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.
Ulrich leaves behind the group of men he has brought with him to help look for Georg. As his men wait on the hill, ready to ambush Georg and his party, Ulrich descends deeper into the windy wilderness, hoping to find Georg when there is no one else present to witness the encounter.
Ulrich, determined to win the feud, is willing to leave behind his own men on a dangerously stormy night, and attempt to kill another man, Georg, if it means there will no longer be any contest to his ownership of the forest patch.
After stepping around a huge tree, Ulrich meets Georg face to face. Also alone and holding a rifle, Georg, like Ulrich, feels intense hatred for his enemy, and wishes to murder him. However, neither man has the nerve to shoot the other immediately. As they hesitate, a burst from the winter storm topples the tree that the men stepped around. A mass of branches traps them both on the ground.
In their hatred for each other, the two men have become similar in their actions. When faced with the opportunity to murder, neither is able to, perhaps because the frightening reality of actually committing murder exceeds the bitterness of their rivalry (or the fantasy of gaining mastery by committing murder). And a tree intervenes, showing that a more real threat of death may come from nature, a force which doesn’t recognize feuding.
Injured and relieved to be alive, Ulrich and Georg taunt each other. Ulrich claims Georg is a poacher. Georg calls Ulrich a thief. Each says that if his men are the first to arrive, they will roll the tree’s trunk over the other man, killing him. Georg says he is glad that they have the chance to end their feud with death, with “no cursed interlopers” to come between them.
Georg’s comment about “no cursed interlopers” is strange because the men have both been boasting about how their men will arrive to help them. Georg’s narrow focus on the feud may be causing him to see everyone as interlopers, because he thinks they have the potential to get in the way of his ownership of the forest.
While exchanging insults, Ulrich and Georg give up on struggling to get out from under the tree. Ulrich uses his remaining strength to pull a wine-flask from his pocket, and drink from it. Warmed by the wine, he looks at the wounded Georg with pity. He offers Georg his flask. Georg refuses the offering, but Ulrich feels his hatred for Georg “dying down.” He announces that he no longer cares about the disputed forest and that if his men are the first to come, he will ask them to free Georg first.
Proximity to death resets Ulrich’s values. He seems to realize that who owns the land doesn’t matter in the end. The tree has also flattened (literally) the class differences between the two men. Despite his wealth, all Ulrich has at the end is a wine-flask, and it, and peace, are all he can offer Georg.
Georg doesn’t respond at first, but eventually he imagines out loud what would happen if he and Ulrich made peace. He says that if they choose to end their feud there will be “no interlopers from outside” to interfere. He imagines that they can feast together at Ulrich’s castle, and that he and Ulrich can go hunting together in the marshes. George announces that he has also changed his mind from hate, and that he will be Ulrich’s friend.
Now, Georg sees all those who aren’t him or Ulrich as interlopers who would interfere with peace. This idea suggests that anyone else might reinforce the class barriers between the two men which have disappeared under the threat of nature. Georg agrees to peace, and imagines it as a state where he and Ulrich will continue to own and conquer nature, but will do so together.
Georg and Ulrich reflect quietly, thrilled by the reconciliation. Each man prays that his party will be the first to arrive, so that his men can be the ones to lift the tree from the other.
The men are still competitive with each other, and seek to define themselves by what they can do to the other, but now they are motivated by ambitious generosity as opposed to hatred.
The wind from the storm eases, and the men decide to use their voices together to shout for help, “in a prolonged hunting call.” Only the wind answers them, but then Ulrich sees figures coming down from the hill, where he left his party. The pair yells again and the figures run toward them. Georg urgently asks Ulrich if they are his men. Ulrich begins to laugh a terrified laugh. Georg asks him again who the men are. Ulrich answers, “Wolves.”
Even when united, the men’s voices are not loud enough to reach their men. Wolves answer their call. The men will likely die, perhaps signaling that the two of them were the true interlopers in the natural world,which does not recognize their class or ownership and will not hesitate to kill them. Unless, in an alternate reading, the two men have let their feud and reconciliation drive them so far from society that they are now seeing their own men as wolves.