The Interlopers Themes
The main themes in “The Interlopers” are man versus nature, honor culture, and class conflict.
- Man versus nature: In their ceaseless feuding over land, Ulrich and Georg fail to recognize that their true enemy is nature itself.
- Honor culture: The story suggests that Ulrich and Georg’s feud is more a perfunctory expression of honor culture than a genuine enmity.
- Class conflict: The story subtly draws out the class dynamics between the two men, showing how Ulrich and Georg approach their feud from different positions.
Last Updated September 6, 2023.
Man Versus Nature
Of the two characters, Ulrich von Gradwitz appears first in the story, and the author gives the reader somewhat more access to his thoughts. One might, therefore, call him the protagonist and Georg Znaeym the antagonist. To Znaeym, though, the matter appears the other way around, for Gradwitz is his antagonist. But the story slowly reveals that for both men the true antagonist is Nature. Even when Nature—a force which Saki personifies in his writings with an initial capital—drops a tree on the two men, they continue to think of their situation in interpersonal terms. Only when a pack of wolves arrives at the story’s end do the men take Nature seriously as a shared antagonist.
Ulrich and Georg are both obsessed with an insignificant piece of land—not because of the land itself but because of their quarrel. In the second paragraph of the story, Ulrich notices the agitation of the roebuck and immediately ascribes it not to the impending storm but to Georg’s presence. Later, when the two men decide to become friends, Georg makes a speech about how everything will be peaceful from now on, with no “interlopers” spoiling their perfect harmony. It is only during the last lines of the story that both men are compelled to turn away from one another and recognize the danger that has surrounded them on this stormy night in this wild forest that does not truly belong to either of them. They have assumed that the central conflict was one of man against man, and this has been resolved, but the conflict of man against Nature has not.
Saki’s writings convey an ambivalent attitude to upper-class practices and conventions. He tends to see the upper classes as guardians of civilization, but at the same time he understands how corrupt civilization is and how often its guardians fall short of their own ideals. While the English upper classes were the primary target of Saki’s satire, he was also international in his outlook. By the time he wrote “The Interlopers,” he had already published When William Came, a novel sending up German militarism. He may well have written “The Interlopers” while fighting against Germany in the First World War.
The nationality of Ulrich von Gradowitz and Georg Znaeym is never revealed. Although they are probably not German, they are clearly from the part of Central Europe that is heavily influenced by Germanic culture. This culture was widely seen in the nineteenth and early twentieth century as a highly militarized one, obsessed with physical courage, honor, and the continuation of ancient feuds. Above all, it was a culture of dueling. In Three Men on the Bummel, a relatively sympathetic humorous 1900 work about a trip around Germany, British author Jerome K. Jerome describes the bloodthirsty nature of German duels and the hideous scars worn as badges of honor by members of the upper classes. This is the background against which Ulrich and Georg’s feud takes place. They have hated each other since boyhood—not for any personal reason but as the result of a culture of ritualized militarism and family honor. Saki shows how false this culture is by depicting how it breaks down almost immediately when these antagonists are forced by happenstance to spend time in one another’s company.
Ulrich von Gradwitz may be seen as a representative of the old Prussian Junker aristocracy that had consolidated great estates in Central Europe over the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. By the early twentieth century, many individual members of this class, such as Paul...
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von Hindenburg, who led the Imperial German Army, were still powerful, but the class as a whole was declining due to its dependence on land at a time when commerce and industry were the leading sources of wealth.
In literature, family feuds are often presented as aristocratic affairs. Readers naturally think of the Montagues and the Capulets in Romeo and Juliet or the Grangerfords and the Shepherdsons in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. By contrast, “The Interlopers” features a feud between an aristocrat, Ulrich, and a less-wealthy landowner, Georg. Georg, however, is still a landowner and has his own troop of foresters to back him up. His family’s feud with the Gradwitz family has elevated his social status, since people now mention the two families in the same breath: paradoxically, their animosity links them together.
This petty squabbling over status does not quite come to an end, even when both men are placed literally on the same level, pinned to the ground by a falling tree. Indeed, even when they are reconciled, each hopes his men will arrive first—not to secure his safety but so he can make the grand gesture of freeing the other. It is only the arrival of the wolves that puts all such competitive thoughts permanently out of their minds.