Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1228
In The Intruder, Maurice Maeterlinck superbly evokes feelings of fearful suspense and anxiety through the simple repetition of phrases, the device of light diminishing into darkness, and invocation of nature’s response to the unseen intruder when the birds, swans, and dogs are suddenly hushed for no apparent reason. Maeterlinck admired Edgar Allen Poe’s ability to create a haunting atmosphere that leads up to tragic consequences. In The Intruder, a similar haunted atmosphere evolves as the family converses banally. While the intruder, death, stalks the premises, the six relatives argue about the weather, sounds they hear, the opening and shutting of doors and windows, and the arrival of the long-awaited nun.
Although the play is set in the twentieth century, it resembles a medieval allegory. None of the characters is given a proper name, and the invisible figure of death is really the star of the show. The intruder hovering about the gardens and the château is sensed only by the blind grandfather who alarms the younger members of his family as he persistently asks who is present or whose footsteps are on the stairs. Like a blind prophet, the grandfather intuitively feels the macabre presence, but he is not understood by his family, who even call him demented. His premonitions are justified at the conclusion of the play when the sister of charity silently, by making the sign of the cross, announces the ill mother’s death. The father’s and uncle’s sister never arrives.
The mother was suffering ever since giving birth to an infant who, since it had not yet made a single sound, resembles a wax effigy. The grandfather fears that it may be deaf and mute because his daughter married her cousin. Maeterlinck thus suggests an underlying theme of incest in this very enclosed family; the newborn baby, the new life remaining after the mother’s death, seems to be already cursed.
Influenced by medieval mysticism, Maeterlinck suggestively portrays the realm of the irrational, uncontrollable, and unspeakable through contrasting light and darkness, sound and silence, outside and inside, female and male, youth and age, health and illness, and ultimately, life and death. He does not want his brief drama to be fully understood but merely to be felt by the reader or spectator, who silently enters the family’s privacy, participates in its anxiety, and understands that nothing and no one can keep death away when it approaches.
It is significant that the grandfather, who can still see bright light, feels that all light has gone out even when the dim lamp still burns. He is probably intuitively sensing death approaching his daughter in the next room. His anguish about this inner darkness is echoed by the others when their lamp extinguishes itself and they are left talking quietly in total darkness. Rays of moonlight at the conclusion of the play suggest that a strange light from outside the family and their home can still penetrate their personal and physical darkness.
The grandfather is also out of tune with the other family members when he hears the footsteps on the stairs not made by the maidservant and the sounds of someone other than his loved ones by him at the table. The others hear none of this and wish that he would be “reasonable.” They do, however, experience with him the strange silences that also occasionally invade the premises.
The grandfather’s inner world contrasts with the outer world of the others and with the even broader world that lies beyond their enclosed sitting room in the bedrooms of the sick mother and the mute infant and outside in the gardens. The father and the uncle long for their sister’s arrival since they distrust persons outside the family. Just as they are enclosed in their sitting room, so are they, despite their external facade of confidence, immured in their fears and prejudices. The three daughters are torn between trying to please their intuitive grandfather and wishing to accommodate their father and uncle. The trust the grandfather places in Ursula, the eldest daughter, suggests that she, too, is intuitive, sensitive, and truthful, but her efforts are often stifled by the patriarchal heads of her family, her father and uncle. They resent her answering the grandfather’s questions sincerely since this seems, from their point of view, only to add to his dementia. Thus the women in this strange household are not only as physically enclosed as the men but also psychologically enclosed by the guardians of reason.
There are equal numbers of females and males in the play, with the three daughters balanced by the grandfather, the father, and the uncle; the ill mother rests in the room on the left while her infant son lies in the room on the right. This balance is upset by the three supporting characters, the maidservant who remains outside on the landing of the steps, the sister of charity who stays in the doorway of the mother’s bedroom, and the expected sister of the father and the uncle, who never arrives. Maeterlinck does not suggest, however, that all the women are intuitive and all the men rational. The grandfather is misunderstood by all because of his intuitive feelings and premonitions, and at times the daughters try to reason with him much as do the father and the uncle. The dramatist seems to indicate that it is age and blindness rather than gender that confers prophetic power.
The daughters are strongly shaped by the patriarchs of their family. An extreme of feminine passivity is shown by the silent mother’s slow death. All of the characters focus on her but choose not to be with her, since they believe that she needs solitary rest; only the sister of charity accompanies her on her last journey. Although the grandfather senses that she is dying, he refuses to enter her room when given the opportunity. Perhaps he fears the time when he, too, will meet death. Thus age recoils from extinction, but the recently born infant finally, after weeks of silence, howls at the moment of the mother’s death.
Three generations are represented in this play. Although age seems to bestow wisdom, youth appears to embody courage. The three daughters are the first to enter their dead mother’s chambers, while the grandfather gropes around the table in confusion.
The Intruder, Maeterlinck’s second play, breaks with traditional, realistic drama. Fascinated by both death and symbolism, the playwright experiments with arousing emotions of uncertainty, anxiety, and horror. He does not fully develop his characters as did the authors of many naturalistic plays of his era. Rather, the family members are only superficially drawn; the focus is on the way they fall prey to the frightening atmosphere around them, which they cannot understand.
All of the characters wish for the good health of the mother, yet illness invades their domain like an unwelcome stranger who cannot be ignored and, despite the doctors’ predictions of renewed health, death claims the mother. Illness and death are not “reasonable,” and the strong desires and arguments of the father and the uncle are useless against its irrational force. Maeterlinck seems to be communicating that somehow human beings at their best—those always seeking both intuitive and rational truths—must embrace the paradoxical awareness that life and death occur simultaneously.