. Ulrich, for his part, declares that when his men free him, he will kill Georg and tell others that this enemy “met... death poaching on my lands.” The concept of the hunt—as well as the victory it represents—continually shapes the perceptions of the men, even at a time they no longer are in the position to be hunting any man or any beast.
Surprisingly, while lying trapped under the tree, the two men come to a historic decision: they vow to put their quarrel behind them and instead make peace. In so doing, they harness the better part of their human nature. Their settlement stands in marked contrast to all of their past enmity and hatred, which required that they suppress their humanity and instead act upon their baser animal nature. The men’s language demonstrates their acknowledgment that they are entering this new phase. Ulrich refers to their past behavior as the behavior of a “devil” rather than the behavior of a hunter; he also suggests that they now take on the role of “friend.” Georg speaks of coming to visit Ulrich on his land and “never fir[ing] a shot ... save when you invited me as a guest.” Ulrich and Georg determine to embrace their human ability to reason and to forgive.
The men are eager to get free of their plight, and both are also eager “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.” By adding this detail to the narrative, Saki shows that, despite their interest in making peace and giving up the hunt, the men still desire to have victory over the other. Thus, they have not completely given up any notion of competition, they have simply channeled it into a more acceptable, less harmful form.
To expedite their release, the men decide to call out for their foresters, and they raise their voices in unison “in a prolonged hunting call.” As their luck would have it, instead of beckoning their foresters their calls alert a pack of wolves, which begins to advance toward the captive men. The wolves follow Ulrich’s path “down the hillside.” By mimicking the earlier movement of Ulrich as well as the movement of the foresters, the wolves manifest the similarity between man and beast; as the men were earlier hunting each other, now the wolves are hunting the men.
Alexander Malcolm Forbes writes in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, “[I]n an approximation to parable that is rare for Munro, “The Interlopers” becomes one of his most idealistic and paradoxically pessimistic stories.” Indeed, the story imparts multiple lessons about the benefits of peace as well as the folly of humankind placing itself above the laws of nature. The story implicitly explains why such a cruel fate befalls these enemies: they have dared to intrude, or interlope, on the domains of the forest. In the ongoing feud over possession of this strip of land, both the Gradwitz and Znaeym families have attempted to assert authority where they have no right to do so. Only contrived legal mechanisms gave the von Gradwitz family the forest. In hunting the land and asserting it belongs to them, the men tried to tame the area, but their claim on the land derives only from the authority of civilized society, not from any real sense of belonging or unity. However, the forest is truly primeval; it is a place of survival of the fittest. When the men return to the forest with the deliberate goal of hunting down and killing their enemy, Ulrich and Georg forsake the protection afforded each by the codes of civilization. Their actions also help return the forest to its rightful occupants: beasts on the hunt. They are unable to fulfill this role, but the wolf pack is able to do so.
Before the two men make their peace, Georg announces, “We fight this quarrel out to the death, you and I and our foresters, with no cursed interlopers to come between us.” In this declaration, to which Ulrich accedes, Georg demonstrates one crucial error: he believes the interlopers are the representatives of the legal institutions that have come between him and the land. In reality, the interlopers are he and Ulrich, who have attempted to usurp this wild territory. At the end of the story, the wolves assert the primacy of beast over human within the land they can claim as their own. Their impending
“The story implicitly explains why such a cruel fate befalls these enemies: they have dared to intrude, or interlope, on the domains of the forest.”
destruction of Georg and Ulrich show that the animals who hunt in the forest, not the men who hunt there, are in control.
Source: Rena Korb, Critical Essay on “The Interlopers,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Dupler has published numerous essays and has taught college English. In this essay, Dupler examines Saki’s use of literary device and its impact on the story’s effectiveness.
Saki was a master of the literary device. Devices are subtle “tricks” that authors employ to make stories interesting, to move plots along, and to keep readers absorbed. The short story form, with its need to entice readers quickly from beginning to end, lends itself well to the use of literary device. Unlikely events, suddenly twisting plots, and trick endings are devices that allow short stories to pack excitement in small spaces. Saki’s story “The Interlopers” has several prime examples of the literary trick in action; in fact, the story relies on literary device for its effectiveness. However, despite the efficiency and excitement in his storytelling, Saki’s reliance on literary trickery in “The Interlopers” ultimately detracts from the depth of the story, and keeps the story from being a truly great work of literature.
The beginning of “The Interlopers” is normal enough, but then again, every trickster needs a straight act to set up the audience. The story commences by providing a setting with realistic detail, describing a forest “somewhere on the eastern spurs of the Carpathians ... one winter night.” The forest also has a particular mood. There are animals “running like driven things,” and on this “wind-scourged winter night” there is a “disturbing element”
“This is the beauty of a well-used literary device; the reader, so absorbed in the story, stops demanding strict reality and flows along with the plot.”
and “movement and unrest among the creatures.” Despite being placed in a far-off time and place, which hints that it might be a fable or tale, the story begs to be taken seriously because of the precise details and serious tone of the setting.
In addition to the scenery, a man is present, and realistic details form his character. His name, Ulrich von Gradwitz, connotes the foreign, while other clues imply he is of aristocratic, central European stock. However, Ulrich is not an average sportsman; he “patrolled the dark forest in quest of a human enemy.” Closing the first paragraph with this line, Saki uses foreboding to temper the realism of the setting, to let the reader gently know that something strange might be starting to happen. Continuing with realistic detail, the next paragraphs present a deeper explanation of the characters and setting, and introduce the conflict of the story, the enmity between two longtime rivals.
After the story is set up, the first device, or trick, of the plot quickly takes place at the end of the third paragraph. Just at the time when meeting Georg Znaeym “man to man” was “uppermost in his thoughts,” Ulrich steps around a large tree and sees his enemy face-to-face. At first, given the situation, this might not seem too out of the ordinary—two rivals meeting each other on a dark night in a disputed forest. However, from the beginning of the story, the reader is informed that these two men have “thirsted for one another’s blood” since they have been boys, and that they have “each prayed that misfortune might fall on the other.” Furthermore, the reader has been told that this rivalry spans all the way back to the characters’ grandfathers. There has been plenty of time for these two men to act out their aggressions. Of all the times when this story could have taken place, it just so happens that it takes place on the one night the two enemies meet. Thus the first trick: something happening in a story that is unlikely or out of the ordinary in real life, coming as a surprise to all involved.
The tricky plot twists do not stop there. Just when the “chance had come to give full play to the passions of a lifetime” for the main characters, “a deed of Nature’s own violence” stops the two enemies right in their tracks. The second major plot twist occurs as a falling tree branch thunders down. This crashing branch lands perfectly enough to trap both men without seriously injuring either of them, leaving them face to face but immobile and helpless. It is an exciting moment for the reader, and a clever step in an unfolding drama between two people with conflict. However, if the first plot twist, of two longtime enemies meeting in the flesh after a lifetime of rivalry, is questionable, this second literary trick might be nearly unbelievable. Surprisingly, though, the reader does not react with disbelief, because the situation has become too interesting to cause the reader to slow down or to think over the likelihood of events. An intense conflict has finally come out in the open, begging to be resolved. This is the beauty of a well-used literary device; the reader, so absorbed in the story, stops demanding strict reality and flows along with the plot.
It is at this point that a potent story begins, the story of two people finally being granted what they most desire, the chance to confront a mortal enemy. The characters’ first reactions are typical; they insult and threaten one another. The accident brings “a strange medley of pious thank-offerings and sharp curses.” Each man fantasizes about the near future when his own version of justice will be served to the other, but both men are helpless. The reader stays absorbed because the outcome remains curious and undecided.
Thus the story has moved from a tale of possibly violent revenge to a situation with more human dimensions: both men are vulnerable. Ulrich sees the pain of Georg, and offers him his wine flask in a gesture of kindness. The story deepens as it begins to address human frailty and a challenging moral puzzle. However, this is also die place in the story that Saki’s style and technique, of brevity and tricky plot twists, fail to provide the depth that could make the story truly empathetic and multi-faceted.
For example, Ulrich goes from anger and hatred of his rival to compassion in hardly any time at all. At one moment he is threatening Georg with the worst, and the next moment he is offering his wine flask in peace. He has a major change of heart with hardly any intervening thoughts, except musing on how cold it is, how difficult it is to open his wine flask, and how good the wine tastes. The reader hears his forgiving words, but has no idea how and why this change has occurred so quickly and definitively. Saki does not spend any time examining Ulrich’s motives and internal thoughts, because of his style of moving the story along quickly. Humor even enters into the story at this serious moment; when Ulrich asks Georg for his friendship, he comments on the “stupid strip of forest, where the trees can’t even stand upright in a breach of wind.” The situation, in keeping with Saki’s style, remains entertaining and lighthearted.
Very rapidly and in order, Georg also has a change of heart without much explanation. After a period of silence, conveyed by one quick line, Georg agrees to forgiveness and a new attitude. Compared to his fuming rage just a few minutes earlier, this character is now envisioning a completely new life with a new friend. A lifetime has been changed in “this last half-hour.”
The dialogue and thoughts of the two characters, as they understand the situation and forgive each other, are important and critical parts of the story. At their best, though, these characterizations come across as superficial and impersonal. Ulrich has a change of heart without any real explanation, as does Georg. The conversation they share is plain, given the circumstances, and the two men, with their unremarkable dialogue, become practically interchangeable. In fact, it would be difficult to pick out which lines belong to which character if they were not labeled, because the two men speak so similarly and topically.
Saki’s narration indicates that this moment of forgiveness in the story is crucial, when the storyteller writes that “both men were silent, turning over in their minds the wonderful changes that this dramatic reconciliation would bring about.” However, letting the reader in on these “wonderful changes” would take longer and deeper narration than Saki gives, and the reconciliation is thus not that dramatic. The two characters remain shadowy, as the focus shifts to the possibility of other “men” entering the story to save them. In great stories, characters are portrayed as unique individuals with personalities, problems, and backgrounds of their own. Furthermore, in great stories, the changes that characters undergo often provide hints of deeper or more general truths for the reader. Using these measures of greatness, Saki’s story comes up short. In his zest for brevity and momentum, the author misses the chance to deepen the situation and to more fully develop the characters.
At the end of “The Interlopers,” it is up to the reader to decide what exactly has happened. Of course, it is a trick ending. The paragraphs toward the end lead the reader into believing that helpers are coming to assist the two fallen men. But in one quick line the story takes a completely different meaning: “Wolves!” Just when the reader has gained some empathy and trust of the characters, the author does them in with a macabre plot twist.
With this ending, the story becomes an ambiguous morality tale. Because both men have lived lives full of hatred and dreams of revenge, they are now doomed, because they have learned to forgive too late. Other “interlopers” of fate have surprisingly intervened. At the same time, a more optimistic reading of the ending could be made. Perhaps the two men, being full of compassion and forgiveness at their end, find peace in the face of death. The author leaves no clues, being intent on keeping the plot twisting, the story surprising, and on not demanding too much of the reader’s time or energy. Ultimately, in his flashy use of literary device, Saki leaves it up to the reader to determine the final meaning of the story, that of redemption or punishment. The story is witty, readable, and full of momentum to the very end. However, “The Interlopers” speeds past the chance to provide deeper insight into the lives of two characters and their human dilemma.
Source: Douglas Dupler, Critical Essay on “The Interlopers,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.
Forbes, Alexander Malcolm, “Saki,” in Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol.162: British Short-Fiction Writers, edited by John H. Rogers, Gale Research, 1996, pp. 240–50.
Frost, Adam, “A Hundred Years of Saki,” in Contemporary Review, December 1999, Vol. 275, p. 302.
Review of The Toys of Peace, in New York Times Book Review, July 6, 1919, p. 358.
Review of The Toys of Peace, in Spectator, March 22, 1919, p. 380.
Langguth, A. J., Saki: A Life of Hector Hugh Munro, Simon & Schuster, 1981.
Langguth’s biography includes six previously unpublished Saki short stories.
Williamson, Samuel R., Jr., Austria-Hungary and the Origins of the First World War, St. Martin’s Press, 1991.
Through examination of Hapsburg decisions made from 1912 through 1914, Williamson argues that Austria-Hungary, not Germany, initiated the military steps that brought about World War I.
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