Howard is an avid short story reader who likes to help others find and understand stories.
Saki's "The Interlopers" is an engaging short story of rivalry and suspense. Its famous twist ending packs a lot of power, especially for a younger reader. This is one of the first stories with a surprise ending that I can remember reading.
It's set in the Carpathian mountains in Eastern Europe, possibly in Romania. It's told by an omniscient narrator.
Summary of "The Interlopers"
Ulrich Von Gradwitz patrols his territory in the forest of the eastern Carpathians. Gradwitz's grandfather had obtained the legal rights to the land long ago. It was taken from the Znaeym family, but they've never accepted the ruling. The feud was passed down three generations to Ulrich and his rival, Georg Znaeym.
Ulrich is out with his men, keeping watch for Georg and any of his men. There's more movement than usual from the deer, suggesting to Ulrich that unlawful hunters are on his land.
He leaves his men in ambush on a hill to walk down into the undergrowth. He's hoping to catch Georg Znaeym. As he steps around a huge tree, they come face to face.
They glare at each other, but neither one fires his rifle. Before either one can act, the storm sends a huge mass of beech tree down on them. Ulrich is pinned under the tree with slashes on his face. Georg is pinned helplessly near him with similar injuries.
They revel in each other's misfortune. Each threatens to leave the other to die when his men comes to rescue him. They're glad they'll be able to fight their quarrel to the death without any outside interference. Neither is confident their men will arrive first.
They stop struggling to escape. Ulrich manages to get a drink from his flask. The wine revives him. Ulrich is moved with pity by Georg's pain to offer his flask, but he's rebuffed.
As he lies helplessly, Ulrich's hatred for his long time enemy wanes. He tells Georg that if his men arrive first they will help him. They've been fools to quarrel so long. He asks Georg to be his friend.
There's a long silence. Georg talks about how shocked people would be to see them interact as friends. They could visit each other on special days and hunt as invited guests on each other's land. No one could interfere with them if they made peace. He accepts the offer of friendship.
They think about their reconciliation as they wait for help. They both want to be the first to show goodwill to the other.
Ulrich suggests they shout for help. They make two attempts without getting any response. Several minutes later, Ulrich sees figures moving through the woods. They cry out again.
The figures run toward them. There are about nine or ten approaching, which makes Gerog think they're Ulrich's men because he had fewer people in his group.
The figures approach quickly. Georg anxiously asks for confirmation that they're Ulrich's men. Ulrich says no, and utters a fearful laugh. Georg again asks who they are.
Ulrich says they're wolves.
Theme: Man vs. Nature
The ostensible conflict in the story is between humans, but the real opponents turn out to be humans and nature.
When Ulrich and Georg come face to face, "a fierce shriek of the storm" breaks off a huge piece of beech tree, which falls on them both. They're pinned helplessly and suffer fractures and slashed faces. This occurred during their hesitation to shoot each other because the "code of a restraining civilization" prevented them. Nature doesn't have any qualms about killing. Human lives are completely irrelevant.
A similar contrast is seen when Ulrich feels pity for his rival and offers his flask. Nature feels no pity for their plight. Their "groans of pain" sound out in vain to Nature.
Ulrich and Georg also suffer from the cold, although not as much as they could have because it's an unusually warm winter.
While stuck, their frailty is evident in another way. They try yelling for help, which they can only do when the wind dies down. The forest is vast, though, and their cries don't reach either of their groups. Human ears aren't sensitive enough to pick up this signal. Not so for the wolves, who's superior hearing allows them to find some prey.
Nature is personified by Ulrich when he says "the trees can't even stand upright in a breath of wind."
The twist ending gives Nature the final victory in this conflict. There have been other times when Ulrich and Georg were victorious, trespassing in Nature without permission and killing its denizens, but they can't do that anymore. The wolves rushing to the pinned men won't feel pity or a restraining moral code. They'll finish this conflict without hesitation.
Significance of the Title
An interloper is one who encroaches on the rights of another or an intruder. There are several interlopers mentioned and implied in the story.
Ulrich and Georg each view the other as an interloper.
Ulrich has the legal right to the land, which makes Georg an interloper whenever he poaches on it. Georg doesn't accept the Courts' judgment and, thus, views Ulrich as the interloper.
Both men view the authorities as interlopers, as well.
While patrolling his land, Ulrich wants to "come across George Znaeym, man to man, with none to witness." He wants to settle the feud with violence without the authorities judging him for it. As far as he's concerned, the quarrel is between them and they'll handle it themselves.
Georg feels the same way. After they both threaten to make sure the other dies under the fallen tree, Georg says, "We fight this quarrel out to the death, you and I and our foresters, with no cursed interlopers to come between us." He doesn't want any interference from the authorities either. He and Ulrich and, by extension, their men, who are part of the in-group, will settle the matter. No meddlers or mediators are welcome.
The twist ending reveals unexpected interlopers, the wolves. They aren't intruding on the land, of course, but they're intruding on the men's business with each other.
Ulrich and Georg seem to have gotten their wish, if under unfortunate circumstances. They didn't want any outside interference. Trapped in the undergrowth of the woods, they're well out of the purview of the authorities or any witnesses who could hold them accountable.
While they wanted privacy to handle the situation with violence, they ended up settling their feud in a much more productive way. Man to man, they were able to recognize the futility of their behavior and reconcile without any outside pressure.
After this triumph of understanding, with rescuers on the way, and everything resolved seemingly on their terms, the most unforgiving interlopers—wolves—destroy all the progress the former rivals have made.
Finally, Ulrich and Georg are revealed as the ultimate interlopers. They're the intruders in the forest, the real outsiders. They've been feuding over its ownership, but the forest belongs to Nature, of which the wolves are a part.
Why Does This Story Work So Well?
I find this to be a satisfying short story, despite its obvious flaws. Some of the issues with it include:
- The unlikely coincidence of Ulrich and Georg coming face to face while leaving their men somewhere else.
- The remarkable coincidence of the tree falling in the same spot at that moment at the right angle to pin them both while inflicting similar injuries.
- Ulrich's sudden pang of pity for a man who's blood he has thirsted for all his life.
- Ulrich's hatred of Georg and his investment in a three-generations long feud dissipate in a few minutes.
- Georg, who feels the same hate, takes even less time to accept Ulrich's offer of friendship.
- Both characters speak in the same way even though they're from different social classes.
I think there's enough here to argue that this story is really bad. When I first read the story, I was quite young, so I didn't notice any of these things back then. Even when I re-read it now, they don't nag at me like similar flaws in other stories would.
I think the power of the twist ending covers a lot of these problems. When the story ends, we're left with not only the shock of the characters demise, but the implications of it as well.
Georg talked about the peace their reconciliation would bring to the community, which includes their foresters. Now, the feuding will continue and probably intensify, as each side crafts a story that blames the other for their patriarch's death.