The Dual Aspects of the Hunt
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 ‘‘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...
(The entire section is 3,232 words.)