On a stormy, winter night, Ulrich von Gradwitz, holding his rifle, roams a narrow patch of forest on the outskirts of his property. He searches for Georg Zneaym, who hunts in this narrow strip of forest because he also considers it his. Ulrich’s grandfather took legal ownership of the land from Georg’s family many years ago, but Georg’s family never accepted the Court’s decision. Georg continues to hunt on the land, and Ulrich watches it closer than any of his other property, even though it isn’t the best place to find animals to shoot. He watches for Georg instead of animals.
The fact that Ulrich holds his rifle in the hopes of shooting Georg, not game, and that Georg values the disputed property despite its low-quality hunting, shows that each of the men want to own the patch of land not for its qualities but so that they can have power over the other man. Each of the men strongly believes that the other is the interloper, which suggests a class division as well as an old family feud. Georg sees upper-class Ulrich as a thief of his family’s limited wealth, and Ulrich sees lower-class Georg as a poacher who steals from the rich.
Although Saki’s design is clearly to draw as much suspense and surprise into as narrow a compass as possible, the story itself nevertheless presents abstract themes of justice in the human world and of the human relationship to the natural world.
The most obvious of these themes involves the dissection and final denial of the vendetta mentality that motivates these two figures. The early history of the conflict shows how accidental the hatred between these two men actually is. They inherit a conflict that is not rightly theirs, and it distorts their relationship not only to each other but also—as the reference to the surprise in the marketplace shows—to the community in which they live. Furthermore, the parties of huntsmen and retainers (who never actually appear in the story) represent further ramifications of injustice, wherein the dependents are also caught up in the hatred between the principals, much as the Montagues and Capulets are trapped in the conflict that leads to the death of Romeo and Juliet. The physical blow that levels both men thus paradoxically symbolizes the sudden consciousness of the distortions that the vendetta has caused: Their common plight makes Ulrich and Georg recognize, apparently for the first time, how much they have in common, and thus how much more reasonable friendship would be. Having once seen the world from this new perspective, the two are quick to correct the fundamental distortion of their relationship, and the apparent ease with which hatred and distrust dissolve indicates how insubstantial their former condition was.
The appearance of the wolves, the unexpected “interlopers” of the story’s title, points out the fundamental irony of the tale as a whole and thus touches on the second great theme that the story presents. From this perspective, the story may be said to belong to the school of literary naturalism, in which fundamental natural processes are shown working themselves out in the human world, regardless of human designs or wishes. The essential mistake that Ulrich and Georg make is their assumption that this narrow stretch of almost worthless woodland is somehow theirs to possess in any real sense. They, like their fathers and grandfathers before them, have assumed that legal rights, established in human courts and supported by human institutions, actually establish true dominion over the world of nature.
The fablelike elements of this story show how mistaken such an assumption is. At virtually every turn, the plans of the human characters are thwarted or altered by the different design of the natural world: The best opportunity for settling their vendetta, when no interlopers are present, is cut off by the wind and the falling tree; after their reconciliation, their plans for the future are erased by the advent of the unexpected interlopers. Finally, the wolves themselves symbolize the utter indifference of nature to “important” human disputes and resolutions. The surprise conclusion thus reveals and summarizes this primary theme of literary naturalism with sharply dramatic and terrifying indirection, suggesting in its irony that nature may not be indifferent so much as malicious toward the proud designs of humankind.