Hector Hugh Munro, who wrote under the pseudonym Saki, is a distinctive voice in English literature. He is often compared with O. Henry for the surprise endings of his stories, but, despite their shared taste for irony, he has none of O. Henry’s sentimentality. Saki’s stories have a tone of acid sophistication which has influenced several twentieth-century humorists, from P.G. Wodehouse to Dorothy Parker, but which has never been entirely imitated.
Saki’s crisp, urbane style of writing is peculiarly effective at highlighting the absurd. The deadly quarrel between Ulrich and Georg is deflated by the calm precision of the author’s description. As the story progresses, the two men come to share the author’s point of view and wonder why they hated each other so fiercely. However, there is still a note of criticism in the way they are portrayed, which continues to distance them from the author’s perspective. This is best represented by the dialogue Saki gives to Georg when he decides to become Ulrich’s friend:
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… You would come and keep the Sylvester night beneath my roof, and I would come and feast on some high day at your castle… I never thought to have wanted to do other than hate you all my life, but I think I have changed my mind about things too, this last half-hour. And you offered me your wine flask… Ulrich von Gradwitz, I will be your friend.
This excerpt is from the longest piece of direct speech in the story, and it is no accident that Saki gives it to the character of lower social standing. By the time this story was written in the 1910s, it had long been a trope of English literature and culture that the British upper classes regarded both foreigners and their own countrymen lower down the social scale as overly emotional. This was already such a stereotype in 1872 that the French novelist, Jules Verne made Phileas Fogg, the English hero of Around the World in Eighty Days, a model of understated Stoicism. When contrasted with the coolness of the narrative voice, Georg’s sudden rush of emotion here is intended to sound embarrassing and excessive.
There is also a certain social pretension in Georg's placing the two families on the same level—and even putting his own name first—in the eyes of “the whole region.” Georg never forgets his sense of his own importance. He suggests that it is only their quarrel which has prevented the region in which they live from enjoying perfect peace. He also assumes that friendship with Ulrich means immediate intimacy. As soon as Ulrich offers his friendship, Georg invites himself to Ulrich’s castle and suggests that they spend one of the most important holidays of the year—Sylvester night, or New Year’s Eve—together. Although the omniscient narrator holds himself aloof from both men, the more plebeian character arguably comes across as slightly more ridiculous, as well as less magnanimous.
At this stage in the story, therefore, the two men have come to agree with the narrator’s implied view that their feud is futile and absurd, but they both remain too self-absorbed and self-important to share his perspective completely. As they wait to be rescued, each still hopes that his men will be first on the scene so that he can make a grand gesture of magnanimity, demonstrating that he is as good as his word. They are still focused on themselves, still curiously naïve. Despite feuding over this little piece of land for their entire lives, they seem to know little about it or the dangers it...
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